Toyota slips, Ford gains, Consumer Reports says

The Baltimore Sun

In a blow to the company that is poised to be the largest automaker in the world, Toyota Motor Corp. fell so far in Consumer Reports' annual reliability survey that the magazine will no longer automatically recommend the company's new cars and trucks to readers.

The Toyota brand slid from first place last year to fifth place in the 2007 rankings, which were released yesterday, and Honda replaced Toyota in the No. 1 spot.

What's more, "below average" ratings were given to two of Toyota's vehicles: the six-cylinder Camry sedan and four-wheel-drive Tundra pickup truck.

The Lexus brand, which is owned by Toyota, dropped from fifth place to sixth, and the all-wheel-drive Lexus GS also received a "below average" rating.

"To see one of the premium manufacturers have three vehicles fall below average in reliability is a big concern," said David Champion, head of auto testing for Consumer Reports. "They've always been average or better with all their products up to this point."

Champion added, though, that most "domestic automakers would love to have the record Toyota has now" and called the Japanese company - which is challenging General Motors Corp. for the title of largest carmaker - "an extremely reliable manufacturer."

Of the 39 vehicles named most reliable in the survey, 17 were produced by Toyota.

The magazine's rankings are compiled from responses to surveys about 1.3 million vehicles owned or leased by Consumer Reports subscribers, covering model years 1998-2007.

Although Japanese automakers continued to dominate, Champion noted that Ford Motor Co. made strides in quality, with 41 of 44 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles scoring average or better for predicted reliability.

"Ford continues to improve," said Champion, singling out the Ford Fusion, the Mercury Milan and the Lincoln MKZ.

Toyota's drop in the rankings was especially significant because some critics have complained that the magazine is partial to Asian imports. The rankings carry weight with many car shoppers, although their reach is somewhat limited because car makers aren't allowed to trumpet favorable ratings in their advertising.

In the past, Consumer Reports has in its annual edition given a "recommended" rating to all new cars and trucks from Toyota, Honda and Subaru, based on the manufacturers' past track records and survey data.

The magazine said that it would continue to do so for Honda and Subaru vehicles and that Toyota could regain that privilege if it resumed former quality levels.

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