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How to make the most of Consumer Reports auto issue

Wise consumers looking for help with the purchase of a new or used car should ignore the largely shallow media coverage of the Consumer Reports Annual Auto Issue and concentrate instead on the in-depth material available in the magazine/website itself.

This is true even though there are a couple of serious problems with the way CR reports its safety ratings, which we'll come back to in due course.

While they make for punchy short items on TV, stories about which region currently builds the vehicles with the best quality ratings or what the magazine's test staff likes or hates about various vehicles aren't really that important to consumers.

Notwithstanding that, we'll be reporting on those various issues throughout the week on this site, so tune in every day for some new information from the CR auto annual.

What really counts is the enormous data base that the Consumers Union of Yonkers, New York, has put together of subscriber histories with their vehicles. That is the most valuable resource that exists for a North America buyer who is worried about getting a general picture of a specific car or truck's reliability history.

More than 800,000 vehicle owners take part in the Consumer Reports (CR) survey every year, so there's nothing to rival it on this continent in terms of word-of-mouth information.

Spending $5.99 for a copy of the annual report is a good start on that, but taking out a subscription and gaining access to the CR website is even better, if only for the access it provides to owners' in-depth comments. Direct and unfiltered information from owners can provide an extra degree of enlightenment about what it's like to own and operate a specific car, and that can make the buying decision much easier.

The testing done by CR staffers is also of value, but like all such reports they depend largely upon the subjective responses of a few people. As a result, the results tend to reflect what's important to them and maybe not you.

CR does test a vehicle over a long time, which does allow them to offer mature evaluations after putting lots of time in behind the wheel. They also have a strictly regimented testing process which they put every vehicle through, and that at least helps to deliver an apple to apply appraisal.

The downside to this is that CR folks generally only test a single unit of a certain model. As a result, if they get one of the, say, three or four units out of a hundred that don't reflect the preponderant truth -- for good or ill -- of that brand, then their findings won't represent the likely reality of that vehicle.

So while it may be worthwhile to add CR's opinion about a vehicle to a bunch of others, it's maybe not so smart to use their findings as the definitive word.

Lots of people do this, apparently, and car companies have admitted to designing specific models to suit the tastes of the CR testers and, through them, the buying public. This usually involves the type of buyer who is not particularly auto-oriented and sees a vehicle as an appliance, so CR's benediction is important to the folks who buy Toyota Camry and vehicles like that.

Whether or not you pay attention to what the CR testers say about a certain vehicle's ride and handling and comfort and so on is pretty harmless, but you need to be very careful if you're looking for safety information.

The big problem is CR's use of the crash statistics from the U.S. government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). These are the famous ratings that go up to five stars and which have been distorted in the public's understanding to the point where they're dangerous.