Every year, automobile manufacturers doing business in the United States await with a mix of anticipation and dread the arrival of the annual car issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
Consumer Reports is the monthly publication of the non-profit organization Consumers Union. The magazine publishes its own independent evaluations of all kinds of consumer products and services, from kitchen appliances to health insurance.
The April issue each year is devoted to new and used cars and light trucks, their ratings by the Consumers Union auto test division and a survey of subscribers' experiences with their own vehicle's reliability.
We asked the chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, David Cole, whether the car issue is a big deal in the auto industry. "This is one of the most important consumer documents that is published in the country," he replied. "I would say Consumers Union and their Consumer Reports publication, as well as the JD Power Quality Reports, are probably the two most significant independent reports that provide consumers with indications of vehicle quality. So, the industry views these as very important."
The goal of the annual issue, according to David Champion, head of Consumers Union auto test division, is seemingly simple. "What we try and do is put all our testing that we have done on the cars that are in the marketplace and put them all in one place so that people have a great source of information if they're looking for a car," he said.
Mr. Champion added that if there is a headline from this year's issue, it's about reliability. "We look at reliability over an eight-year period and what we've seen is that the domestic manufacturers have really improved the reliability of their cars," he said. "And, for the first time in 25 years, have actually overtaken the European manufacturers in terms of reliability. They still trail the Japanese manufacturers by quite a wide margin, but they are improving the reliability of their cars year after year."
One of the beneficiaries of the 2004 car issue is the Ford Motor Company, whose products scored much better than in the past. "It's great news for Ford," said Ford Vice President of Quality Louise Goeser. "It's almost double where we were a year ago. We know that Consumer Reports is often consulted by the buying public and it makes us second only to one other manufacturer who has a few more."
That one other manufacturer is Toyota.
Because the magazine accepts no advertising and is supported by subscriptions and newsstand sales, and because no use of their name or logo is allowed by the organization in others' advertising, the public perceives Consumer Reports evaluations as unbiased.
"It does give a good indication through the eyes of many consumers of the quality of the products that consumers buy," said David Cole of the Center for Automotive Research. "It's not without some bias. There's no such thing as a report that is without bias. But I think it's quite fair and generally an important document to give consumers an indication of the quality of the products that they might consider buying."
And how many American car customers consult Consumer Reports before they buy? CNW Marketing Research estimates 42 percent of vehicle buyers check the magazine or its Internet website before parting with their money. That is major clout in the car business.