King of the Road: The 2012 Cars With the Most Bang for the Buck

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Two major news organizations known for their rankings and ratings—Consumer Reports and U.S. News—have just released their latest lists of the automobiles offering the most value for the money. Which cars represent the wisest, most worthwhile use of your cash?

Unfortunately, answers on that front aren’t always clear.

On the one hand, Consumer Reports’ “Best New Car Values” is dominated by foreign automakers. Four Toyotas factor into the top ten, and overall, 34 of the 48 vehicles named in the best value list come from Japan.

The just-announced “Best Cars for the Money” awards from U.S. News, on the other hand, are divided up more evenly, with domestic brands coming out on top in 13 of the 23 included categories, and Ford taking home the most awards of any automaker (five).

How could two systems created to measure essentially the same thing—value for the money, bang for the buck, whatever you want to call it—yield such different results?

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This is how Consumer Reports says it determines each automobile’s value:

To find out which models deliver the most [value], we analyzed more than 200 vehicles that we’ve recently tested, focusing on their overall road-test scores, predicted-reliability scores, and five-year owner-cost estimates. In short, the better a car performs in our road tests and reliability ratings, and the less it costs to own over time, the better its value.

U.S. News must be using some other criteria, right? Not really. Here’s the explanation for the awards’ scoring system:

The awards combine the U.S. News Best Cars rankings with the average price paid and five-year total cost of ownership data from TrueCar.com. The award-winning vehicles have the best combination of praise from car reviewers, lower upfront costs and lower long-term ownership costs than their competition.

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So, you see, one organization factors in initial costs, performance reviews, and expected five-year cost of ownership, while the other organization factors in initial costs, performance reviews, and expected five-year cost of ownership. Now it all makes sense!

What’s especially surprising is that a vehicle could be atop a category on one of the lists, and yet receive a middling value rating on the other. The Ford Fiesta, for instance, gets the U.S. News award for best value in both the subcompact and hatchback categories, but, over at Consumer Reports, the car comes in ninth and 23rd place in terms of small sedans and small hatchbacks, respectively.

Sometimes, the confusing results are a matter of the same vehicle being placed in different categories. The six-passenger Mazda5, for example, is rated as a wagon by CR (#2 in the category) and as a minivan by U.S. News (#1).

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Amid all the confusion, it’s probably safe to say that automobiles that rank highly on both lists are pretty darn good values. The Toyota RAV4 fits the bill: It’s the top value among small SUVs according to CR, and it’s also tops in U.S. News’ category for Affordable Compact SUV with 3 Rows. The Honda Fit, Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion, Subaru Outback, and Toyota Tacoma are among the other vehicles that score toward the top of both lists in their respective categories.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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