2013 Ram 1500 pickup truck earns top marks

The 2013 Ram 1500 has both muscled and finessed its way to the top of our full-sized pickup truck ratings. The updated truck delivered impressive performance in our tests, balancing work capability and refinement in a way that sees it outscore established domestic- and foreign-nameplate competitors.

For 2013, the Ram got a lighter and stiffer frame, a revised interior with a new infotainment system, and updated powertrains. Consumer Reports tested a four-wheel-drive Ram 1500 Crew Cab, with the most popular engine option—the 5.7-liter Hemi V8—and the new, efficient eight-speed automatic transmission. The combination delivers seamless power and still returns a class-average 15 mpg overall in CR’s own fuel economy tests.

Visit our pickup truck buying guide for quick access to the latest advice, Ratings, road tests, and videos.

A unique coil-spring rear suspension gives it a smooth ride and the interior is whisper-quiet—unless you lean-in on the gas pedal a little harder and want to hear the symphony coming from the Ram’s twin pipes. Continued interior and powertrain improvements make the Ram a particularly well-rounded choice.

The Ram 1500 earned a 78-point overall road test score (out of 100 possible points). This is second only to the Chevrolet Avalanche, a Suburban-based truck that entered 2013 with limited offerings and ceased production in April.

Other tested full-size pickups include, the Toyota Tundra (69 points) and the iconic Ford F-150 (68 points). But the hyper-competitive pickup market doesn’t stand still for long, thanks to continual updates and redesigns of the major players. Consumer Reports is evaluating the redesigned 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and will announce findings later this summer. First impressions are that the Silverado is a comfortable and refined truck that could possibly challenge the Ram in our Ratings. Ford’s F-150 will be redesigned for 2015.

Bottom line:
Impressive, class-leading performance in our tests means that the Ram deserves a closer look from more buyers.

Check out the video below for more highlights, and read our complete Ram 1500 road test for the full details.

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Is the carbon-fiber BMW i3 the car of the future?

Expect to hear a lot about the BMW i3 in the coming months. A four-seater about the size of a Nissan Juke, BMW’s first electric car for sale will combine several cutting-edge technologies, potentially making it one of the most advanced vehicles on the road.
BMW calls the i3 an all-electric car, but it is more than that. It has several tricks up its sleeves.

For starters, the i3 will be the first production car for the masses to use a carbon-fiber body to save weight. Electric car engineers say this is key since it allows the car to travel farther on a smaller, lighter, and cheaper battery. At just 2,630 pounds, the i3 weighs less than many subcompact cars. (The car is about 151-inches long, 79-inches wide, and five-feet tall, with a 101-inch wheelbase.) BMW claims a range of 80-100 miles, similar to other electric cars, from the i3’s 22-kWh lithium-ion battery.

However, that’s not the end of the story. BMW will also offer an optional gasoline engine as a “range extender”–a 34-hp, 650-cc motorcycle-type two-cylinder engine. This engine will generate electricity for another 60 miles of travel before its 2.4-gallon tank needs a refilling. Sounds familiar? It’s the same idea behind the Chevrolet Volt.

This fulfills another promise of plug-in hybrids: dramatically downsizing the gas tank and engine to offset the size, weight, and cost of the battery. (Other plug-in hybrids today use four-cylinder engines ranging from 1.0 to 2.0 liters.) As a plug-in hybrid, the i3 may have twice the electric range of the Volt.

BMW will sell the i3 along with a suite of services called 360 Electric, including a home charger, free access to a network of public chargers, and car sharing through the DriveNow network, providing access to other BMW models for longer-trips. (That is a good concept, because, really, who wants to refill a tiny gas tank every hour?)

In earlier trials with the Mini-E and the BMW Active-E, the company found that in 12.5 million miles of driving, 1,000 EV drivers averaged about 30 miles a day. With its big battery, range-extending engine, and available assortment of replacement loaners, the i3 should be more than capable of meeting these needs. And when it debuts next year, the company also promises that the i3 will drive like a BMW to boot.

Posted in BMW, Cars, Fuel economy, Hybrids/EVs | Leave a comment

Video: Chevrolet builds the best Spark yet – and it’s electric

General Motors has been building modern electric cars longer than anyone. It started developing EVs in earnest with the purpose-built, low-volume EV1 in the 1990s. Now its latest electric car is based on the tiny Chevrolet Spark.

To be honest, we were less than thrilled with the standard, gasoline-powered Spark when we tested one earlier this year. Its four-speed automatic constantly jerked as it hunted for power from the noisy, anemic 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine. Obviously, the Spark EV does away with all that. It’s silent and smooth, and with 400 lb.-ft. of torque available, stealthily quick.

To learn more about electric cars and hybrids, visit our alternative-fuel car guide.

GM has done a good job packaging the 560-pound, 21.3-kWh lithium-ion battery pack between the rear wheels. One benefit is this addition required the suspension to be recalibrated. The Spark EV feels sporty and tied down to the road, something we could never say about the gas-powered model. That gives the Spark EV an EPA-estimated range of 82 miles—a little better than a Ford Focus Electric or a Nissan Leaf.

Unlike some of the latest crop of battery-electric cars, the Spark EV uses only a 3.3-kilowatt on-board charger, which means it takes up to seven hours to charge. The Ford Focus Electric and a Nissan Leaf, for example, charge twice as fast. The Spark EV is, however, the first electric car to be equipped with the new U.S. standard Combo charger port for use with the next-generation DC fast chargers. Like other fast chargers, these can recharge the batteries to 80-percent capacity in a half hour.

GM has also applied what it has learned from developing the Chevrolet Volt. The Spark has a pretty accurate range-remaining gauge that includes what GM calls a “confidence meter,” which shows optimistic and pessimistic estimates of remaining range depending on how hard you drive. We found this feature handy because it minimizes the tendency for range indicators to jump around dramatically as you drive.

Also, like some other electric cars, this latest Spark is only available in California and Oregon, where it helps GM comply with electric car requirements. That’s unfortunate, because it’s one of the better EVs on the market—and a fun little runabout to boot. After factoring in those states’ tax credits, you can buy one for between $17,000 and $19,000, or better yet, lease one for three years for $199 down and $99 a month.

Posted in Cars, Chevrolet, Hybrids/EVs, Small cars, Spark | Leave a comment

American tire company bought by India-based Apollo

One of the last remaining domestic tire makers an agreement to merge with India-based Apollo Tyres last month and the process continues toward finalizing the $2.5-billion deal.

Yes, the suitor spells tire with a “y.” We’ve tested their tires produced under their corporate umbrella from Vredestein; they offer solid performance but are pricey. Apollo also sells tires under its own brand name. (Visit our tire buying guide.)

Ohio-based Cooper has been around since 1914. Cooper is the 11th largest tire company in the world and has a strong reputation of selling premium and mid-tier tires through independent dealers across the country. The company also sells tires under the names Mastercraft, Starfire, Roadmaster and Avon. On the other hand, Apollo is a relative newcomer in the tire industry having been founded in 1972. Combined, Apollo and Cooper will become the 7th largest tire company in the world.

Visit our tire buying guide for quick access to the latest advice, tire selector, and Ratings.

Cooper tires have been a fixture in our rating evaluations for several years, and in recent times have had a number of stand-out models. Witness the top-rated Discoverer A/T3 all-terrain tire and the tied-at-the-top Zeon RS3-A ultra-high-performance all-season tire.

We are currently updating the ultra-high-performance (UHP) tire category and will again include the Cooper Zeon RS3-A all-season tire, Zeon RS3-S summer tire, and WeatherMaster Snow performance winter tire. Also in our test are the venerable Vredestein Wintrac Xtreme performance winter model and the UltracVorti summer tire.

It should be an interesting comparison, particularly now that the brands have a common bond.

Posted in Cars, Tires, Tires & car care | Leave a comment

Is it worth buying an extended car warranty?

After dedicating an afternoon (or more) to test driving, negotiating, and completing a pile of paperwork for your shiny new car, the bubble-bursting finance manager gives a compelling pitch for an extended warranty. It is for your peace of mind, right? Well, not really.

The last-ditch effort to sell you a warranty, or various other unnecessary services, is the dealership’s final assault on your checkbook before you tuck it securely away and drive off. Sure, the pitch is convincing: Should an expensive repair be necessary after the factory warranty ends, you’d be protected. No one wants a big, financial surprise, nor wishes to be stranded roadside. (Read: “Watch for these dealer sales pitches.”)

But breathe deep and think this through. The sale of the warranty is a profit item, with the dealership serving as the middle man. The premise is that the customer will not need repairs in excess of the warranty cost, minus profit to the dealership and the warranty plan provider. Since extended service contract pricing is not regulated, dealers charge whatever the market will bear, and a 50-percent cut for sales commissions is not unusual. By contrast, our past research has shown that only 17 percent of your annual premium for auto insurance goes to commissions and other selling expenses. In other words, an extended warranty is usually not in the customer’s interest.

Visit our new car buying guide for quick access to the latest advice, Ratings, road tests, and videos.

If that isn’t enough to dissuade you, hear me out. A few years ago, Consumer Reports proved the dubiousness of this pitch by surveying 8,000 owners of five- and six-year-old vehicles that had been covered by extended service plans. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said they spent significantly more for the contract than they got back in repair-cost savings. Respondents said their extended warranty cost them $1,000 on average while providing an average benefit of $700. That means the average loss was $300. A big reason: 42 percent of extended warranties in our survey were never used, in most cases because the vehicle didn’t need repairs or the standard manufacturer’s warranty sufficed.

Another reason people were dissatisfied was because the repair was not covered. Clich├ęs about reading the fine print are especially appropriate when talking about extended warranties. The brochure may present the service plan as “comprehensive,” but the contract will likely have numerous limitations, such as requiring documented service at in-network shops and covering only certain parts, rather than whole systems.

Rather than invest in an extended warranty, we recommend buying the most reliable car that suits your needs, budget, and taste and taking good care of it. Sometimes, this can mean spending more upfront, but the reward is typically lower ownership costs and even better resale value. But, if you’re heart is set on a model known to be unreliable, an extended warranty can provide some protection. Just approach with caution, negotiate the price, and be aware that if you roll the cost into your financing, you’ll be paying interest on it for years to come.

See our car buying advice.

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New Toyota RAV4 does poorly in crash test

The 2013 Toyota RAV4 earns a Poor rating in the tough small overlap crash test conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The RAV4 scores well in the other, long-running tests required to earn an IIHS Top Safety Pick designation, but these results are a disappointment for a redesigned model.

Thus far, only the 2014 Subaru Forester has earned top marks for front, side, rear, rollover, and small offset tests. Further, the Forester has performed exceptionally in Consumer Reports’ tests. (Read our Subaru Forester road test.)

And only the Subaru Forester and Mitsubishi Outlander Sport small SUVs earn the coveted Top Safety Pick+ award for receiving a Good and Acceptable score, respectively, in the new small overlap test. Other key competitors, Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5, have also performed better in IIHS tests than the RAV4.

Visit our SUV buying guide for quick access to the latest advice, Ratings, road tests, and videos.

In May, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) put 13 small SUVs through their new small overlap crash test, but the 2013 Toyota RAV4 was missing from the group. Toyota had asked for a delay so they could make changes to the RAV4 to improve performance, but the alterations weren’t enough. The RAV4 joins the Buick Encore, Ford Escape, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Patriot, and Kia Sportage with the inevitable distinction of earning a Poor for this test.

The small overlap test was done on RAV4 models built after April 2013 to incorporate improvements made to the stability of the steering column and to the padding under the footwell carpeting. In the test, the driver’s space was seriously compromised with high injuries to the left lower leg from crushed and buckled sheet metal. The seat belt also allowed excessive movement forward resulting in the dummy’s head hitting the instrument panel. In addition, the dummy’s head wasn’t cushioned by the air bag; instead it moved left as the steering column moved right.

For the small overlap test, vehicles careen into a 5-foot-tall rigid barrier at 40 mph, replicating the impact with a tree or pole. The simulated crash involves just 25 percent of the width of the vehicle, concentrating the force on the driver-side front corner. (To learn more about crash tests, read our primer “Crash test 101.”)

“This is a challenging test,” says Institute President Adrian Lund. “Most manufacturers are going to need to make significant changes to their vehicles in order to improve protection in these kinds of serious frontal crashes.”

Posted in Cars, Forester, RAV4, Safety, Subaru, SUVs, Toyota | Leave a comment

Just in: Luxurious Kia Cadenza proves to have legs

Some of us jokingly refer to this car as the “Credenza.” Which, in case you didn’t know, Merriam-Webster describes a credenza as a “sideboard, buffet, or bookcase patterned after a Renaissance credence; especially one without legs.”

We’re fairly sure this new Kia has legs, especially since it’s the most luxurious model the company has produced since the long-dead Amanti. Of the 2004 Amanti, we said it “… was about the worst-handling passenger car we’d tested recently.” Translation: When it came to dancing, the Amanti had no legs.

Happily, the new Cadenza is much more tied-down. And it’s a much nicer car.

Visit our luxury car buying guide for quick access to the latest advice, Ratings, road tests, and videos.

2014-Kia-Cadenza-ATD-rear.jpgKia went the luxury route with this model, filling it full of mostly upscale standard features, such as heated leather seats, keyless starting, navigation, and a rear camera. We recently bought one for our test program, loaded with options such as a panoramic sunroof, HID headlights, and heated rear seats. Bottom line: $39,030. Yes, that is a hefty price for a Kia, but the Credenza makes it feel like a solid value.

First impressions are that it’s very roomy inside and delivers a civilized ride. Unlike with some competitors, here, drivers are treated to fairly simple controls. The 293-hp, 3.3-liter V6 and six-speed transmission shared with the Hyundai Azera are more than up to the task.

We’ll know more as we pile the miles on, but it is a safe guess that it will prove to be a more engaging dance partner than its predecessor.

For further impressions, check out our first drive video below.

Posted in Cadenza, Cars, Kia, Luxury, Sedans | Leave a comment

Talking Cars: Our auto experts get fast, furious, and technical

Episode 8 of Talking Cars with Consumer Reports features our car experts answering reader questions and comments, submitted through our Facebook pages and YouTube channel. The queries are fielded by Director of Auto Testing Jake Fisher and Senior Engineers Gabe Shenhar and Tom Mutchler.

As you’d expect, question topics range far and wide. We answer questions about EPA vs. real-world fuel economy, what to do with a car after a car accident, and why some head restraints are uncomfortable.

Then we talk about the Lexus IS compact luxury sedan, addressing some YouTube criticism about why our First Drive video veers from Lexus’ corporate spin. (The horror!) Another YouTube comment wonders why we don’t like continuously-variable-transmissions (CVT) for quick acceleration. Several readers ask about testing off-road capability of SUVs and crossovers. Finally, Jake helps a reader find out what highly modified sports coupe would win a “Fast and Furious”-style drag race.

Along the way, listen for Jake’s vocal rendition of engine noises and whether Tom would buy a Lexus LF-A supercar or a used Beechcraft Bonanza airplane for $400,000.

As with the other shows, this episode is also be available for free through the iTunes store. Subscribe to the video or audio. The audio is also available via SoundCloud.

We’ll post Episode 9 of the podcast on July 25, featuring a discussion of four newly tested vehicles: Chevrolet Impala, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Forte, and Ram 1500. (Look for the road tests coming soon.)

Also view:
Talking Cars Episode 7 – Tesla battery swap, diesels, and some disappointing test results
Talking Cars Episode 6 – Rapid-fire reader questions
Talking Cars Episode 5 – Life with the Tesla Model S
Talking Cars Episode 4 – Roadsters and the latest test cars, plus answer reader questions
Talking Cars Episode 3 – Tesla, small SUVs, and a sideways track tour
Talking Cars Episode 2 – Highlights from the New York Auto Show
Talking Cars Episode 1 – Car buying advice

Posted in Cars, Fuel economy, IS, Lexus, SUVs | Leave a comment

Pickups and SUVs top list of vehicles with the highest theft rates

The Ford F-250 pickup truck has replaced the Cadillac Escalade as the vehicle with the highest theft rate for 2010-2012, according to a new report from the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), a division of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. New anti-theft technology on the Escalade and its waning popularity are two reasons cited for its fall from first to sixth place on the list.

Clearly, pickup trucks and SUVs are popular among thieves. The F-250 has a claim frequency of nearly six times the average of all vehicles. However, thefts are declining due to ignition immobilizers, which prevent thieves from hot-wiring a vehicle. For the 2012 model year, 89 percent of vehicles had this technology; it is standard on most cars and SUVs, but not on as many pickup trucks.

Both the F-250 and Escalade have ignition immobilizers, yet these models continue to be popular with thieves. Even with the added protection, enterprising larcenists could use tow trucks or a flatbed to take the large vehicles.

Pickup rankings are raised by the possible theft of equipment from the truck bed. HDLI doesn’t distinguish between the theft of items or the whole vehicle.

Since 2010, the Escalade has been outfitted with additional theft-deterrents, including a steering column lock. In 2012, an inclination sensor was added that could set off an alarm when the parked SUV’s angle is changed, as would it would be when towed. These features have helped to drop the average loss payment of Escalade claims to $6,508 compared to $11,934 for the 2007-2009 model years.

Below is a list of the highest and lowest insurance theft claim rates. The list differs from the information published on the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which lists the most frequently stolen vehicles, which are more commonly driven cars. The HDLI list looks at claim frequency which is per 1,000 insured vehicle years. An insured vehicle year is one vehicle insured for one year.

Highest claim rates Claim frequency Average loss payment per claim Overall theft losses
Ford F-250 crew 4WD 7.0 $7,060 $50
Chevrolet Silverado 1500 crew 6.7 $5,463 $37
Chevrolet Avalanche 1500 6.1 $6,163 $38
GMC Sierra 1500 crew 6.0 $6,366 $38
Ford F-350 crew 4WD 5.6 $7,517 $42
Cadillac Escalade 4WD 5.5 $6,508 $36
Chevrolet Suburban 1500 5.4 $4,468 $24
GMC Sierra 1500 extended cab 4.7 $5,908 $28
GMC Yukon 4.5 $6,276 $28
Chevrolet Tahoe 4.4 $5,367 $23
Lowest claim rates
Dodge Journey 4WD .04 $5,016 $2
Volkswagen Tiguan 4WD .04 $10,352 $4
Audi A4 .04 $13,352 $5
Acura RDX .04 $8,701 $3
Toyota Matrix .04 $7,782 $3
Lexus HS 250 .04 $2,226 $1
Honda CR-V .04 $4,630 $2
Hyundai Tucson 4WD .04 $4,134 $2
Toyota Sienna 4WD .05 $13,038 $6
Jeep Compass 4WD .05 $5,527 $3

While protecting your ride is a year-round chore, July is officially National Vehicle Theft Prevention month. Hence, now is a good time to review a few simple reminders that might help keep your vehicle in your good hands. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) offers these tips on how to protect your car from theft:

  • Always take your key, don’t leave it in or on your vehicle.

  • Always close and lock all windows and doors when you park.
  • Park in well-lit areas.
  • Always keep your vehicle in your garage, if possible.
  • Never leave valuables in your vehicle, especially where they can be seen.
  • Never leave the area while your vehicle is running.
  • Protect your vehicle with an anti-theft/immobilizer device.

For more tips and a list of U.S. hot spots for vehicle thefts, see our recent report “How to keep your car from getting stolen.”

Posted in Cars, Pickups, Safety, SUVs | Leave a comment

Heads up: Garmin to shine navigation guidance on your windshield

To reduce driver distraction, Garmin is introducing an aftermarket heads-up display that works with smart phones to shine navigation information on the windshield.

The benefit is seen as reducing the distance the driver’s eyes need to move from the road to take in the latest route guidance. The ability to look through the display should aid situational awareness, and the simplicity of what is shown is refreshing, compared with the increased complexity we have witnessed with some recent dashtop navigators.

To learn more about navigation, visit our GPS buying guide for advice and Ratings.

Several cars through the years have offered heads-up displays to share information such as speed, reflecting on the windshield glass right above the instrument panel. The twist here is that the Garmin HUD is a portable device that can be moved from car to car. It pairs with a Bluetooth-enabled smart phone running a Garmin or Navigon navigation app.

The Garmin HUD shows turn arrows, distance to the next turn, current speed, speed limit, estimated time of arrival, and lane guidance at major interchanges. It can also indicate when the speed limit is exceeded, and warn of potential traffic delays and safety cameras. The Garmin HUD automatically adjusts brightness as needed.

While this sounds like a lot of potential information, the HUD does not show a map nor on-screen controls, as is common with a dashtop navigator. It does provide spoken turn-by-turn guidance, either through the phone speaker or car stereo. When the audio is piped through the car, music is automatically faded for voice prompts. Conversely, when a call is received, the directions continue to display.

The HUD projects on the windshield using a reflective film. It can also be used with an included reflector lens. The Garmin HUD is compatible with Android, Apple iPhone, and Windows 8 phones. An added convenience, it includes a power cable with a USB port so the device and smart phone can both be charged.

The Garmin HUD goes on sale this summer for $130.

Posted in Apps & Software, Cars, Garmin, GPS | Leave a comment