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Consumer Reports Ranks Toyota Prius Tops

Robert SIEGEL, host:

And a review out today from Consumer Reports magazine may help to rebuild Toyota's professional reputation. The nonprofit has released its annual spring auto issue and Toyota, despite all its troubles, ranks third among the automakers for performance, comfort, utility and reliability - that is right where it was last year. The 2010 Toyota Prius is the magazine's pick for most environmentally friendly car, despite its recall issues. David Champion is senior director for Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center and I asked him why the recalls didn't seem to affect the magazines rankings.

Mr. DAVID CHAMPION (Senior Director, Auto Test Center, Consumer Reports): Every manufacturer puts out recalls, I think there are over 500 recalls last year on vehicles. So, this is something that we think the manufacturer should be encouraged to do and not to cover up. In many ways, we think recalls are good for the consumer, that they get the problems fixed as soon as possible.

SIEGEL: Do recall issues, though, ever make new-car ratings appear premature to you in hindsight? That is, if we had known that there would be a few dozen complaints about this model of Oldsmobile, we wouldn't have said nice things about it?

Mr. CHAMPION: When you look at recalls, there are a relatively small number of vehicles that it covers, except for this Toyota issue which covers over five million vehicles in terms of the pedal entrapment with the floor mats. So, if it's a very large recall, we would think that we would see that in our reliability data before the recall comes out. But with the pedal entrapment and the sticking throttle pedal, it was such a small number of vehicles that were affected out of the vast number that Toyota sold that it didn't appear in our reliability ratings.

SIEGEL: And when you rate all of the models produced by an auto company, corporate candor, or for that matter solvency, are not questions that you address in your ratings, I assume?

Mr. CHAMPION: No, we're just looking for the - what the consumer really needs to know. So, we're trying to give them as much information as we can based on our testing at the test track, the reliability from the subscribers of Consumer Reports, and also from the crash tests to make sure that those vehicles are a safe vehicle for people to buy.

SIEGEL: Consumer Reports is, I think, a unique institution. It is completely nonprofit, doesn't take advertising. How do you test the cars? Tell us about your methods.

Mr. CHAMPION: Well, we actually go out and buy all the cars anonymously from dealers in the area. We make sure that that car comes back to the track, we check it over thoroughly and then put about 2,000 miles on in general driving, so we get a real idea of how it works in everyday life. And then we put it through a battery of over 50 different tests. And during that time we put on maybe 6,000-8,000 miles and we keep the car for maybe six months or so. So, we really get to know the car before we write the report that goes into Consumer Reports.

SIEGEL: Car ratings are, of course, relative to the car the other new cars in a given year. But if you were to do a longitudinal analysis of what's happened to cars, say, over the past 10 or 20 years, are they getting better? Do they generally fair better in all your tests? Are they staying the same, getting worse? What would you say?

Mr. CHAMPION: Cars are getting incredibly better. The way they drive, they're so comfortable, quiet, the emergency handling, the braking has also improved. Fuel economy has proved. The overall performance is improved. So, from the actual car performance, they're getting better and better. From the reliability, we see year after year, decrease in the number of problems with the vehicles. So, cars are getting even more reliable.

SIEGEL: And now, I'll let you share with our audience the news that I'm sure they're all waiting to hear, the single top-rated model of all cars, you say, is the...

Mr. CHAMPION: It's the Lexus LS 460. It's a beautiful car, incredibly trimmed, comfortable, very quiet. And a lot of the controls are very intuitive to use. And it also gets 21 miles per gallon, which is about the same as a V6 family sedan.

SIEGEL: And it's $76,000.

Mr. CHAMPION: I wish I could afford one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Thanks a lot for talking with us. David Champion, senior director for Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center.

Mr. CHAMPION: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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