Which Car Brand is the Most Reliable?

March 25, 2009

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New findings measure problems experienced by the original owners of vehicles after three years. Which automaker(s) took the top spot in 2009? And which made the biggest gains in long-term dependability improvement?

Earlier this year, Consumer Reports concluded that the reason people aren't buying new cars is that there is nothing wrong with the old one. From its 2009 Auto Brand Perception Survey findings, the Consumers Union publication determined that the No. 1 reason that nearly half of Americans are delaying a new car purchase is that the existing vehicle is still in good shape.

The leading factor, by 49 percent of the survey's respondents, was "value" — here considered by car buyers as "the most bang for their buck." Moreover, 21 percent of the respondents cited "quality" as a most significant factor in choosing a new vehicle, as this factor speaks to not only its initial fit-and-finish impression, but to how well the model will hold up over time.

In rank order, Toyota, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Cadillac dominated scores for quality.

"Given that about half of the respondents said that they have owned their current model longer than initially planned, that longevity might be more important to them than ever," according to Consumer Reports' findings.

A new vehicle-dependability study, from J.D. Power & Associates, agrees, claiming that the average age of a vehicle at trade-in has increased to 73 months in 2009 from 65 months in 2006.

"With no end to the nation's economic troubles in sight, finding a dependable vehicle is even more critical," J.D. Power & Associates' 2009 Vehicle Dependability Study results conclude.

The new study, based on surveys of more than 46,000 vehicle owners, measured problems that cropped up on vehicles over three years. Overall dependability was determined by the level of problems experienced per 100 miles, with a lower score reflecting higher quality. The study, used extensively by vehicle manufacturers worldwide to help design and build better vehicles, looked at 2006 models.

The frequency and severity of component replacement — particularly the engine and transmission — were found to have a particularly significant impact on customer loyalty.

According to the announcement of findings from the global information services firm:

When engine components are replaced or rebuilt, just 11 percent of customers state that they definitely intend to purchase or lease another vehicle of the same make, compared with nearly 40 percent among owners who report replacing no components.

"Automakers have improved long-term dependability by an average of 10 percent each year since the inception of the study, which is a testament to the industry's commitment to continuously improve and sustain quality, especially long-term quality," David Sargent, vice president of automotive research at J.D. Power and Associates, said in a statement.

Buick and Jaguar this year tied for the top ranking in the vehicle-dependability study, supplanting Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus brand, which had held or tied the No. 1 spot for 14 consecutive years. Buick and Jaguar owners reported 122 problems for every 100 vehicles included in the survey, improving from sixth and 10th place, respectively, in last year's study.

Lexus finished second this year, followed by Toyota's namesake brand and Ford Motor Co.'s Mercury brand to round out the top five rankings.

Lexus was top-ranked in 2008 and tied with Buick in 2007. This year's results "offer General Motors Corp., maker of Buick vehicles, some bragging rights at a time when it is surviving on government loans and also underscore the narrowing quality gap between major Japanese automakers and some Detroit brands," the Wall Street Journal says (subscription required).

"Buick has ranked among the top 10 nameplates each year since the study was last redesigned in 2003, while Jaguar has moved rapidly up the rankings," Sargent said. "Lexus remains a very strong competitor in long-term quality. In particular, the Lexus LS 430 sets the industry standard for dependability, with fewer problems reported than any other model in the study."

Indeed, despite losing its crown to Buick and Jaguar, Lexus still swept top awards in four segments while Toyota's namesake brand took five awards — more than any other nameplate in 2009 — for the Highlander, Prius, Sequoia, Solara and Tundra.

Models by Acura, Buick, Dodge, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Mercury, Nissan and Scion each ranked highest in one segment. GM's Buick LaCrosse was J.D. Power's top midsize car, while Ford's Lincoln brand took two awards. Chrysler LLC, which took no segment awards last year, won top honors for its Dodge Caravan in the van segment.

Suzuki (avg. 263 problems per 100 vehicles), Volkswagen (260/100), Land Rover (238/100), Isuzu (234/100) and Mazda (227/100) owners reported the most problems among the 37 brands J.D. Power assessed.

J. D. Power's best-known survey is likely its quality survey, slated for release in June, which looks at current-model vehicles and problems that crop up in the first 90 days of ownership.

Resources

Consumer Reports Car Brand Perceptions Survey Consumer Reports, Jan. 8, 2009

Nearly Half of Americans Have Delayed Purchasing a New Car Consumer Reports, Jan. 8, 2009

2009 Vehicle Dependability Study Results J.D. Power and Associates, March 19, 2009

Reports: Buick and Jaguar Tie to Rank Highest for Vehicle Dependability J.D. Power and Associates, March 19, 2009

2009 Dependability Ratings - By Brand J.D. Power and Associates, March 19, 2009

Jaguar, Buick Top Quality Survey by Alex P. Kellogg The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2009

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