It’s that time of year again: millions of copies of Consumer Reports’ Annual Auto Issue are on their way to mailboxes and newsstands across America. For the next year, this issue will be the bible for many car shoppers as they sort out which vehicles are likely to be the most reliable. But what many of these car shoppers don’t understand is that, by the time the Auto Issue comes out, the data behind the reliability verdicts are already nearly a year old.

How could this be? Why publish a hugely influential Auto Issue using old data? Partly because Consumer Reports still uses the same research methods and timetable they’ve used for decades. The majority of their surveys are still handled through regular mail. This in turn all but requires that the survey be annual and that data analysis drag on for multiple months. The 2006 survey covered the period from April 1, 2005, through March 31, 2006.

But hoary methods and an annual timetable aren’t the only reasons. Even with this schedule, the results from the 2006 survey were released last November, with the annual New Car Preview. So what’s so special about the April auto issue? Well, it does include the results of road tests conducted after the Preview went to press. More than this, though, it’s included in members’ subscriptions. If you’re a print subscriber, and don’t spend another seven bucks to buy the Preview from a newsstand, then the Auto Issue is the first time you have access to all of the “latest” reliability information from Consumer Reports.

Forcing consumers to choose between waiting four months or spending more money seems like something a profit-oriented enterprise might do, doesn’t it? More specifically, it’s the sort of thing a profit-oriented business would do if it faced no real competition. If no one else is providing more recent information, then the year-old stuff is the best there is.

This situation is changing. Recently launched vehicle reliability research at takes full advantage of the Internet. TrueDelta’s panel members fill out a one-page survey the month after their vehicle is in the shop, and check-in with an approximate odometer reading quarterly. Once the quarter ends, TrueDelta promptly analyzes the all-digital data.

As a result, this February TrueDelta released vehicle reliability results based on repairs that occurred as recently as December 31, 2006. And it updates this information quarterly, not annually. In May, as the Consumer Reports Auto Issue is pulled from newsstands, TrueDelta will release results based on data through March 31, 2007. At that point, TrueDelta’s information will be a full year “fresher.” During the peak summer and early fall selling months, TrueDelta’s lead will extend to 15 months.

When shopping for a car, do you want to know how reliable it was a year ago, or how reliable it has been recently? Until Consumer Reports fully makes the move from the 1950s into the twenty-first century, and stops peddling year-old information as “the latest,” it isn’t properly serving consumers.

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