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'Consumer Reports' Director Offers An Inside Take On The Car Testing Process


This is FRESH AIR. Buying a new car is becoming more and more confusing. There's not just lots of brands. You can now choose between hybrid, plug-in hybrid, electric, SUV, compact SUV, pickup truck. And once you know what you want, there's the ordeal of negotiating the price. Our next guest is here to help alleviate some of that anxiety and confusion. Jennifer Stockburger runs the test track for Consumer Reports. It's the largest independent consumer auto testing center in the world. And it's where the magazine tests out hundreds of cars, trucks and SUVs. Last week, Consumer Reports put out its annual car issue, which ranks cars and car companies. The Japanese automaker Subaru was rated the top brand. Jennifer Stockburger spoke with guest contributor Sonari Glinton.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Jennifer Stockburger, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JENNIFER STOCKBURGER: Thanks for having me.

GLINTON: What are some features that are standard now that, if I'm 10 years out of a brand new car, that would surprise me?

STOCKBURGER: Electronic stability control was required on all new cars as of the 2012 model year.

GLINTON: Well, what is that?

STOCKBURGER: The car has the ability to individually brake certain wheels one at a time. So if you find yourself in an out of control, in a skid, in poor weather, the electronic stability control can individually brake a wheel to kind of pivot you back on your intended path - super effective safety feature. We've talked about it at Consumer Reports as one of the best things since the seatbelt. It's on all new cars now.

But now we're jumping to this new group, automatic emergency braking being a key element of that. This is a set of either radar, camera systems. They're doing some seeing. The car's seeing what you may not. And if you're not reacting to an imminent crash situation, the car will automatically apply the brakes to either avoid the crash entirely or, at the very least, wear off some speed to make it a less severe crash. So the data's showing it's super effective.

We, certainly, are advocating that it should be standard, like electronic stability control, on all new cars. And we give points in our overall score. And like I say, it can't even be a top pick for us this year unless you have it standard. And many of them already have that. About 30 percent of the newest models already have a pedestrian detection function as part of their automatic emergency braking, which simply says they won't just stop for a car. They'll stop for somebody in front of the car as well.

GLINTON: So Consumer Reports has released its annual car issue and - where you rank the cars and the car makers. So let's start with the brands. In first place, there's Subaru, then Genesis, Porsche, Audi, Lexus, Mazda, Lincoln, Toyota and Hyundai.


GLINTON: So when you're ranking a brand - I'm thinking I'm going to like driving a Porsche more than I like driving a Ford Fiesta. So how do you compare apples to oranges or Ford Fiestas to Porsches? (Laughter).

STOCKBURGER: Right. Right. So you've hit on one aspect. So the brand score is an average of the overall scores for the models in that brand, quite simply. So one piece of it - when you say, I like driving a Porsche better than, you know, a Subaru, that's the owner satisfaction piece. But it's also those other three components; reliability - I would guess the Porsche's probably not as reliable as the Subaru - and the road test score and the safety features and safety crash test performance. So when you culminate all of that together, that's where the Subaru comes up to the top because it has a number of models that are - not only perform well in our tests, our members like them. And they have really stellar reliability overall.

GLINTON: OK. Let's go through the bottom of the list. There's the last five - bottom five on your list - Jeep, Mitsubishi, Jaguar, Land Rover and Fiat. And, I think, maybe Jeep is interesting because they sell, it looks like, more of the cars here in the U.S. I mean, like, I don't ever remember Jeep being in even the top 15 of your choices. So - but this is a really popular car. What's going on here with Jeep?

STOCKBURGER: Right. And you've kind of taken the words out of my mouth with Jeep in that people love them. So they're one of those manufacturers where reliability scores are quite low. And that's what's driving them to the bottom. But some of the owner satisfaction are high. You know, there's always that car that people love. And they're going to love it regardless of whether it performs particularly great or is particularly reliable. And, you know, something like the Jeep Wrangler or the Jeep Unlimited - now, people love those vehicles. It's the reliability for Jeep models that has put it down there in that bottom 10.

GLINTON: Consumer Reports occasionally does this. It takes back its recommendation of cars. The Tesla Model 3 - now, this is the car that Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and the CEO SpaceX and a couple other things, has said would be the electric car of the masses. Now, I've talked to engineers who say overall - right? - electric cars should be more reliable. This car is selling like gangbusters. So why no love for the Model 3 from you guys?

STOCKBURGER: Right. And, again, this is from the reliability data. So this most recent round of ratings, including the top picks, happens to include a very recent set of reliability data that was taken over the summer of 2018. So in that data, the Tesla Model 3 had some issues, right down to things like paint and trim. So if you go back, you know, they keep changing the Model 3. You know, Consumer Reports has had some criticism. Oh, you keep changing your mind on the Model 3. Well, not really - the Model 3 keeps changing. So it's reflected in those reliability scores.

You know, they ramped up production on the Model 3. They had some real lag in terms of delivering Model 3s when they were supposed to, so they significantly ramped up production on the Model 3. And I think we're seeing that kind of accelerated production in the reliability scores, perhaps. You know, we own a Model 3 at our test track. And things that came out in reliability, such as glass issues - we have a crack in one of the - the rear windshield of our Model 3. So it's - even though we own one car, we see some of it.

GLINTON: Given your time at Consumer Reports, how would you score the sort of industry overall right now? Is it is a good time to be buying a safe, efficient car or have there been better years?

STOCKBURGER: No, I think there's never been a better time. I think cars overall are more reliable and safer than they have ever been, despite more vehicle miles traveled and fatalities. We talk about fatalities. They've had a little increase over the past couple, you know - in a few previous years. A lot of that is in the pedestrian area. So I think there's some distraction. We've talked about controls. Certainly, cell phones have played a part, both on the part of the driver and the pedestrian. So having systems now like automatic emergency braking to back us up as drivers has become more important. But those features are there.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview guest contributor Sonari Glinton recorded with Jennifer Stockburger, who runs the test track where Consumer Reports tests out new cars. The magazine's annual car issue was published last week. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Sonari Glinton recorded with Jennifer Stockburger, who runs the test track for Consumer Reports, where they test out new cars. The magazine just published its annual car issue, ranking cars and car companies.

GLINTON: If I go to the dealership, what are some of the things that I should be doing in a test drive that you guys do that's important?

STOCKBURGER: I think the most important thing is to test drive the car like you use the car. So we certainly have the luxury because we have this fabulous test track of pushing cars to their limits, if you will. We can tromp on the gas pedal and have it, you know, excel as quickly as it can - not something the normal consumer can do out on the open highway in a test drive. We can, you know, do a panic break and see how quickly that car stops. So we look - you know, people should look to - people like Consumer Reports to get that type of information.

But when they're doing their own test drive, take it on the roads that as closely mimic what you drive on. If you have a long highway commute, be sure you make a highway portion part of your test drive. Does it want - accelerate enough that you can merge into moving traffic? Does it grip enough to get you off a curvy exit ramp?

And then conversely if you're a rural driver, make sure you include some rural roads. We even go so far as, say, if you drive frequently at night, go and do a night test drive. How are the headlights? You know, do you get enough visibility from your headlights that you're comfortable driving behind them? And if you have kids, take your child seats along.

Test the car like you use the car. You know, if you can extend the test drive, do that. If you can go back multiple times, do that. It pays to put the time in.

GLINTON: What are some of the things that you think you guys test out that it wouldn't occur to me that's really important?

STOCKBURGER: I think some of the livability. So, often, when you're doing your test drive you're talking about the on-road performance. But I think it's important to do some of the stationary performance - controls, access, getting in and out. Is it an easy - particularly if you're limited in movement or you're an older driver, can you easily get in and out? Is the visibility enough for you to comfortably maneuver?

Maybe it means pulling into a parking space and backing out. Not all of the test drive needs to be out in the driving portion. Does it have enough cargo for - you know, you take a family trip every year. Do you think it has sufficient cargo? All that stuff that can, for lack of a better word, tarnish your perception of the car that are outside of the driving performance are those details that can be the difference between loving and hating that vehicle in the long run.

GLINTON: I've test driven cars on an airplane runway (laughter), you know, with the engineer. It was the most beautiful car, the most beautiful experience. I could imagine that before the car gets to an average journalist, there isn't any lint.


GLINTON: There's nothing wrong with that car. So how do you - how do you differentiate - when you guys are testing, how do you get out of that for - you know, if Ford is going to send me an F-150, it's going to be the best F-150 ever to a journalist. How do you guys get around that?

STOCKBURGER: Well, we get around it because we don't take that car from - from Ford. So keep in mind that all of our test vehicles are purchased at retail as consumers. You know, and many of us get to go in five or six dealerships a year and buy a car.

And people often say, oh, you know, Connecticut's a very small state. You can't possibly be anonymous in your purchases. When we tell you some of our dealer interactions, I can promise you that we are - we are anonymous. And if we think we aren't, we leave the dealership and take it to a different dealership. So we are purchasing. We are not testing press vehicles. We are testing on vehicles purchased full-price at local dealerships.

GLINTON: Are we right to be skeptical of the dealer. You know, a lot of people struggle with that idea.

STOCKBURGER: Yeah, so - so in terms of being skeptical of the dealer from the purchase, you know, a lot of people will say to us, why don't you rate dealerships? You know, it's such a nightmare. You know, why can't you rate dealerships? And what we found in the frequency of certainly the purchase is it's not really the dealership. It's not even the brand. It comes right down to the individual salesperson.

You can have, you know, a Toyota salesperson who's awful, or you can have a GMC salesperson who's wonderful. It's the individual, not the brand, not the dealership. And people - our best advice is go to a different dealership. Be ready to walk out of that horrendous experience because even if you're buying, you know, a General Motors vehicle, another General Motors dealership might just get you a better person. You might even say, I'd really like to talk to a different salesperson. It can be as simple as that.

GLINTON: All right. So I have a pet peeve when you go into a car dealership. Mine is when I ask the question, how much is that car? And then they say, how much do you want to pay for it? But what are some of your pet peeves of dealing with dealers or going into the dealership?

STOCKBURGER: Right, and yours, it's - the one key to negotiating a good deal is don't base it off a monthly price 'cause they'll make that work however they have to. Say let's talk bottom-line price, and then we'll talk about the financing. So No. 1 to you - but mine, I think, is - is their surveys. I have actually had dealers - and again I'm going to say - not say dealers. I'm going to say sales people - that survey that they want you to fill out post-purchase that says they've gotten all glowing - glowing reviews in all areas, you know, of the purchasing process. I've had dealers hand me that survey pre-filled-out with highlighter. I say pre-filled-out, but highlighted.

If I could give them all, you know, top 10 scores if it's on a scale of 1 to 10, that would be awesome, when they really didn't put in the effort and make me feel like a valued customer through the whole process until we got to that survey 'cause ultimately when Consumer Reports buys the car, there is a check delivered at the very end that says Consumer Reports on it. And the keys and the paperwork all says Consumer Reports. And the dealers have said, if I knew you worked for Consumer Reports, I would have treated you so much better. And I want to say you don't want to treat all of your customers that much better?

GLINTON: OK. So when we think about other beings in the car, there is something that has bothered me for a while, which is dogs. Now, don't get me wrong. I love dogs. And there isn't a lot of encouragement of, you know, dog travel. You know, Subaru has a dog ramp on one of their vehicles. But I saw a guy - a young man in the Chevy Silverado pickup, and he had a dog in the flatbed part of the truck.


GLINTON: And I - if I could have made a citizen's arrest, I would have. That's obviously dangerous. But dogs unrestrained in a car are definitely a problem no matter how small or how big they are. And I wonder if you're going to belt yourself in and put your kid in the baby seat, but Robert (ph) the dog is just, like, moving around the car, what are your recommendations about restraining your animal? How would you recommend me handling my best friend in my ride?

STOCKBURGER: Yeah. So I think the biggest thing is even if you don't consider the safety of your dog to the same level as you consider the safety of your passengers, in a crash, everything's moving towards the location of the crash. And that includes your dog or any pet. So if that dog is free to move about that cabin - particularly, you know, I've see people with the dog and the child in the back. That dog becomes the projectile. So even if you're not valuing their safety to the same level as the human passengers, they may be risking your human passengers. So certainly restraining your dog is your best bet.

Subaru has been at the forefront of some of this work in working for the Center for Pet Safety and doing some of this. Their harnesses in a crate is even better than just around the car. And the other piece I will add is there's a lot of distraction there in terms of the dog hanging on the wheel, sitting in the person's lap. If you crash, you're crushing them against the wheel. So they may injure you. They may have airbag interference, so it can't protect you.

So if the dog is going to be a passenger in car, think about that when you're buying the car. Perhaps you need something with a hatchback or a wagon styling. You know, I think of Outbacks and a lot of small SUVs. But the dog is safer in that cargo area with some sort of divider to protect passengers ahead. They can still get air. They're probably more comfortable than riding around on the passenger seats than they would be, you know, in the front unrestrained or trying to get comfortable on a passenger bench.

GLINTON: Jennifer Stockburger, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

STOCKBURGER: You are so welcome.

GROSS: Jennifer Stockburger runs the test track for Consumer Reports, where they test new cars. The magazine's annual car issue was published last week. She spoke with guest contributor Sonari Glinton. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel about migrant children at the southwestern border. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.