WASHINGTON - Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, issued a call on Tuesday for urgent changes to strengthen U.S. auto safety regulation in the wake of a massive recall by Toyota Motor Corp.

Consumers Union said that the U.S. safety regulatory system should be reformed to become more transparent and that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should have more funding and the ability to impose tougher sanctions.

The influential consumer advocacy group also urged a number of safety mandates it said should be imposed on all automakers to address the risk of unintended acceleration of the kind now under investigation for Toyota.

U.S. safety regulators should require that all cars have brake override systems, simple controls that turn off the engine in an emergency, clear and simple labels on transmission shifters and a minimum clearance between floor panels and accelerator pedals, Consumers Union said.

Toyota has faced criticism on all of those points in the run-up to a sweeping recall for accelerator-related problems that totals over 8 million vehicles globally.

NHTSA says five deaths have been linked to the risk of loose floormats trapping accelerator pedals in Toyota vehicles. Another 29 fatality reports are under investigation.

Much of the ongoing debate and public outcry has centered on why these issues weren't caught or acted upon earlier, Consumers Union said in its report on the Toyota recalls and proposed reforms.

While the U.S. has arguably the best automotive safety net in the world, these types of infrequent problems are the hardest to catch and the most difficult to diagnose -- in this case with deadly consequences.

The recommendations come as the U.S. Congress begins the first of two days of hearings that will feature a grilling of both safety regulators and Toyota on the question of why red flags were missed.

Separately, Consumer Reports released its annual ranking of the most reliable auto brands.

Honda Motor Co topped the list for the fourth consecutive year in a tie with Subaru.

Toyota was No. 3, although Consumer Reports suspended its recommendation for the eight models recalled for sticky accelerator pedals.

Hyundai Motor, one of the automakers expected to benefit most in the short-term from Toyota's woes, jumped to fourth place from ninth a year earlier.

The annual report is considered an influential benchmark among consumers. Many automakers set internal targets to make the magazine's list of recommended vehicles since the endorsement is seen as valuable in advertising and in supporting auto resale values.

(Reporting by Kevin Krolicki; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)