Consumer Reports’ 2012 Top Car Picks served up American style

Following annual tradition, it’s time again for our American Top Picks list spotlighting the top-scoring domestic-branded models in Consumer Reports testing. An alternative compilation to our official 2012 Top Picks, here we show the buyer who favors buying an “American” car the many strong choices that have stood out in our tests.

Here are the rules: To qualify as a Top Pick, a car must rank at or near the top of its category in overall test score. Reliability must be average or better, based on problems reported by Consumer Reports subscribers in the latest Annual Auto Survey. And Top Picks must perform well (if tested) overall in government or industry crash and rollover tests.

It is clear that this competitive marketplace offers more impressive product than ever before. Though, as the auto industry becomes truly global, it can be difficult to discern what is truly an American car. In creating this list, we focused on the traditional domestic automakers: Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors. Although these companies build many vehicles in other countries, many foreign-nameplate brands build here in America. For those who want a domestic car that’s assembled in the United States, note that the Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain twins are actually built in Ontario, Canada, and the Ford Fusion is built in Mexico.

Without further adieu, we present this year’s list of winners, shown alongside the official Top Picks. Note that the Chevrolet Avalanche and Ford Mustang appear on both lists.

Category American Top Picks 2012 Top Picks
Small car None qualify Subaru Impreza
Family sedan Ford Fusion Hybrid Toyota Camry Hybrid
Affordable family sedan Ford Fusion (4-cyl.) Hyundai Sonata
Sports sedan Cadillac CTS Infiniti G
Small SUV Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain Toyota RAV4
Family SUV Jeep Grand Cherokee Toyota Highlander
Family hauler Chevrolet Traverse Toyota Sienna
Pickup truck Chevrolet Avalanche Chevrolet Avalanche
Sporty car Ford Mustang Ford Mustang
Green Car Chevrolet Volt Toyota Prius

Small car: This is a frustrating one. The year has brought a lot of improvement in this segment for the domestics, but they each fall short of winning the prize. The Ford Focus is a nice car that is a joy to drive, but it hasn’t been reliable in its first year. Same goes for the Ford Fiesta. The Chevrolet Cruze is also unreliable. The Dodge Dart has potential, but we haven’t tested it yet. We don’t have reliability for the decent, new Chevrolet Sonic yet. So nothing qualifies here. Maybe next year.

Family sedan: With 34 mpg overall in our tests, the Ford Fusion Hybrid can’t touch the 38 mpg overall from the revised Toyota Camry Hybrid, or the Camry’s roomier rear seat. But Fusion is enjoyable to drive and has a quiet cabin. Reliability and owner satisfaction have been excellent.

Affordable family sedan: It’s starting to feel a bit old, but the four-cylinder Fusion is our highest scoring domestic entry-level family sedan. This category is in flux, with a new Chevrolet Malibu due out very shortly and a new Fusion coming this fall. Both cars promise to raise the bar for refinement and fuel economy. We’ll see.

Sports sedan: The Cadillac CTS might seem a bit benign given some of the choices out there. So to ward off the inevitable interweb comments: We haven’t bought and tested a Cadillac CTS-V, Chrysler 300 SRT8, Dodge Charger SRT8, or Ford Taurus SHO. Since we purchase all of our test cars, we focus on buying higher-volume models. (It would be fun to put together that group, though.) So that leaves us with the CTS-but this well-finished sedan delivers responsive steering, agile handling, and quick acceleration. The CTS claiming this category is more than a consolation prize.

Small SUV: Here, we have a quandary. The dated Ford Escape is approaching its final sales month; the new Escape looks like it should be a big step up. The uncompetitive Jeep Patriot and Compass cousins fall off the radar.

So that leaves us with GM. Its Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain SUVs are tweeners that split the segment-they’re a bit big for a small SUV. But lacking a better alternative, they’re this year’s pick. (Yes, they were last year’s American Top Pick for Family SUV. But now there’s a better alternative for that category.)

Family SUV: New to the list this year is the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Its redesign brought newly-found refinement, and the Jeep can tow a good-sized trailer or go off-road, too. Fuel economy is competitive, but we hope rumors of an eight-speed automatic mean that better efficiency is coming. (Same with plans for a diesel.) The Grand Cherokee is a much better choice than a V-6 Ford Edge, which scores too low in MyFord Touch-equipped form to be recommended–and it’s unreliable.

Family hauler: This pick would normally go to a minivan. They’re simply the most practical and convenient way to move your family and its stuff. But except for Chrysler, the domestics checked out of this segment. The revised Town & Country scores OK, but it has poor reliability, so we don’t recommend it.

Ford and GM want you to buy a large, car-based SUV instead. With the Ford Flex EcoBoost having below-average reliability, that makes the pick here the Chevrolet Traverse. (The similar GMC Acadia has below-average reliability in our survey.)

Pickup truck: Given that we’ve tested the full current crop of trucks, including the well-regarded Ford F-150 EcoBoost, the so-so selling Chevrolet Avalanche might seem an odd pick. But it rides better than all other rivals and is very quiet, plus the unique unified cab and bed enhance loading flexibility. You do pay for that niceness though; it’s definitely a vehicle for families rather than a contractor’s work truck.

Sporty car: A case could be made here for the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, a fabulous performance car that scores near the top of our Ratings. Reliability has improved a lot in the last few years too. But we want Top Picks to be more attainable, so the highly entertaining Ford Mustang is our choice.

Green car: The official pick for this category was the Toyota Prius, which outscores the Chevrolet Volt, mainly thanks to better practicality. It is also less expensive to buy and more efficient when running on gasoline. But if your commute allows you to stay within the Volt’s electric-only range, it can be less expensive to operate than a Prius. First year Volt reliability is excellent, as is owner satisfaction.

Once again, the exercise of compiling this list shows that not only are there many desirable domestic choices, but a lot of potential remains. The new Dart, Escape, Fusion, and Malibu are expected to swing for the fences. We look forward see how they do when we buy all of them to test in the coming year.

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