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The most improved cars for 2012

Total Car Score helps consumers research all vehicle makes, models

DETROIT – For more than a decade, the Ford Focus was unable to keep up with compacts like the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic or the Hyundai Elantra.

Now Ford has gotten serious about fixing the car side of its business, and the Focus, redesigned for 2012, is vastly improved.

How TotalCarScore.com works

How much better is it? The Focus went from middle of the pack to the segment leader, according to Total Car Score, a new online resource that aggregates car reviews from multiple sources. The 2012 model scored 80.68, tops among compact sedans and wagons, up from 72.73 for the 2011 model it replaced, according to Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of Total Car Score. (The average score for 2012 compacts was 74.68.) The Focus' leap from one model year to the next was the highest of any new vehicle, said Brauer, making it the most improved car of 2012.

Other cars on the Most Improved list are the Hyundai Accent, the Toyota Camry and Camry hybrid, and the Toyota Yaris. All were redesigned for 2012. Among SUVs, the Cadillac SRX, Kia Sportage and Honda CR-V also made the list, having scored much higher after they were redesigned.

Reviews are not always unanimous

Auto reviewers, like movie critics, aren't always unanimous in their points of view. A clever feature to one might be a pet peeve to another. Some reviewers put more weight on vehicle performance, while others emphasize safety or fuel economy or affordability. An overall consensus would be useful.

That's exactly what Brauer is attempting with Total Car Score, which, he said, aims to be the Rotten Tomatoes of the auto industry. Rotten Tomatoes is a website that culls movie reviews from top film critics and assigns a "certified fresh" or "rotten" icon depending on the percentage of reviews that are positive. It gives movie-goers with a quick overall opinion of a flick without having to research dozens of individual reviews. Total Car Score wants to simplify the task of researching a car purchase.

"There are a bunch of good sites out there. I brought them together"

"Nobody ever says I need more information about automobiles," said Brauer, pointing to the vast amount of automotive content already available on the Web. "There are a bunch of good sites out there. I brought them all together."

The problem is not all car reviews use the same scale. Some use a 1-10 scale while others use bubbles, circles or stars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety uses words to describe its crash test results: good, acceptable, marginal or poor. No matter the format, Total Car Score takes the ratings from nine well-known automotive authorities including Consumer Reports, Edmunds.com, Consumer Guide and J.D. Power & Associates and converts them into a simple percentage representing what the car could have scored from each source versus what it did score. Then it averages the number from all of these sources to get a vehicle's Total Car Score.

The vehicle's absolute score is less important than how it ranks relative to its peers in a particular segment. That at least gives you a starting point to build your shopping list.

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