Subaru and Toyota were the big winners in the annual car ratings from Consumer Reports.
The magazine, which because of its well-regarded car tests and reviews influences auto-buying choices, said Subaru won the top score of all automakers, helped by recent redesigns of its Impreza, Legacy and Outback models. The 2012 Impreza is Consumer Reports' top pick among small sedans.
In a different measure, however, Toyota models represented half of the magazine's top picks by vehicle category, the first automaker to score that many models among the best-rated vehicles in nearly a decade.
The redesigned Toyota Camry hybrid and Highlander sport utility vehicle edged out rival models as Consumer Reports' choices for top family sedan and family SUV, respectively.
In the magazine's tests, the Camry hybrid delivered 38 miles per gallon overall fuel economy -- the best in class and as good as what it described as smaller and less versatile hybrids. But fuel economy experienced in Consumer Reports' test was still less than the 43 mpg that Toyota claimed for the hybrid in its advertising.
The Japanese brands scored the highest in Consumer Reports ratings of automakers.
"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 Consumer Reports Automotive Test Center.
"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," Champion said. "As more new products are introduced, their fortunes could change if they can improve their overall reliability."
Honda, which has claimed the top overall automaker ranking for the past four years, dropped to fourth place among 13 major automakers this year. It was behind Mazda and then Toyota.
Consumer Reports dinged Honda over the recent redesigns of its Civic compact sedan and Odyssey minivan, which the magazine said didn't measure up to the models they replaced. The automaker still gets high marks for producing reliable cars, the magazine said.
Starting with fifth place, the remaining rankings were: Nissan, Volvo, Hyundai, BMW, Volkswagen, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Chrysler.
Consumer Reports said that Ford dropped the farthest, falling to 10th from fifth place last year.
The automaker's road-test scores actually improved from last year, but it was tripped up by what the magazine judged to be subpar reliability of some new vehicles, "due largely to the troublesome MyFord Touch infotainment system and Power-Shift automatic transmission."
Top picks by vehicle category were:
Best sporty car: Ford Mustang. Small SUV: Toyota RAV4. Family sedan: Toyota Camry hybrid. SUV: Toyota Highlander. Affordable family sedan: Hyundai Sonata. Minivan: Toyota Sienna. Sports sedan: Infiniti G. Green car: Toyota Prius. Small car: Subaru Impreza. Pickup truck: Chevrolet Avalanche.