Consumer Reports Automotive Dot Charts, Part 5 (1976-82): Just Before The Reformation

We continue our look at the famous automotive dot charts from Consumer Reports magazine.  In this issue there are 9 pages of charts covering 162 separate models, 1976-81.  If you don’t want to study all that data, I’ll give you the Executive Summary:  If a car is Japanese, or a Mercedes, or maybe a Volvo, the dots are almost all red (highly reliable).   If it’s anything else, it’s somewhere between mediocre and terrible.  But often things are darkest just before the dawn . . .

So here are the charts, with a little commentary.  You can click on images to enlarge.

AMC Concord, Hornet, Pacer–ugly is as ugly does.  Audi Fox–horrible!  Buick (and GM big cars)–pretty good.  GM small cars–Yecch!

Cadillac–the lustre is fading.  Chevy Monza–really bad!

I see red–must be Japanese (Datsun).

The only good Dodge is a Japanese Dodge (Colt).  Dodge Aspen (successor to the very reliable Dart) is a huge disappointment.

Big Fords after 1978 are not nearly as good as what came before.  Early Honda Civics have some black marks, but that will change soon.

The gigantic Lincoln Continentals of the ’70s were almost bullet proof–’80 and later, somewhat less so.  Mercedes-Benz–Mmmmmm, beautiful!

Big Oldsmobiles thru ’79 (like Buicks) are still pretty reliable (except DIESEL–Engine Mechanical and Fuel System–big black dots.)  Any money saved on fuel costs was more than eaten up on expensive repair bills.  Just buy the big gasoline V-8–you’ll be better off.  And avoid the Olds Omega (and the other GM “X Cars”–they were notoriously bad!

Plymouth Volare–see Dodge Aspen.  Toyota Celica embarrasses the rest of the industry.

Other Toyota models (Corolla, Tercel, Corona, Cressida, Pick-Ups) are also exemplary.  What is Toyota doing that the others can’t do?  It’s hard to believe how bad Volkswagen Dasher and Rabbit are.  VW still hasn’t figured out how to make reliable air conditioning.  Volvos of this period are apparently decent cars.

In other news . . .

Consumer Reports accurately predicts that by 1985 all cars will have the newly-designed, high-mounted third brake light.  This additional light supposedly reduces rear-end collisions by a significant amount.  If you can’t wait ’til 1985, you can have one installed on your present car by Firestone dealers in California.

In 1974 and again in 1979-80, America suffered through something called “The Energy Crisis”.  Gasoline prices were high, supplies were sporadic, and people had to wait in long lines to fill up.  There were “odd & even days” (based on your license plate number), signal flags at stations (“No Gas” or “Some Gas”), and everyone was unhappy about the high prices and the inconvenience.

Part of the news media’s coverage of this event was the idea that “the world is running out of oil.”  Ergo, we have to conserve and seek out alternative energy sources.  GM was so convinced of this that it was designing new Cadillacs (for the 1985 model year) that were shrunken, front-drive mini-versions (about the same dimensions as the “compact” 1960 Rambler or Comet, or the 1964 Chevelle!)  But now it’s 1982, and–there’s an oil glut?!  The cognitive dissonance here is just too much to handle!

Audi 5000


1983 Ford Thunderbird/Mercury Cougar


As it so often happens in human history, in the depths of despair things are happening behind the scenes.  As 1983 approaches, oil prices are rapidly dropping, interest rates are falling, the stock market is starting to pick up–and a new automotive design language (both in styling and engine manufacture) is coming into being.

Two of the forerunners are the Audi 5000 and the ’83 Thunderbird and Cougar.  The dull, boxy look of the past is being superceded by crisp, minimalist, aerodynamically-inspired lines with a new sleekness and sense of forward motion, inspired by the wind tunnel.

1986 Ford Taurus


The groundbreaking Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable mainstreamed the new look.  Future cars would follow this pattern.

But it wasn’t just about looks.  New advances in electronics miniaturization and engine controls resulted in great improvements in fuel economy, lower emissions, easier starting, smoother running, durability, and increased power.  This is really the dividing line between “old cars” and “modern cars”.  The flawed patchwork attempts of the ’70s to achieve these goals were successfully replaced by these new developments.

Oil stained highway lanes caused by leaky engines and transmissions.


And that’s not all!  Cars now have better insulation and rubber door seals, they don’t drip nearly as much oil, steering is tighter and more responsive, the cars handle and ride much better, they’re quieter, safer, the dashboards don’t crack, the bodies don’t rust out nearly as much . . . and, perhaps the most important thing, RELIABILITY has greatly improved!  Motorists languishing in the miasma of the Malaise would never have dreamed such things were possible within a relatively short period of time.

First Chrysler minivan, 1984 model.


The next major bombshell just around the corner was the introduction of the Chrysler Corp. “Minivans” in 1984.  The size and maneuverability of a car, with the hauling capabilities of a van.  A logical evolution of the station wagon that really caught on.  Forerunner of the SUV and the CUV.

Spot the nonconformist.


Put all these post-1982 factors together and you have the modern automotive world:  SUVs (and their variations), Trucks and Jeeps (formerly work vehicles, now mainstream), compact sedans, and a few specialty models.  All have the smoothed-over, aerodynamic look.  All have the mechanical, safety, and fit and finish improvements that have been refined over the past 40 years.  All are much more reliable, cleaner, and safer than the cars of 40+ years ago.

And I think Consumer Reports magazine can take some credit for that.  Concepts they supported for decades (greater safety, gas economy, quality, freedom from repair) eventually became mainstream.  In later years, they showed us graphically how the Japanese cars were so much better than many American and European cars.  It was all there (in black and red), and eventually Detroit had to respond.  In recent years, the quality gap between American vs. Japanese makes has narrowed considerably.

So if newer cars are so superior, why would anyone bother investing in and driving one of these old beasts?  A simple answer might be:  artistic beauty, nostalgia, and fun.  And those things have value too.   There’s nothing like being behind the wheel of one of your favorite classic cars.  When ordinary people see an old car, they take notice!  It magically brightens their day!

This, believe it or not, is a Cadillac.


Decades from now, when something like the personal flying car pictured above becomes the norm, nostalgically-minded people will look back at the everyday SUVs and so forth that crowd our highways today.  They will long to own and even drive one, if that were possible.   They will fondly look back to the “simplicity” of our time, before x, y, and z happened;  when you still could do [such and such].  However, we can’t fully appreciate our present age because we’re too close to it.


If the future is a place where “You will own nothing, have no privacy, and you will be happy,” when you want to go somewhere, you’ll simply summon one of these driverless, computer-controlled, government-provided autonomous vehicles.  There will be truck-type versions too in case you need to haul anything.  So all this talk about individual car brands, styling, power, handling, reliability, etc. will become totally moot.

So when you get up tomorrow, look around and say to yourself, “Wow, I’m living in America [or on planet Earth] in the year 2022!  How privileged I am to see this!”   And whether you like–or you don’t like–certain future developments, one thing’s for sure:  Things will never be the way they are now–ever again!