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Economy & Business

With 2016 Picks, A Surprise: Overall Car Quality Goes Down


And it's report card time - for cars that is. The two leading car reviewers, Consumer Reports and JD Power, announced their picks for the best cars of 2016, and there are a lot of surprises. For the first time in years, the overall quality of cars went down, but some brands like Audi and Buick have made it into the top 10. We wanted to hear about all of this, so we called NPR's Sonari Glinton, who covers cars. Sonari, thanks so much for joining us once again.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: So when they say that the overall quality of cars is down, what does that mean? They look pretty good to me.

GLINTON: They do. They are differently safer. They are definitely more reliable. But here's an example - I've been test-driving a - I won't mention the name - a $100,000 sports car. I was trying to pair my phone, and I had to pull over, stop and then look at a YouTube video to figure out how to do a very, very basic task. Everybody is annoyed with their infotainment systems, and that's what's bringing the ratings of the car companies down because they just haven't gotten it yet.

MARTIN: So about that $100,000 car - are you bragging or complaining?

GLINTON: I'm complaining. If you have a car that costs $100,000, you should expect the basic thing like your cellphone to work on it. And that is what consumers are saying when they fill out these surveys from JD Power, and that's what's interesting. It's like it used to be we were worried about, you know, whether the tires fell off. We're way past that. People are like this system doesn't make sense. It's not intuitive. It's not whether it works but how well it works, and that's the sign of us having higher standards.

MARTIN: So which carmakers are satisfying consumers, and how are they doing it?

GLINTON: Well, you know, Consumer Reports came out with their top 10, and Audi was the number-one brand. And then in the top 10, you'll see a lot of luxury brands. Buick is strangely the highest-rated of the American brands. It comes in at number seven. And what they are doing - with the brands that do well are doing is they have, like, relatively simple infotainment systems. They worked on their safety and reliability, so that is what has gotten them into the top 10.

MARTIN: Are there some brands or some specific cars that have fallen out of favor and is there anything surprising there?

GLINTON: Well, there's - what's definitely surprising is Honda, which used to be the standard for quality and reliability, has fallen. I mean, I can't imagine even falling below Buick. That is just an amazing thing that happened, and it's so amazing that there's been a shuffle in the suites of Honda to figure out this slide in quality. Though, they still have among the best cars, the Honda Civic, for instance.

MARTIN: So what's your advice to somebody who needs to buy a car this spring or summer? What should they do?

GLINTON: Well, they should do what people have gotten out of the habit of doing and that's test drive. And you need to test drive not just, oh, you should check out a Buick, you know, as opposed to this brand or that brand. If you're looking at a car, you need to do your research, and you need to test out each individual car. A 2015 Toyota Camry is going to be different from a 2016. And if you're looking at them, you're going to have to look at each of them. This is what's important is that in the five years that I've covered the auto industry, everything has changed. Each of the carmakers has moved around and quality and things like that. What we think we know about cars is old. So you need to test it for yourself when you go into a dealership.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Sonari Glinton joining us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Thank you, Sonari.

GLINTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.