What do people want when they shop for a new car? They'd like a machine that's easy on their eyes. And they want one that's in their price range. But to many people, reliability is a top concern, if not the top concern. For a long time, Japanese carmakers such as Toyota (NYSE:TM) and Honda (NYSE:HMC) have seemingly cornered the market on reliability. That may be changing.

Consumer Reports magazine has just surprised many people by parking the Buick Regal, made by General Motors (NYSE:GM), at the top of the list of most-reliable family sedans. The Toyota Camry had long enjoyed that position, and the Nissan Maxima had also shared it.

Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) also fared well, with its improved Focus, Escape, and Explorer models all earning "recommended" ratings. The Focus is now the top-rated small sedan. (Consumer Reports' results are based on surveys of 675,000 vehicle owners.)

Other models earning recommendations include Ford's Lincoln LS, and GM's Buick Park Avenue, Buick Rendezvous, and Saturn L300.

In a CBS MarketWatch (NASDAQ:MKTW) article, David Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports, noted that domestic carmakers have had to improve their reliability in order to not lose any more market share "They've seen the Japanese manufacturers come in and build cars that were quite good, that had bullet-proof reliability, and really make a name for themselves in the marketplace," said Champion. "If domestic makers are going to compete with them, they have to make reliable cars."

The overall picture remains mixed, though, with many domestic makes still rated poorly and many imported vehicles (such as Audis, Jaguars, and Land Rovers) also below average in reliability. DaimlerChrysler's (NYSE:DCX) Dodge Ram pickup and Dodge Neon sedan improved to "average."

Investors interested in automotive companies and their stocks should keep an eye on reliability trends, as highly rated carmakers are likely to get boosts in sales. Check out Consumer Reports'New Car Preview 2004 issue for more information, and see what Fools are saying about various auto companies on our acclaimed discussion boards.

Also check out past articles on carmakers: GM's Pension Peril, Ford to Cut 12,000, Automakers Downshift, and Buying Japanese.

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