Consumer Reports names electric Tesla Model S ‘best overall’

Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors has earned the ardor of investors and the highest U.S. safety ratings. It can also add the honor of having the best-reviewed car of the year by automobile critics at Consumer Reports.

Tesla’s battery-powered Model S beat the Audi A6, Toyota Prius and BMW 328i in Consumer Reports’ annual ranking, becoming the first U.S. car to receive a “best overall” pick, the independent product-testing magazine said Tuesday. The reviewers singled out the Model S for its “blistering acceleration, razor-sharp handling, compliant ride and versatile cabin.”

“It’s truly a groundbreaking car,” Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ director of auto testing who oversaw this year’s review of 260 vehicles, said an interview. “You get into it, and it really stands out. It’s the very best car I’ve ever driven.”

The top model ranking for the youngest U.S. automaker may raise the profile even further for Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla, which has said it expects Model S deliveries to increase about 56 percent to 35,000 cars this year. Musk co-founded the all-electric car maker in 2003, staking a personal fortune he amassed building Internet map venture Zip2 Corp., as well as an online payment system that would eventually morph into PayPal.

Consumer Reports tests and evaluates cars for how well they drive, interior-finish quality, safety and reliability. The model rankings influence car buyers and are published in the Yonkers, New York-based magazine’s annual auto issue.

Volkswagen’s Audi A6 was the Consumer Reports choice for best luxury sedan, while Bayerische Motoren Werke’s 328i was named the top sports sedan. The Dodge Ram 1500 was selected as the best pickup truck, the first time a Chrysler vehicle has led one of the magazine’s 10 “top pick” categories since the 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, Consumer Reports said.

Japanese cars made by companies such as Toyota, Fuji Heavy Industries’ Subaru and Honda had earned 70 percent of the magazine’s best-car spots since 1997. This year, that was down to half. The Toyota Prius, a gasoline- electric hybrid vehicle, was named best “green car” for the 11th consecutive year.

As recently as a few years ago, a handful of Japanese brands swept the magazine’s best picks list, said Rik Paul, automotive editor for Consumer Reports, said.

That’s no longer the case, he said. Brands like Nissan and Honda haven’t been as consistent, while their competition has gotten better, he said.

“Gone are the days when you could say buy a Japanese model, and it will be reliable,” Paul said.

The magazine also ranked car brands in terms of the overall quality based on their vehicles’ performance in road tests and reliability data from an annual survey of subscribers.

Luxury brands generally scored the best. Toyota’s Lexus received 79 points out of 100, followed by Honda’s Acura with 75 and Audi with 74.

General Motors’ Cadillac, with a score of 54, fared worse than any luxury brand. It lost ground mainly because of problems with the CUE infotainment systems in its XTS sedan, the magazine said. It scored worse than Detroit-based GM’s other brands, including Buick (63 points), GMC (63) and Chevrolet (56).

Ford tied for last with Jeep of the 23 ranked brands with an overall score of 50. The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker dropped in the rankings despite having an average road test score of 73, the same as Honda and higher than Toyota. The brand’s reliability was deemed below average, brought down by the magazine’s assessment of the MyFord Touch infotainment system and the automatic transmissions in the Focus and Fiesta sedans.

Some of the Detroit-made vehicles, such as Ford’s Fusion, drive as well and have interiors as fine as European luxury sedans only to be marred by touch-screen dashboard controls that are difficult to use and balky, Fisher said.

Infotainment systems made by BlackBerry’s QNX were generally easier to use and were more reliable, Fisher said. Ford is preparing to switch from Microsoft’s Windows to QNX, people briefed on the matter said Feb. 22.

Chrysler’s Jeep was dragged down by poor road testing of its Wrangler, dated Compass and Patriot models and new Cherokees that haven’t performed well, Consumer Reports said.

The magazines’ editors bought and tested more than 260 vehicles for consideration in the annual rankings. The best picks rank at the top or near the top in terms of road tests; have an average or better reliability ranking; and must perform adequately in government and insurance-industry crash tests.

It was Tesla’s first appearance in the annual Consumer Reports “Top Picks” list.

The Model S is priced from $62,400 to $85,900 on Tesla’s U.S. website. Consumer Reports said the version it tested had a list price of $89,650.

Tesla has the potential to disrupt the auto and energy industries, Adam Jonas, a Morgan Stanley analyst, wrote in a note to clients. Lower battery costs could help the company almost double its share of the global car market to about 1 percent and also affect the power industry, he said.

Chief Executive Officer Musk plans to provide details on a proposed “gigafactory” to produce lithium-ion batteries needed to make more affordable vehicles, he told Bloomberg TV last week.

Jonas raised his projection for Tesla’s share price in 12 months to $320 from $153. The new estimation uses a 15-year outlook to allow time for the company to expand its lineup and capabilities. In a bull-case scenario, he said the company may be worth as much as $500 a share.

[—] With assistance from Niamh Ring in New York and Alan Ohnsman in Los Angeles.

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