Engineers tested 264 models – including sedans, crossover sport-utility vehicles, minivans, trucks and budget cars – for qualities such as safety, handling and reliability, over six months.
Staffers drove the vehicles around 6,000 miles in 50 tests, going in circles, speeding around curves and maneuvering through obstacles.
"We push it to the limits here to see how it does," said David Champion, director of the Consumer Reports Auto Testing Center in East Haddam. "So when we report in the magazine, we think a car that does well here is going to safer for the people to drive."
"These are what we would we call the valedictorians of their various classes," Champion said.
"These are cars that have performed excellently in our testing, that got average or better than average reliability," he added. "They're all well-rounded cars. They just don't do well in one test. They do well in all tests."
Electronic stability control – either standard or as an add-on – was a key feature for which Consumer Reports looked. In tests, ESC allowed expert drivers to better maneuver obstacle courses; without it, even expert drivers careered into the cones.
Having ESC standard helped vault the Hyundai Elantra SE to the top of the small-car category.
Another Hyundai, the Santa Fe, was the top pick in the very competitive mid-sized SUV category.
"Hyundai some years ago were really sort of the bottom feeders in the early '90s," Champion said. "You know, they were poor cars, (had) poor reliability, and they almost went out of business.
"But since then, they've come on in leaps and bounds."
The Elantra retails at $18,000, and the Santa Fe between $22,000 and $31,000.
Toyota's RAV4 – retailing from $23,000 to $30,000 – came in at the top of small SUVs, while Toyota's Sienna was again the top minivan, with a retail price between $24,000 and $37,000.
In family sedans, the redesigned Honda Accord won for the sixth year in a row. It retails between $22,000 and $31,000. The Infiniti G35 was the top pick for upscale sedans, with a price tag from $33,000 to $35,000.
For the luxury sedan category, Consumer Reports chose the Lexus LS 460L.
"It's super luxurious. It's very quiet, very comfortable," Champion said. "If you've had a stressful day at work, just get in that, and just relax on the way home."
The Lexus LS 460L has a roomy interior, heated steering wheel and automatic window shades. It comes with a price tag of $77,000.
The first American vehicle to make the list in three years won top honors for pickup trucks: the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Crew Cab. It retails from $27,000 to $39,000.
"It is a very nice truck," Champion said. "It's got great payload capacity, great hauling capacities. This is also a very comfortable truck to live with."
The Mazda MX-5 Miata once again topped the Fun to Drive category. With a $27,000 price tag, it has "bang for the buck, the most smile you can get," Champion said.
Among green cars, the Toyota Prius won for the fifth year in a row. The Prius comes in at $24,000.
Consumer Reports did not have a full-size SUV category, because, they say, soaring fuel prices have made that a dying market.
Champion added that each category had cars that scored slightly below the top picks, but may actually suit some people better.
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