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Reliability improves on U.S. cars, but Japanese brands still tops

DETROIT (AP) — U.S. automakers have closed on their foreign rivals in making reliable vehicles over the past two decades but still lag in overall dependability, according to a Consumer Reports magazine survey.

As part of its annual auto issue, due out on newsstands next week, the magazine based its "reliability histories" of 216 makes and models from 1980 to 2000 on 2.5 million responses from its readers.

The survey found that 20 problems were reported per 100 new vehicles, including foreign and domestic, in 2000. That's a 77 percent improvement from the average trouble rate of 88 problems for every 100 new vehicles in 1980.

Domestic vehicles showed the sharpest improvement. Among domestic automakers, General Motors Corp. went from 108 reported problems per 100 vehicles in 1980 to just 24 last year. Ford Motor Co.'s rate improved from 107 to 21, DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler arm from 91 to 23.

Still, the magazine said, vehicles with Japanese nameplates — whether made in Asia or North America — remain the most reliable.

"They still have a ways to go, but they're on the right track," said David Champion, director of automotive testing for Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. "It's hard to produce a perfect car every time; even the Japanese don't do that."

Among cars and minivans, Consumer Reports said, problem rates for Japanese-made cars and minivans dropped from an average of 34 per 100 vehicles in 1980 to just 11 last year, with Nissan, Honda and Subaru leading the way. American automakers improved most in those segments, from 105 reported problems in 1980 to only 23 last year — still twice the rate of the Asians.

U.S. automakers say they generally accept the findings as a dramatic show of their progress in making dependable cars and light trucks.

The annual auto issue also profiles 203 new vehicles and includes the magazine's widely tracked yearly ranking of best buys, with this year's top picks dominated by foreign automakers. The issue also offers safety assessments of about 80 vehicles.

On the reliability front, the magazine said, vehicles by Toyota, Honda and Nissan and Subaru were among the most dependable for 2000. The least reliable, the magazine said: Ford's Lincoln and Jaguar cars, GM's Chevrolet and GMC models, and Chrysler's Jeeps.

Among trucks, Japanese-made models improved from 41 problems per 100 vehicles in 1980 to 16 in 2000, while U.S.-nameplate trucks made strides from 102 problems to just 23 over the same span.

As for its top picks for 2001, Consumer Reports tapped the Volkswagen Passat the best family sedan or wagon, the Honda Civic EX the best small car, and the Honda S2000 roadster the most fun. BMW's 330i took top honors among upscale sports sedans.

The magazine named the Toyota RAV4 the top small sport utility vehicle, the Lexus RX300 the best mid-sized SUV. The Toyota Tundra was tabbed the best pickup truck, the Honda Odyssey the top minivan.

The magazine's top picks were based on its own tests of emergency handling, acceleration, braking, fuel economy, comfort and convenience. The top vehicles also must have been considered at least average in reliability, based on the magazine's annual subscriber survey.