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J.D. Power Dependability Study — Which Car Brands Are Reliable

by Tim Truby (May 13, 2010)

Talking to your friends about your new car purchase can lead to smug put-downs, dire predictions about repair work or the rolling of eyes. Everyone seems to have strong preconceptions when it comes to car reliability. And those preconceptions are often wrong.

The latest J.D. Power vehicle reliability survey is a great reality check. It found that our preconceptions about American, Japanese and European brand reliability don't match the facts. Some of the surprising findings:
  • Lincoln, Buick, and Mercury were among the top five brands in reliability — beating Toyota and Honda.
  • Ford and Cadillac also achieved better than average dependability ratings.
  • Nissan, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Scion all received much worse than average ratings.
  • Only two European brands, Porsche and Mercedes, were rated above the industry average.
  • Car reliability has been steadily improving for several years. The 2010 survey measured 155 car problems per hundred (PP100) vehicles, versus 167 problems in 2009 and 206 problems in 2008.
The Big Reliability Winners: Porsche, Lincoln, Buick, Lexus, and Mercury

Porsche was the biggest reliability winner this year. Their cars went from 150 maintenance problems per hundred for the 2006 models to 110 for the 2007 models (figures adjusted slightly for statistical differences). Of course, Porsche is a low volume brand so a few supportive owners can make a difference in the ratings.

Lincoln did almost as well cutting their problems per hundred by 33 to move to the number two spot. Buick, Lexus and Mercury also made dependability gains but these brands have been tops in reliability for several years.

The study also tracks individual models in their particular market segment. For instance Toyota had 4 models that won their segment, including the Prius and Tundra. Honda had 3 winners, Lincoln two.

Reliability and the American Car Makers

American cars have gotten a rap over the years when it comes to reliability. This study may start to change that perception, especially for Ford. Ford's Lincoln and Mercury brands made the top five and the Ford brand improved its score by 18 points to jump to number eight, just behind Toyota and Honda.

The GM brands didn't fare as well. GMC and Chevy models improved year over year in terms of visits to the shop but are still rated below the industry average. Cadillac is slightly better than average but its PP100 figure lost ground this year. Buick was the GM standout, tying Lexus for third place overall.

Chrysler and its Dodge brand are well below the industry average and don't seem to be moving.

The Perception of Reliability, Toyota and the Asian Brands

With the recent Toyota recall, the idea that Asian brands are inherently more reliable is being reconsidered. For years, Toyota topped the Vehicle Dependability Study and consistently captured the most segment and brand reliability awards (along with Lexus). So what happened?

At number six on the reliability study, Toyota is still solidly dependable but other brands are catching up. And while Toyota's overall PP100 mark was essentially flat (improving from 129 to 128), Mercury passed it with a score of 121 and Honda is closing in on Toyota with a 132 rating (a gain of 16 points).

Another winner is Hyundai. Hyundai used to be the industry's reliability joke. Now they're almost on a par with Acura with a score of 148.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that an Asian corporate address equates to quality. But Infiniti and Subaru are just average in dependability. Nissan, Mazda, Scion, and Mitsubishi are way below average. And Suzuki? You don't even want to go there.

The Luxury Car Segment

In almost every year since 1990, Lexus has taken the lead spot in brand reliability. Each year they win segment categories in the J.D. Power's study. They continue to beat their key competitors, but this year Mercedes is catching up. The Mercedes problems per hundred score went from 184 in the 2009 study to 142 this year. They must be doing something right.

Acura, Honda's luxury brand, came in at #10 on the J.D. Power list, just behind Mercedes. Other brands in the luxury market don't seem to have the same focus on reliability though. Infiniti actually lost ground this year to turn in an industry-average showing.

BMW and Audi seem not to care. BMW was well below the industry average with 165 problems per hundred vehicles. Audi was even worse with 182 PP100. You'd think that for 50 or 60K you could get a car that's more reliable than a Hyundai. Porsche obviously feels that performance and reliability go hand in hand. Maybe eventually the other luxury brands will follow suit.

More and more consumers are realizing that reliability affects their lives, impacting their finances, their driving experience, even their safety. There's no denying that car reliability is a challenge to achieve. But clearly the car companies are rising to that challenge. Unfortunately America's driving public hasn't caught up to the current reality.

The Study

The J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study measures reliability problems experienced by original owners of their three-year-old vehicles. The current study was of 2007 cars and measures the number of repair problems reported during the previous 12 months. Over 52,000 owners were surveyed for the 2010 study.

Reliability is a key factor in helping owners decide if they will repurchase a brand or switch to a car that has a better repair rate. For this reason, the J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study is closely watched in the industry — and by car owners who want to drive a car more and repair it less.

Link to JD Power press release

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