Question: The 2010 Consumer Reports' April "Annual Auto Issue" gives the 2004 Subaru Legacy's four-cylinder engines the worst possible rating. If I can't afford a 2005 (with the best rating), does the negative stuff in CR mean I should steer clear of all '04 Legacys?
Doug Ehrlich: Sometimes life makes it way too easy to be wrong. Such is the case if you mistakenly conclude that you should reject all '04 Subaru Legacys because of the infamous Consumer Reports' "Black Circle" rating of "Engine, major" category.
There is a larger context that, despite the real and imagined implications of the "Black Circle" should give you a surprising perspective. Yes, 2004 Subaru Legacy's engines did cause problems and downtime for many owners; however, this specific problem was more prevalent in older models and did not affect all '04 Legacy four-cylinder engines. And since all of the other non-engine categories have pretty favorable CR ratings, you might just find a Subaru '04 Legacy, pay for a pre-purchase inspection, and find no present indication of this "negative stuff" CR uses the "Black Circle" to denote.
Another fact that, when seen in the larger context, may surprise you is that the engine that earned the "Black Circle" might be eligible through Subaru for a 100 percent complete fix, at no cost, or at reduced cost to you.
Don't misunderstand my point, there is nothing wrong with the symbols CR utilizes. The core issue is how people read the symbols, whether they are reading into a symbol something that is not really valid. In some cases, including this particular case, insights from a number of seasoned Subaru professionals may provide you with information that may change your perspective of what a "Black Circle" might actually mean. Here it means that many '04 owners experienced grief. However, there are those who experienced nothing negative. And if the engine did experience problems, Subaru might have already fixed the issue long ago, or you might be able to get the complete repair now.
I've used CR's auto reliability ratings in their April Annual Auto Issues every year going back into the 1980s. After years of repeated use, I see patterns and details that casual reader will often miss. Your question shows good instincts. There is more to CR's "negative stuff" that first meets the eye.
Yes, CR's reliability rating system is pretty accurate. However "accurate" does not mean its "perfect". Being generally accurate does not mean it is an always accurate and ultra-precise reliability indicator. If it were such, there would have been commentary telling readers that many, but not all '04 Legacys are suspect.
Think of the Annual Auto Issue's reliability data as quality plastic ruler. That instrument will measure most anything most people might need to use it for, and do so with reasonable accuracy. However don't expect that ruler to excite or attract the interest of professional architect or engineer. For these professionals, something more precise is demanded. Likewise, CR reliability ratings are simple, straightforward and pretty accurate for the casual reader. However, you are going outside the limits of what you can know from the CR reliability rating report if you imply too much from the symbols as presented.
WHAT DO THE ACTUAL RATING SHOW AND MEAN?
The two "black marks"--the worst two rating symbols--are presented as:
1. The solid "Black Circle", identified as "major" engine problems, and
2. The "Half-Black Circle", identified as "minor" engine problems.