Auto Outlook: Consumer Reports 2014 Top Picks, elderly drivers safer

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  March 2, 2014 at 5:30 AM
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It's nearly April -- time for Consumer Reports best cars picks.

CR rated more than 260 vehicles and the overall leader of the pack for 2014 is the plug-in electric Tesla Model S which costs $70,000 to $90,000.

More affordable is the four-cylinder Honda Accord ($23,270 as tested), which won top midsize sedan in the much-watched annual survey.

"The four-cylinder Accord squeezes out an impressive 30 mpg overall and 40 on the highway, which is as good as the tiny Honda Fit subcompact," CR's test directors said.

Despite concerns about initial vehicle quality, times are good at Fiat-Chrysler.

The Ram 1500 truck was named the best pickup by Consumer Reports, becoming the first Chrysler product to win the magazine's coveted Top Pick honor since the 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

"A coil-spring rear suspension -- unique for full-sized pickups -- makes it the most comfortable-riding truck, and the whisper-quiet cabin makes it feel like a luxury vehicle," CR said.

As improved as the ($42,810) Ram 1500 is, it was outscored by the Chevrolet Silverado but CR said it did not have enough information from reliability surveys from its 8 million subscribers to rate the Silverado.

Eight manufacturers made the 10 Top Picks list. Toyota's luxury Lexus division was tops among overall brands, followed by Honda's luxury Acura and Volkswagen's upscale Audi nameplates.

Japanese vehicles took up five spots on the list and Honda and Subaru were the only brands with more than one vehicle in the Top 10. The Toyota Prius was named Top Green Car for the 11th year in a row.

"Today's showrooms have no shortage of hybrids. But none can match the combination of affordability, practicality, and fuel efficiency that the Prius delivers," CR said.

The Subaru Forester was top small SUV and the Subaru Impreza was top compact car.

Other winners were the Hyundai Santa Fe midsize sports utility vehicle and the Honda Odyssey minivan.

The Forester beat out the Honda CR-V, the perennial best pick for small sports utility vehicle. The best U.S. brands -- Buick, GMC and Chrysler -- were rated in the middle and Dodge, Cadillac and Chevrolet were near the bottom.

The Audi A6, with a supercharged V-6 engine and eight-speed automatic was judged top luxury car. It gets 22 mpg, and the all-wheel-drive TDI turbo diesel model gets 28 mpg. The BMW 328i was the top sports sedan.

"The competition in the marketplace has grown fierce," said Rik Paul, Consumer Reports automotive editor. "There was a time when a handful of brands dominated our Top Picks list, but in recent years we've seen a more diverse group make the cut."

The Jeep brand and Ford tied for the lowest score because of reliability questions.

"Jeep has a mix of spotty reliability and mediocre road-test results," the magazine said in a release. "While a number of recent Ford models are very nice to drive and earn solid test scores, the brand continues to have reliability problems, especially with its MyFord Touch [touch screen infotainment] system."

Is it a car or a motorcycle?

Elio Motors Inc., a Phoenix startup, says more than 10,046 people have signed up to buy its aerodynamic, three-wheeled enclosed vehicle.

The three-cylinder, 84-horsepower vehicle, which some liken to a motorcycle with a cabin, is aimed squarely at city or suburban dwellers who need an inexpensive commuter vehicle that's easy on fuel but is fun to drive. It's touted as a low-cost alternative for those quick runs to do errands or zip to work or school. There's one passenger seat directly in back of the driver and a bit of storage in the tail.

Company founder and Chief Executive Officer Paul Elio hopes the $6,800 sticker price will have buyers lining up to plunk down deposits at Elio says the 1,200-pound vehicle will go more than 80 miles on a gallon of gas and expects it to earn a 5-star crash test rating with its three air bags and disc anti-lock brakes. Amenities include power windows, power door locks, an AM-FM radio and air conditioning.

The vehicle's eight-gallon tank should give it a range of more than 670 miles using regular unleaded.

"We're not just creating a new vehicle," Elio said in a release. "We're creating an entirely new industry segment that appeals to people who want a low-cost, highly efficient mode of transportation, but still want to own a unique vehicle that will turn some heads."

The first Elios are scheduled to start coming off an assembly line in a portion of the former General Motors Shreveport Assembly and Stamping Plant in Louisiana in summer 2015.

The company eventually hopes to make a quarter million Elios a year with a workforce of 1,500 growing to 3,000. The Elios will have more than 90 percent North American content using existing and proven parts.

Elio showed off a prototype of the personal transportation vehicle last week outside the Senate Office building on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Will it happen? Elio, an engineer, told the Phoenix Business Journal, "If you had asked me to invest in bottled water before it was successful, I could not have seen it -- water for more money per gallon than gasoline."

Study finds elderly drivers safer

A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicates elderly drivers are less likely to get in -- or be injured in -- a car accident than prior generations.

The study looked at the driving records of U.S. motorists ages 70 or older since 1997. Among the findings: Older drivers are healthier and own safer vehicles.

Data from the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System shows fatalities involving drivers age 70 and older have declined faster than automobile crash rates among drivers aged 35 to 54.

The study found during the last 15 years -- 1997-2012 -- fatal crash rates per licensed driver fell 42 percent for older drivers, and 30 percent for middle-age drivers.

The annual number of driving-related fatalities involving adults 70-74 decreased 36 percent during a period when the number of adults 70 and older rose 19 percent. In 2012, 4,079 people age 70 and older died in vehicle accidents, 31 percent fewer than in 1997.

The U.S. population of adults 70 and older is expected to more than double from 29 million to 64 million by 2050.

"This should help ease fears that aging baby boomers are a safety threat," said Anne McCartt, the Institute's senior vice president for research and a co-author of the study. "Even crashes among the oldest drivers have been on the downswing."

The Institute has been examining the safety of older drivers since 2008.

"Older drivers are not only less likely to crash in recent years, they also are sharing in the benefits of newer and safer vehicles," McCartt said. "It also helps that older people in general are more fit than in years past, with better access to emergency services and care."

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