DETROIT – Toyota Motor Corp. takes it on the chin in the latest new-vehicle reliability ratings by Consumer Reports magazine, which knocks three Toyota models off its “recommended buy” list and says the brand no longer qualifies for an automatic recommended buy rating on new, untested models.

It’s an unusual bruise for Toyota, which has dominated various quality indices over the years, and CR is quick to point out that including its Lexus luxury and Scion youth brands, Toyota overall is No.3 on its list of top manufacturers. Seventeen of CR’s “most reliable” vehicles are from Toyota.

But in releasing its ’08 ratings at a gathering of the Automotive Press Assn. here, David Champion, senior director for the magazine’s Auto Test Center, says, “The big news this year is Toyota is slipping.”

The Toyota brand dropped four spots in the rankings, published in a special issue hitting the newsstands Nov. 6. Three models, the Camry V-6, Tundra V-8 with 4-wheel drive and all-wheel-drive Lexus GS, no longer are recommended by the magazine.

Transmission issues are plaguing the Camry V-6, while there are reliability concerns with the 4WD Tundra, he says. The GS seems to suffer from a lot of squeaks and rattles and other issues, but Champion admits he isn’t sure why the AWD model seems to score lower than the rear-wheel-drive GS.

A Toyota spokesman says he is “pretty surprised” by the findings, which were not given to the auto maker ahead of today’s public release. He says internal data doesn’t indicate any problems with the three vehicles cited by CR, and he downplays suggestions Toyota’s growing volume and widening product lineup are negatively impacting quality.

“I don’t think it is related to our growth,” he says, adding that Toyota will take a look at CR’s data and “try to figure out where the discrepancies are.”

The poor performance of the three vehicles also is causing the magazine to stop automatically recommending new Toyotas as reliable. In the past, because of its sterling quality record, CR automatically would recommend a new model to its readers without any testing or survey data.

Now, only two brands will get such treatment, Honda and Subaru, though Champion says that status could be reinstated to Toyota in the future.

“It’s something we look at annually,” he says.

CR says domestic brands are improving in the ratings, but overall their movement in that direction is uneven and inconsistent and Japanese auto makers still account for 90% of the top-rated models. Of the “least reliable” models, 13 are from General Motors Corp., six are made by Chrysler LLC and one is from Ford Motor Co.

Ford clearly is leading the pack from Detroit, Champion says, with 93% of its Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models rated average or better in predicted reliability.

“That’s an excellent sign,” he says, adding that highly rated new models from last year, the Fusion/Milan/MKZ midsize car trio, continue to exhibit high quality. “We weren’t sure they would hold up (beyond the first year), but they have,” he says.

Ford’s Taurus/Sable large cars and Taurus X CRoss/utility vehicle also are performing well, he adds.

GM and Chrysler have been more up and down, Champion says.

CR is recommending the GMC Acadia/Saturn Outlook CUVs and Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra fullsize pickups because they scored average in their first year of testing, “but we’re nervous about that because the (Chevrolet) Tahoe did the same thing last year but has dropped this year.”

The magazine rates 49% of GM’s lineup at or above average in predicted reliability.

Chrysler also has been erratic, he says. “One year they’re above average, the next year below.” CR rates 67% of Chrysler models average or better.

Despite their dominance in the rankings, not all Japanese vehicles are good buys, Champion notes, pointing to the Mazda CX-7 and CX-9 and Suzuki Grand Vitara, rated as unreliable.

Korean auto makers in general are improving quality, Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. in particular, he says. But some models, the Hyundai Entourage and Kia Sedona minivans, for example, are considered unreliable, as is the Kia Amanti sedan.

The European brands are “improving slowly,” Champion notes, but he says Mercedes continues to exhibit problems, particularly with its SUVs. Like the three Toyota models, the Volkswagen Passat also fell off the recommended buy list.

Ranked at the top by brand are Honda, Acura, Scion, Subaru and Toyota. Buick is the highest-rated domestic brand and Land Rover is the least reliable overall. The Pontiac Solstice posted the worst score among individual models.

CR’s ratings are based on a combination of surveys of its 5 million subscribers and safety ratings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, plus the magazine’s own testing. Champion says 960,000 people filled out the ownership survey, accounting for 1.3 million vehicles.

CR performs about 50 tests on the cars at its 327-acre (132-ha) track in Connecticut, rating the vehicles on such things as braking, handling and fuel economy and on the ease of use of various features.

dzoia@wardsauto.com