As traditions go, our annual all-American Top Picks list doesn't quite rank with the Super Bowl, Academy Awards, or July 4th fireworks, but it does highlight the best products being built by the domestic manufacturers. And it can spark some discussion.
We know from our email inbox and old-school mailbox that plenty of folks would prefer to buy a domestic-branded vehicle. That said, picking something that is truly "American" is increasingly difficult in a global marketplace where foreign manufacturers have plants in the United States and domestic brands build cars in Canada, Germany, or Mexico.
Some commentators in the past—presumably those who don't prefer to buy a domestic-branded vehicle—have named this the "Loser List." But it's becoming increasingly hard to justify that title. For example, two of the vehicles on this list, the Chevrolet Avalanche and Ford Mustang GT, appear on our 2011 "official" Top Picks list. Several of the other choices, particularly the Ford Fusion and Ford Flex, don't need any excuses—they're fine cars all-around.
- The vehicle must rank near the top of its category in our ratings.
- It must have average or better reliability, according to our latest subscriber Annual Auto Survey.
- It must have performed well, if included in government or insurance-industry crash or rollover testing.
- It must have electronic stability control as standard equipment. (This is in advance of the 2012 deadline for it becoming standard across-the-board.)
That sets up our domestic-branded Top Pick list for 2011. We've also included the top-scoring domestic-branded vehicles in each category. Explanation and insights are given below:
|Category||Top Pick||Top Scoring|
|Budget car||None qualify||Ford Fiesta SES|
|Small car||None qualify||Chevrolet Cruze LT|
|Family sedan||Ford Fusion||Ford Fusion|
|Small SUV||Ford Escape||Ford Escape|
|Family SUV||Chevrolet Equinox 2LT||Chevrolet Equinox 2LT|
|Family Hauler||Ford Flex Limited (EcoBoost)||Ford Flex Limited (EcoBoost)|
|Sporty Car||Ford Mustang GT||Ford Mustang GT|
|Sports Sedan||None qualify||Buick Regal|
|Green Car||Ford Fusion Hybrid||Ford Fusion Hybrid|
|Pickup Truck||Chevrolet Avalanche||Chevrolet Avalanche|
The multiple "none qualify" notations above show that we're still seeing the results of a product renaissance from the domestic brands. New entries have moved into the budget car, small car, and sports sedan segments—but because they're new, we don't have reliability data for them yet and therefore cannot recommend them.
Budget car: The Ford Fiesta has sharp handling, rides well, and is surprisingly quiet for this class. In SES trim, the Fiesta does strain the definition of "budget" somewhat; but the Honda Fit is no discount ride, either. Ford has been building mostly reliable products, but they're all evolutions of long-running vehicles. By comparison, we don't know how this clean-sheet design will hold up.
Small car: The Chevrolet Cruze is a solid and upscale-feeling small sedan, but fuel economy and rear-seat room aren't impressive. Cruze reliability hasn't yet to be proven. We'll soon see how the redesigned-for-2012 Ford Focus compares.
Family sedan: With better reliability than a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry, the Ford Fusion is an easy pick here. Plus, it has enjoyable handling, good ride, and impressive crash-test results.
Small SUV: The Ford Escape is getting old but it still has the highest score of a small domestic-branded SUV and it's been reliable. The Hybrid scores slightly higher than the V6 version. Still, a redesign is overdue to enable Ford to better compete in this popular segment.
Family SUV: These days, GM specializes in "tweeners"—vehicles that split size categories. The Chevrolet Equinox can be compared with Escapes and Toyota RAV4s (as we did last year in this list), but it's sized more like a Toyota Highlander. That means it lines up well against our "official" Top Pick in this class, the Kia Sorento. The Equinox has been reliable in its first year out, a good showing for GM. It's pleasant and spacious, but its weight doesn't help its taxed 3.0-liter V6. (According to our data, the similar GMC Terrain has not been as reliable.)
Family hauler: Our "official" pick was the Toyota Sienna, a minivan. But here we're crossing categories from the main list. While a minivan is a more practical package for most families, we haven't tested the heavily-updated-for-2011 Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Grand Caravan quite yet. So we look toward large car-based SUVs. The Flex Limited EcoBoost scored very well and has been reliable so far, but with an as-tested MSRP of nearly $47,000, it's a hauler for affluent families only. The Chevrolet Traverse also scored well; the similar GMC Acadia has below-average reliability.
Sporty car: The Chevrolet Corvette Z06 has considerably improved in our reliability data—but it's nearly twice the price as our "official" Top Pick, the Ford Mustang GT. It would be hard to argue that the Corvette is twice as fun, making the roomier, more practical Mustang an easy choice here.
Green car: Although we have a Chevrolet Volt in our test fleet, it isn't fully tested yet. The Fusion Hybrid is cheaper, roomier, and more enjoyable to drive. The Ford delivered an impressive 34 mpg overall in our tests. Plus, it's been very reliable.
Sports sedan: While the Lincoln MKZ is reliable and scores pretty well, it just isn't much of a sports sedan. We stretched a bit to list it last year here, but there are now more choices in this category. The Buick Regal gets the same overall score as the MKZ and is much more entertaining to drive, but we don't have reliability data for it yet. The Cadillac CTS is also fun to drive, but it hasn't been reliable. Currently, no domestic-branded sedan truly qualifies.
Pickup truck: The Chevrolet Avalanche impresses with a quiet cabin and comfortable ride. It's also very flexible with a Transformer-like cargo bed. We'll see soon how the revised-for-2011 Ford F-150 compares with its new engines, including a unique EcoBoost 3.5-liter turbocharged V6.
Review our 2011 Top Picks, complete with videos. And see our American Top Picks 2010.