Nailing three out of 10 Consumer Reports Top Picks for 2015, American brands are gaining yards on the competitive playing field. Looking beyond our official Top Pick list, sticking to the domestic brands can get you a really good car—but too often reliability costs them a formal recommendation.
Each year, we put together a list of all-American Top Picks to not only help shoppers who favor domestic brands, but also to serve as an annual snapshot for the state of the industry. (See our 2013 and 2014 American Top Picks.) Like the official Top Picks list, highlighted models are typically the highest-scoring car in a particular category. Each vehicle also needs to have average reliability, as determined by Consumer Reports’ annual reliability survey. To keep things simple, for this list we define “domestic” as having a traditionally American nameplate, rather than digging into where the car is manufactured or who owns the brand (ahem, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles).
Finally, you’ll soon be wondering why the most-American of all segments is missing from this list: Pickup trucks. New competition from the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon and Ford F-150 puts our pickup truck ratings into flux. No question the Ford’s aluminum body and downsized engines are revolutionary, but only full testing will reveal how those changes truly affect the buyer. (We currently own two F-150s and a Colorado, and they are just beginning their test cycles.) As for the competitors, both the Ram 1500 and Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra are very competent trucks—but both also suffer below average reliability.
Below are the best cars that America has to offer. Click the model names for the full road test, and to see reliability, owner cost, owner satisfaction, and other data.
Best overall: Tesla Model S
That’s right: Consumer Reports’ top-scoring car is not only all-American, it’s all-electric. Real-world usable electric range makes the Model S a viable choice for many well-heeled buyers, as proven by class-leading sales figures. But the Model S isn’t just a great electric car, it’s a great car, period. Handling and ride comfort rank among the best. An innovative interior seats up to seven and has a giant, well-designed touchscreen for most controls. Continual updates from both over-the-air software and new hardware help keep the Model S out in front. Now, the addition of available all-wheel drive and advanced safety features further add appeal.
Compact car: None qualify (top-scoring: Ford Focus)
It’s not that Detroit can’t build a good compact car—they just aren’t reliable. The Ford Focus scores among the top small sedans, but it has poor reliability. An updated 2015 Focus goes on sale soon. While the Chevrolet Cruze is a benchmark for quietness in the class, it too proves unreliable. We don’t have enough data to say if the Dodge Dart is reliable, but frankly, it doesn’t matter. Thirsty and rough around the edges, the Dart ranks near the bottom of the class and wouldn’t make the cut, anyhow.
Midsized sedan: Ford Fusion
The true winner in this class is the American car buyer, who gets to pick from a deep roster of strong products from most manufacturers. This year, the Ford Fusion SE (1.5-liter) beats the Chevrolet Malibu LT by a nose. Both cars are quiet, ride well, and feel substantial. Enthusiast drivers will enjoy the Fusion’s crisper handling, but the Malibu gets better fuel economy and has easier-to-use infotainment. After a rocky start, Fusion reliability has improved and now surpasses the Malibu, tipping the balance toward the Ford. Way back in our Ratings, the bottom-scoring Chrysler 200 is left in the dust, lapped by every other car in the class.
Large sedan: Chevrolet Impala
Few cars will surprise you more than the Impala. For years, the antiquated Impala was a rental car upgrade that you were better off turning down. But now the Impala is a world-beater that scores among the best cars we’ve tested. Never mind the prosaic badge; this Chevy is more luxurious than the competing Lexus ES. Top marks for ride and quietness are expected, but this big sedan also drives well. There’s nothing clumsy about it. Infotainment is straightforward and easy to use, helped by an array of traditional knobs and buttons. Priced around $40,000 fully loaded, the Impala is a great deal, too. Our biggest gripe is the relatively tiny rear window, which limits rear vision. V6 models have average reliability, so stick to those and skip the less-reliable (and less powerful) four-cylinder.
Sports sedan: Buick Regal
Banish any lingering visions of vinyl roofs and wire wheels. The Regal is no longer aimed at blue-haired seniors; instead, it goes after blue-blooded German sports sedans. Makes sense, because this Regal is actually an Opel underneath, GM’s German marque. Teutonic ride control and sharp steering make the Regal a joy to drive. All-wheel-drive is available, as is a manual transmission. The well-trimmed interior isn’t as opulent as the best, but you’ll spend about $10,000 less for a Regal than for a BMW 3 Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Reliability has been above average.
Luxury car: Cadillac CTS
Again shattering stereotypes, this Cadillac out-handles rivals from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. Sharp and poised, the CTS entices you to take the long-and-twisty way home. Opulent interior finish and a composed ride keep the Cadillac from being a one-note athlete. First-year reliability has been above average—impressive for a clean-sheet design. One big gripe: As much as we love driving the CTS, we loathe interacting with its fiddly and unintuitive CUE infotainment system.
Green car: Chevrolet Volt
No car has ever quite beaten the Toyota Prius at its own game. Instead, the Chevrolet Volt plays by a different set of rules. The extended-range plug-in has 35 miles of electric-only range, which enables many drivers to commute gas-free. Owner satisfaction remains second only to Tesla among owners of fuel-efficient cars. Attractive leases make the high sticker price easier to swallow. A 2016 redesign promises more electric-only range, simpler controls, and a fifth seating position. Reliability of this high-tech car has been average.
Small SUV: None qualify (top scoring: Ford Escape)
If only the Ford Escape was reliable… Well-finished and nimble, we enjoy driving the Escape, especially in top Titanium trim with the optional 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbo four-cylinder. Thus equipped, the Escape ranks only second to the official Top Pick Subaru Forester. But below average reliability costs the Escape our nod. Competition trails far behind the Escape. Despite being all-new for 2014, the Jeep Cherokee proved disappointing in our tests, and it is the least reliable small SUV you can buy. GM’s SUV line-up suffers from Goldilocks Syndrome, with the too-small Buick Encore and new Chevrolet Trax and too-big Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain failing to directly compete in this class.
Midsized/large SUV: Dodge Durango
Big and brawny, the Durango manages to do it all. Plushly furnished with a quiet cabin, it feels like a luxury-brand SUV inside. Surprisingly responsive handling makes this brute drive smaller than it really is. When work needs to be done, the Durango fits seven adults or can tow a hefty trailer. Fuel economy with the V6 is 18 mpg overall—decent given the size and capability. A Hemi V8 is available for those with bigger trailers to tow, along with commensurately bigger fuel budgets. Reliability remains average for the V6 version.
Minivan: None qualify (top scoring: Chrysler Town and Country/Dodge Grand Caravan)
First to the segment, the Chrysler Town and Country/Dodge Grand Caravan are also the last American minivans left standing. Frequent discounts and attractively-priced options packages make these vans a tempting deal. No competitor has matched the clever Stow ‘n Go second-row seating, which disappears into the floor in seconds. But these vans lag behind the competition in polish, refinement, and fuel economy. Perhaps more troubling, the vans have been trouble prone every year of their model run. The low-rated reliability costs them an official place on this list.