In another setback for longtime Japanese quality leader Honda, it has been knocked out of the top spot according to the annual Consumer Reports Automotive Report Card by up-start Subaru. Honda had topped the study for the last four years but has taken sharp criticism, of late, for a variety of problems, notably with the latest version of its long-popular Civic model. Subaru, the maker of all-wheel-drive products like the Outback and Forester also topped industry giant Toyota in the yearly measure of performance, comfort, utility and reliability. Japanese makers retained their lead, overall, in the annual automotive study. But, “While Japanese automakers still hold the top five spots, their lead is shrinking. In some of Honda’s and Toyota’s recently redesigned models, cost-cutting has become more noticeable,” said David Champion, senior director of the Consumer Reports Automotive Test Center. Former Chrysler Chief LaSorda Now Fisker CEO Subaru’s lead in the Automotive Report Card might take some by surprise but the carmaking arm of Japan’s Fuji Heavy Industries has been on a tear in recent years. It has set one annual sales record after another – even during the depths of the automotive recession, the industry’s worst in decades. According to CR, the maker earned a score of 75 in the latest study, two points better than last year, due to better test scores for new models like the redesigned Impreza, Legacy and Outback. Subaru’s average road test score is the highest among all makers, at 82, the magazine noted. Honda, meanwhile, slipped by two points, to fourth among major automakers. The maker was hurt by the poor reception given two recent updates to its line-up, the 2012 Civic and the 2011 Odyssey minivan. But CR officials stressed that the Japanese maker is “still among the most reliable (brands) on the road overall.” Another surprise came from Mazda, which shot to second in the Report Card, ahead of third-place Toyota. It could be a big momentum booster for Mazda, which has been struggling to maintain sales and is about to place a big bet on its new CX-5 crossover, the first model to use the company’s advanced SkyActiv technology. Mazda claims the system will deliver near-hybrid fuel economy without the cost penalty. Is This the Next Prius? Mazda showed the biggest gain of any manufacturer last year, in fact, surging from seventh to second place by increasing its Report Card score by nine points. Mazda’s gains reflected the high scores for the new Mazda3 model – as well as the maker’s decision to drop two poor-performing offerings: the Tribute SUV and RX-8 sports car. Toyota retained its position among the top three brands despite all the problems it has faced in recent years. The giant maker has traditionally been a leader in various quality and reliability studies but faced a series of sharp rebukes following its problems with safety and reliability in 2009 and 2010. It was second only to Honda in the total number of vehicles recalled during 2011, in fact, after leading the U.S. recall list the two previous years. The Japanese leaders, nonetheless, are facing an assault from Europe, Korea and the U.S. in the automotive rankings. But at least one challenger stumbled this year, Ford Motor Co. plunging from fifth position to tenth. Ford’s road test score actually improved by two points but it suffered from problems with its MyFordTouch infotainment system and the PowerShift automatic transmission used in the otherwise well-reviewed Focus remake. Jaguar Bringing XF Sportbrake to Geneva Ford claimed it has resolved both problems but not in time for the CR staff to measure changes in the field. As for the other domestics, Champion noted, “GM and Chrysler are building nicer cars with each redesign. Still, their scores are dragged down by several older designs that score low in Consumer Reports testing or have reliability issues.” As the makers replace older models, like the troubled Chrysler Sebring, Champion said he expects the Detroit makers to move up in the rankings. Newer offerings, such as the Chrysler 200, helped the maker boost its overall score by nine points, though it remained in last place. The Automotive Report Card is based on Consumer Reports tests of 275 different models and looks at issues ranging from performance to comfort, utility to reliability. Each vehicle’s score balances the way it performed on the road and its reliability ranking, according to the magazine.