Behind the Wheel with Phil Lebeau

Toyota slammed by Consumer Reports as Audi surges

Consumer Reports whacks Ford

Audi, which for years has struggled to improve the dependability of its cars and SUVs, is rated among the most reliable brands in a new survey by Consumer Reports.

Perennially strong Japanese brands were named seven of the 10 most reliable, but Consumer Reports pulled three popular Toyota models from its recommended list because of their performance in crash tests.The survey also raised questions about Nissan, which fell nine spots, to No. 22. Ford continued to struggle, ranking 26th of 28 brands.

Meanwhile, the Tesla Model S electric car's first review painted a mixed picture. The model received an above average reliability rating with very few complaints about the battery system; however, as production has increased, so have the number of issues.

(Read more: Lexus, Infiniti hit by unflattering reviews)

"The very first models from Tesla, it is almost as if they took one of the vehicles and went over it with a fine-tooth comb and made sure each one of those vehicles were right," said Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports' director of auto testing. "Now that they are ramping up in terms of their volumes, they are really going to have to figure out how to make these cars continue to be reliable."

2012 - 2014 Toyota Camry SE
Source: Toyota Motors

At Toyota, the Camry, RAV-4 and Prius-V were all dropped from the recommended list after receiving a "poor" rating in a crash test conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The IIHS' small overlap crash tests simulate how well vehicles protect occupants when the front corner of a vehicle strikes another object, such as a tree or utility pole.

It remains to be seen whether the move will have any lasting impact on the vehicle's sales. So far this year, Toyota has sold 318,990 Camry models, making it the best-selling car in the US and the third most popular vehicle in the country.

"The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) periodically develops new, more severe or specialized tests that go beyond federal requirements. With the small overlap test, the Institute has raised the bar again, and we are responding to the challenge," Toyota told CNBC in a statement. "We are looking at a range of solutions to achieve greater crash performance in this area."

The survey also showed that Ford, which last year ranked 27th, continues to have problems with its MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch infotainment systems. In addition, "Several EcoBoost turbocharged V6 models have poor reliability as well. Almost two-thirds of the 34 Fords and Lincolns in our survey got scores that were much worse than average," the report said.

The brand's C-Max Energi was rated its worst model; at Nissan, the Pathfinder earned that designation.

"Nissan has not been one of the top manufacturers in terms of reliability, so they actually have multiple problems," Fisher said.

(Read more: Focus is the best-selling car in the world, Ford says)

Fisher noted the interesting thing about Audi's improved rating was that they have high-content vehicles with high-end pieces, electronics and power equipment, and they are "still getting it right."

2013 Consumer reliability top 5 brands

Position Brand Change vs. Last Year
#1. Lexus Up 2
#2. Toyota No change
#3. Acura Up 4
#4. Audi Up 4
#5. Mazda Down 1

The 2013 Consumer Reports Auto Reliability Survey is based on the answers of 1.1 million subscribers to the magazine.

Overall, the survey showed people think the reliability of their cars hasn't changed much in the last year. Glitches in the electronics and telematics in new models continue to frustrate their owners.

"When it comes to major mechanical problems engine, transmission, etc. they actually are doing better, but the new electronic problems are actually bringing them down," Fisher said.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

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