Ford's new Fusion model earned high marks from both Consumer Reports testers and consumers who rated its reliability, the magazine said in its 2007 new car preview, showing that U.S. automakers may be making strides in initial quality.

Asian automakers once again dominated the closely watched reliability ratings, but U.S. automakers are steadily improving, David Champion, senior director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports, said Thursday.

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"You're almost chasing a moving target," said Champion, who presented the findings from the magazine's annual reliability survey and testing in Detroit. "The quality of cars has improved dramatically."

The Fusion and the Mercury Milan were among the top-ranked family cars for predicted reliability, on par with the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. The magazine bases its reliability forecasts on information provided by consumers for the past three model years. In the case of the Fusion and the Milan, the rating is based on only one model year because the vehicles were new for 2006.

Overall, Japanese automakers had 39 of the 47 vehicles with the best predicted reliability. U.S. manufacturers had six, including the Fusion, the Milan and the Lincoln Zephyr — all from Ford Motor Co. (F).

General Motors Corp. (GM) did well in large sport utility vehicles, earning top ratings for their Chevrolet Tahoe and the GMC Yukon, again based on one year of surveys because the trucks were redesigned. GM's Pontiac Vibe wagon was another top-scorer.

Champion said the key for Ford and GM will be maintaining the success in the coming years.

"It's that last year that (a consumer) owns the car that's probably most important in terms of reliability," he said. "If it's been pretty reliable over the first three years and then the fourth, fifth and sixth year it's dropped apart, he's not going to buy another one."

Consumer Reports sends the auto reliability survey to print and online subscribers. Some 950,000 people responded this year, providing answers on about 1.3 million vehicles.

The survey results appear in the magazine's new car preview special edition, which is sold at newsstands. A more comprehensive analysis of the data will be published in the magazine's April issue.

Consumer Reports also listed the Fusion among the new or redesigned vehicles that most impressed its testers, saying its smooth ride and good handling made it feel "like a much more expensive European car."

Champion said the Hyundai Azera sedan was another pleasant surprise and praised it as "very comfortable, very quiet," with a good price, though he said fuel economy was not a strong point. Other hits among new or redesigned vehicles were the Kia Sedona and the Mazda5.

Among the biggest disappointments was the Dodge Caliber crossover, the magazine said, calling its acceleration sluggish, its fuel economy unimpressive and its interior cheap. The magazine said "many of the same low-quality components" in the Caliber are being used in other DaimlerChrysler AG (DCX) products.

The magazine also criticized the Subaru B9 Tribeca, the Mitsubishi Eclipse and the Pontiac Solstice.

Speaking of the Solstice, a two-seat roadster, Champion cited a lot of little flaws.

"There is no place to put your cell phone," he said. "The cup holders are behind you, so every time you try and take a drink, you spill your drink."

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