| USA TODAY
New-vehicle prices passed $40,000 in late 2020, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay top dollar to get a new ride.In fact, some of the best cars in the industry are affordable vehicles from mainstream automotive brands.Look no further than Consumer Reports’ Top Picks for 2021, a closely followed annual list that provides recommendations on the best vehicles available for sale based on reliability data, customer satisfaction, testing and sustainability.Case in point: Mazda was ranked as the top brand of the year, besting much more expensive brands like Tesla, BMW and Jaguar.Mazda has kept its focus on mainstream buyers with vehicles like the Mazda CX-30, which starts at about $22,000 and was named as one of Consumer Reports’ Top Picks.“Mazda is the proof that you can make cars that are exciting, cars that are fun and still have cars that are reliable as well,” said Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports.Does Robinwood live up to its name? Critics say the investing app doesn’t$3 fuel again? Gas prices to rise as winter storm rages, shutting refineries, stores and delaying shipments. Is $3 fuel coming?Several other mainstream brands also made it into the top 10 of the magazine’s Brand Report Card, a separate list ranking the top 32 automotive brands: Subaru, Honda, Toyota, Chrysler and Buick. (See the full list below.)Bottom line: Improvements in reliability, safety and interior technologies have enabled mainstream vehicles to close the gap with luxury cars.“When it comes to the high-end vehicles, not only are you not getting anything more, sometimes you’re getting things you don’t want,” Fisher said. “You’re getting complexity, you’re getting more of these gizmos and gadgets and all these things that don’t actually make your driving experience better.”Of the 10 Top Picks for Consumer Reports in 2021, four were Toyota vehicles, reiterating the mainstream brand’s foothold on quality and satisfaction.“They do a lot right,” Fisher said. “They’re the tops when it comes to reliability for the long term. And they’re very generous when it comes to standard safety.”Consumer Reports also announced a new designation for 2021: Green Choice, a label given to vehicles that are among the top 20% of vehicles for lowest carbon emissions and environmental pollutants.“We’re hearing more and more from consumers that this is something that’s really important to them,” Fisher said.Four of the Top Picks also earned the Green Choice moniker: the Toyota Prius, Toyota Corolla Hybrid, Toyota Camry and Tesla Model 3. It’s the 18th year the Prius has made the list, a record.Here’s the full list of Top Picks for 2021.Under $25,000 Toyota Corolla: The compact car’s strong fuel economy, standard safety equipment and high marks for reliability made it stand out.Mazda CX-30: This subcompact SUV is dependable, has strong safety equipment and boasts what Consumer Reports called “responsible handling and a firm ride.”$25,000 to $35,000 Subaru Forester: This small SUV has made the list for eight straight years. The Forester has been a Top Pick for eight straight years. The Forester gets credit for its spacious interior, good fuel economy and popular four-wheel-drive system.Toyota Prius: While hybrid sales have been struggling for years amid low gas prices, the Prius remains a stalwart for buyers who care most about fuel economy and reliability.Toyota Camry: The best-selling passenger car in America is “a rock-solid choice” with excellent safety features, fuel economy and reliability, Consumer Reports says.$35,000 to $45,000Subaru Outback: This vehicle, which is a hatchback or an SUV depending on your perspective, has “a comfortable interior, with generous passenger space and a roomy rear cargo section,” according to Consumer Reports.Kia Telluride: This recently introduced midsized three-row SUV has been a hit from day one. It “dominates this popular segment” with a “stellar” road test and overall scores, according to Consumer Reports.Honda Ridgeline: This midsize pickup truck has a “slick and powerful engine” and is the most fuel-efficient gas-powered pickup on the road, Consumer Reports says.$45,000 to $55,000Lexus RX: This vehicle “continues to set the standard for the midsized luxury SUV segment” with its compelling “combination of comfort, performance, safety and reliability.”Tesla Model 3: The best-selling electric car in America “delivers an otherworldly driving Experience” with “sharp handling and precise steering” as well as “futuristic” design and a massive touchscreen.Want a new car?: Get ready to pay more than $40,000 as prices continue to riseAmericans converting vans for the road: #VanLife takes off during COVID-19Here’s Consumer Reports’ 2021 Brand Report Card (higher score is better):Mazda (80)BMW (78)Subaru (76)Porsche (76)Honda (75)Lexus (75)Toyota (74)Chrysler (74)Buick (72)Hyundai (71)Audi (71)Infiniti (70)Nissan (68)Dodge (67)Genesis (66)Tesla (66)Mini (66)Volkswagen (65)Kia (64)Volvo (64)Mercedes-Benz (62)Cadillac (62)Acura (59)Chevrolet (58)Ford (57)GMC (57)Jaguar (54)Lincoln (53)Jeep (48)Mitsubishi (46)Land Rover (46)Alfa Romeo (44)Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey..