The current 7 million member count is a drop of more than 1 million from the 8.4 million subscribers Consumer Reports had in 2014, according to its annual report. The group’s revenue from subscriptions and newsstand sales fell to $205.5 million in fiscal 2017, down from about $234.2 million in fiscal 2013.
In recent years, as membership and subscription revenue declined, the group cut costs, resulting in layoffs.
It now faces some formidable competitors, such as the site The Wirecutter, now owned by The New York Times, which boasts a younger readership.
The group has also suffered its share of criticism and controversy over the years.
Japanese carmaker Suzuki sued the group in 1996 over an unfavorable review of the Suzuki Samurai. The two parties settled and the case was dismissed.
Then another Japanese carmaker Isuzu filed its own lawsuit for a negative review of the Isuzu Trooper. The carmaker won the case, but a jury declined to award it any damages.
Both Isuzu and Consumer Reports claimed victory following the decision.
Around the same time, an Isuzu distributor in Puerto Rico filed a lawsuit over the same review, arguing that it had hurt sales. The case was dismissed.
The group also had to retract a report on infant car seats in 2007, after it was revealed there were problems with the test data.
Auto industry executives view the group with a mixture of respect, fear and frustration.
The group plays an important role in the auto market and it does it well, said Johan de Nysschen, a longtime auto industry executive who ran Audi, Infiniti, and most recently, Cadillac. He said he has heard from executives he has worked with in the past that somewhere around 60 percent of all luxury vehicle buyers consult the publication before finalizing their own purchases.
“Firstly, just by virtue of the impact that they have, one views them with respect,” de Nysschen said. “But I also would say, Consumer Reports is not quite the sole custodian of the body of automotive knowledge that they like to think they are, and that sometimes can create some irritation with automakers.”
In one sense, it is laudable that Consumer Reports wants to keep an arms-length distance from the automakers whose products they evaluate, de Nysschen said. However, at times, that has made it difficult for companies to explain details in their products or place things in context.
In response, Fisher said the group has an open-door policy with automakers and welcomes industry executives to its test facility and track.
As someone who has spent much of his career at higher-end brands, de Nysschen said he thought the group’s opinions were of luxury vehicles were influenced a bit too much by price.
“Luxury goods are expensive, partially because of the assumed excellence of the product, but also because of the reality of the intangible value of the brands. And I think that is an important consideration for buyers, it is what they want to buy. And I think Consumer Reports doesn’t recognize the brand aspect as much as they should.”
Fisher said de Nysschen is correct that Consumer Reports does not rate brands, which do matter to many customers. Nor, for that matter, does it rate styling, which is also important to many buyers. But he said he doesn’t think the group unfairly rates luxury automakers. For example, the group has rated luxury vehicles from Audi and Genesis highly.
The group have also at times had a rocky relationship with domestic auto manufacturers.
“Over time some of their survey methods have been controversial, and they have at times been accused of a pro-import and anti-U.S. bias,” Lutz said. “I personally observed that 20 years ago, but I think that is no longer the case.”
In 2006, for example, then-GM executive Lori Queen blasted the publication after it gave a hard review to the Chevrolet Cobalt, prompting an apology from then-GM CEO Rick Wagoner.
“They are the most unprofessional group of people I have ever worked with,” Queen wrote at the time in an email to trade publication Automotive News. “They are totally nonobjective and go to great extremes to paint a picture for their paid subscription readers, who primarily buy Japanese cars. They don’t consider price or price differences, they don’t consider model mix or consumer preferences, they buy the cheapest car they can find (generally) and then base their opinions on a limited sample.”
The group said in response that it simply looked at the data and determined which cars came out on top.
Consumer Reports still does have a lot of imports at the top of its lists. But in recent years, American vehicles have scored highly as well. The 2018 Chevrolet Impala received a glowing review — it’s on the group’s list of the 10 best cars of 2018. The Ford Fusion hybrid sedan also comes recommended, as do the Ford F-150 and Ram 1500 full-size pickups.
“The domestic industry has changed, tremendously,” Fisher said. Detroit used to try to compete with imports strictly on price, rather than on quality and performance, he added. But that has changed. The Big 3 have invested a lot more in improving their vehicles, and it has started to show, he said.
“It is a completely different market,” he said. “It is not just about going and picking the Japanese car, because you think that is the reliable one. You need to go look at the Koreans, you need to look at the domestics.”
When automakers have pushed back on Consumer Reports’ methods or results, the magazine has tried be as transparent as possible and explain its choices, Fisher said. Over time, many automakers have come around.
“Generally, when we find a problem, they fix it,” he said. “They listen to us and they fix it. We have seen that time and time again with multiple automakers.”