Home / Auto News / News article: Are American Cars Reliable, And Does it Even Matter? - AutoGuide.com News
 |  Feb 04 2013, 2:31 PM

It’s 2013, but stereotypes of American vehicles from the ‘70s still linger in the automotive industry, with buyers wondering if domestic cars can ever be as reliable as imports.

Over the past six years, annual report cards from Consumer Reports indicate that domestic automakers are sitting among the bottom of the pack in terms of reliability and satisfaction ratings. Out of a score of 100, the big three domestic automakers average a score of just 55.7. Individually, Ford ranks the highest, with an unimpressive average score of 63.1 over the same time period, with GM averaging 56.1 and Chrysler averaging a simply abysmal 48.

J.D. Power also shows that a number of domestic automakers have below the industry average numbers in regards to problems per 100 vehicles. Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram are the worst according to the 2012 J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability study, with GMC and Chevrolet also performing below the industry average.

Additionally, cars from these manufacturers don’t get the nod from Consumer Reports, with the percentage of recommended vehicles per year often dipping below 50%. It’s a little worrying when Chrysler as a whole, had 0 cars recommended in 2009.


2013-Ford-Fusion-Hybrid-front-3q-snow.JPGOne important factor in looking at the reliability of these cars comes with the amount of recalls that are issued. For example, Ford announced serious recalls for the latest models of the Ford Escape and Fusion, two all-new vehicles in highly competitive markets. The compact Chevrolet Cruze also had a worrying fire-related recall, which affected every single model sold. Missteps like these seem to be common for domestic automakers.

“It just shows that many of the domestic automakers have teething issues with their new products,” says Anita Lam, chief automotive statistician at Consumer Reports. Lam points out that these domestic automakers tend to have issues early in a new car’s lifetime, which then get fixed in the following updates. “The product then gets to a good point of reliability,” says Lam, but it’s a vicious cycle as they then have to, “undergo a redesign or add better performance, and the reliability dips again.”

Lam explains that these issues aren’t the only sore spot with domestic automakers. Consumer Reports finds significant issues in regards to build quality. “We saw significant gaps and problems with door alignment during testing,” she says. This lines up well with what J.D. Power reports in its annual Quality Ratings by brands with domestic automakers like Dodge and Ford having the lowest possible ratings in overall quality.

There also seems to be a bit of an issue when an automaker tries to jump ahead. Lam points to new technology like MyFord Touch, which is cool, but riddled with bugs, usability issues and required updates which tarnish the lustre of high-tech innovation.

The same can be said about Ford’s PowerShift transmission, which introduced dual-clutch technology to its economy cars. However, performance and reliability was far below expectations, and Ford’s reliability ratings suffered.


Not everyone shares the viewpoint offered by Consumer Reports and J.D. Power. Karl Brauer of Total Car Score, seems to hint that the domestic-bashing is a bit of a fad, with no real basis today.

“It really started in the early 1970s,” explains Brauer. “Build quality (along with fuel efficiency and even styling) for domestic cars suddenly couldn’t compete with the rush of Japanese (and to a less extent, Europeans) cars entering the U.S. market,” he says.

SEE ALSO: Are German Cars Reliable? The Myth of “German Engineering”

Looking at the scores of domestic vehicles on Total Car Score, there doesn’t seem to be any hint that domestic vehicles are unsatisfactory, prone to break-downs or terrible to drive. Looking at the site’s ratings of the latest compacts, the Buick Verano tops the list with a score that ekes out the Subaru Impreza and Volkswagen Golf. Looking further down the list and other American products like the Chevy Cruze, Dodge Dart and Ford Focus stand out above imports like the Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte and Mitsubishi Lancer. With these ranking in mind, Brauer argues that past mishaps from domestic automakers are still fresh in the minds of buyers.

“The oil embargo and resulting fuel price spikes of 1973 really highlighted the gas guzzling nature of big American cars while giving the smaller Japanese cars a sudden advantage because of their fuel efficiency,” Brauer states. “Since that time, the Japanese have continued to sell highly fuel efficient and well built cars in the U.S. (with a few notable exceptions), while the U.S. automakers have had to play catch up in both areas.”

Brauer points to the SUV craze of the 1990s and 2000s. He argues that back then, the domestic automakers ceded the car market to the imports in an effort to nab more profit margins by selling more trucks and SUVs. However, when gas prices spiked again in 2005, no buyers were interested in fuel hungry SUVs and the popular domestic vehicles were left behind. The smaller cars that domestic automakers rushed out to meet the demands of consumers were not as well built as the competition from imports. Domestic vehicles from that that time were certainly behind the market leaders from Japanese automakers.

Brauer also argues that recalls aren’t that significant in the grand scheme of things.

“The all-new Ford Fusion is an excellent car overall, though it did have some recalls during launch that reflect a need for Ford to further improve its QA process for all-new cars,” he says. “The same situation existed for the new Ford Escape. It’s a great crossover in general, but it had too many recalls during launch.”

“In the long run these recalls don’t matter nearly as much as the vehicle’s styling, handling, fuel efficiency and price/value equation, so those two models should still prove to be a great sellers for Ford,” he says.

Still, there’s no question that domestic automakers like Ford are still playing catch-up. “To be on par with the Japanese, Korean and European automakers they shouldn’t have had so many recalls on two very important all-new models.” explains Brauer.

However, if the numbers of recalls indicate an automaker’s quality and reliability, the import market isn’t immune to large scale recalls.

This year Toyota topped the number of recalled vehicles in the US, making it three years out of the past four that Toyota took the top spot in this shameful ranking. It’s also worth noting that the automaker sitting in second place is (the usually regarded as reliable) Honda. Even with the high number of recalls, these two automakers are regularly regarded as having top reliability scores, meaning that they aren’t as big of an issue in the long run.

SEE ALSO: Toyota Lead Number of Recalled Vehicles in 2012

Following the two big Japanese automakers is GM, Ford and Chrysler, with Ford being recognized as having the most recall campaigns this year.


Consumer Reports’ Lam explains that there is a bright spot when it comes to domestic automakers. “We also conduct owner’s satisfaction surveys, which indicate that buyers don’t seem to care who makes the car, as long as it meets their expectations.”

One market-segment that sees a lot of positive results is the green car segment. “Chevrolet Volt owners, for example, love their car,” she says. “Ninety-two percent of them would buy another one.”


She also explains that gas-guzzling V8 muscle cars and performance cars, like the Dodge Charger, Chrysler 300C and Chevrolet Corvette get above average satisfaction marks from owners. “There are expectations of performance, and these cars really come through,” she says.

Brauer agrees that the work domestic automakers are putting in on alternative fuel technology is paying off, remarking on the Chevy Volt, upcoming Cadillac ELR, Ford C-Max as well as the Fusion Hybrid and Energi vehicles. “It seems like the domestics understand not only the need for good current product but constant innovation on future product,” Brauer says.

Other areas of technology are also being looked at more critically by the automaker. “The work we’re already seeing from Cadillac’s CUE system, Ford’s Sync and Chrysler’s Uconnect Access suggests they understand this important area and won’t let themselves fall behind,” says Brauer. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, both Ford and GM announced initiatives to bring more connection, innovation and apps to their infotainment systems.

Like German vehicles, despite the tough reliability scores, domestic automakers tend to rank highly in a the Automotive Performance, Execution & Layout (APEAL) rankings with American brands sitting around the industry average in JD Power’s annual study.

It’s hard to ignore the glaring recalls and low numbers of recommended vehicles by consumer publications, though it seems the buying public is doing just that, instead favoring other factors and making cars like the Ford Focus the sixth best selling car in America in 2012.

  • Pingpongwizard


  • http://www.CheersandGears.com Oldsmoboi

    Toyota just recalled another 1 million cars last month.  Is anyone reliable?

  • Kent Brockman

    Think they’ll add Fisker and Tesla to the “unreliable” list of domestic cars?

  • Danny

    I’ve put 57,000 miles on my 2010 Toyota RAV4 without any mechical problems at all.  However, the amount of recalls for my car from Toyota is still unnerving.  You’d think a company like Toyota would’ve done enough research and testing before releasing their cars upon the public.  Btw, while my RAV4 is utterly reliable, the body hardware is filled with rattles and creaks.  After buying 4 brand-new Toyotas in 10 years for my family, I’m done with the company as its quality slides lower and lower.

    I wonder what kind of car Anita Lam drives?

  • Bntvnn

    CR sale their magazine to Japanese buyers. Who buy that magazine? The one who belive that Japanese are better. And who will respond to their survey those who bauht the magazine. A dog who chase it’s tale. I own a Ford Focus and the transmission is grate and My Ford Touch does better than the competitors. A friend of mine got an Acura an the system in it seam so archaic compare to mine that if MyFord… is so bad this one is a calamity, but CR do not have the eye to see it, because “love is blind”and they love Japanese.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/7JGTFFHT66UINFXOC22YPWI4BU A

    Subaru has the reliability crown, but their lineup and sales volume is relatively small.  The stories of Accords and Corollas hitting 500k+ miles are many.  Similar stories of Malibus or Neons… never heard any.   How nice your touch screen is compared to a firend’s Acura means nothing in reliability terms.

  • Drewsiph87

    What is not mentioned about the Cruze’s “Fire recall” is that the fire was caused by the vehicle in any of the reported cases. This was not a mechanical malfunction that did it, the fires were happening when  some one would perform an oil change and not clean up any oil spillage that may have collected on the splash shield of the engine. This would then catch fire if the oil residue got to hot. That recall was simply due to sloppy maintenance work, NOT a defect of the vehicle. To prove that this is what happened the “recall” to fix the problem was that GM simply cut the middle section out of the Cruze’s splash guards. They did not change ANY mechanical parts in the car.

  • http://www.montway.com/ Montway Auto Transport

    I dont think that the American car stigma will go away until American automakers consistently produce vehicles with less recalls, and cars that last TO (and beyond) the 100K, 150K mark as easily as foreign vehicles do. Yes, there are recalls on foreign automakers as well, but the reality is that foreign vehicles seem to hold up much better at high mileage than American cars have in the past.

  • maxwell_2

    I owned 1 Toyota and that was enough, never again.  A friend had a RAV4 and like Dany here it was a rattle box, but hers not that reliable on top of that.  I have no faith in JD Powers and less and less for CR as they blatantly omit stuff, does the latest edition even mention Toyota door fires, but they still get the nod.  

  • Zasracer

    We have 5 Toyota’s in the family, 3 Tundra’s, 1 RAV4-6cyl, 1 Camry. We had little problems with any of them. Some of the recalls were “prevension type – just in case” I thank Toyota for that. What most poeple don’t do is MAITANANCE. You have to take care of your vehicle. Nothing is perfect. Before buying any of the vehicle’s we did extensive research and comparisons.

  • NeverRideSlowly

    I have a 1989 Mercedes-Benz 300SE with 235,000 miles – still running great….

  • Reactionism_failed

    I’ve owned several GMs and they were all crap. My Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans are all far better machines.

  • http://www.alldayautotransport.com/ All Day Auto Transport

    American auto makers will always be known for power and sturdy cars but foreign makers will always have the longer lasting more fuel efficient rides

  • Acars

    I own two VW’s. They have been the least reliable car I have ever owned. I have owned every German brand car and I will not buy another German car. In fact when I see some one drive a German car I smile. Once the vehicle is off of warranty, the cost of repairs are higher than the car is worth. Look at German reliability ratings and it speaks for itself. Most I know buy these cars because of past history and do not do their research and suffer the price of owning one.

  • Lannie

    I’ve never owned a GM that did NOT make it past 300,000 miles. Every one of them very reliable. Two Fords that made it less than 30K without major issues. Never owned a foreign one so I cannot comment on them.

  • hailexiao

    Even at the nadir of GM quality in the 80s, their cars ran like crap, but they ran like crap forever.

  • hailexiao

    Plenty of Regals, Grand Prixes, 300s, Mustangs, and Panthers have made it to 500k though. RWD domestics are generally bulletproof, although FWDs are a mixed bag.

  • Daryl Victoriano

    I owned a Honda Element that I traded in cause after 48k miles, the transmission started having issues. Now I own a Toyota Camry, put almost 150k on it and have driven it across the country with no issues. My next car will probably be another Toyota, but I’m defiantly interested in Ford as well. That new Fusion design has caught my eye

  • Carlos Guerra

    You are ignorant and foolish to even mention that a car made by a union or non-union shop is what makes it reliable.The people who put the cars together have very little impact on what makes a car reliable. That is sadly determined more by the bean counters than the engineers most of the time.

  • Carlos Guerra

    Honda, Toyota and Subaru are the most reliable year in and year out. Of course with every car there are exceptions. Had a CRV for 5 years and 110K milles without a single problem. y parents owned an 89 Camry that needed a rebuilt tranny after 11 years and 100K but nothing else. My brother had a Acura RDX and had tons of problems with rubber seals falling off the doors, bad strut, transmission and turbo replaced, all in less than 40K miles. The C in the Acura even fell off the day the day he brought it home!

    I owned a Nissan and know a few people that do. They are a POS. They seem to make things last until just after the warranty expires so you are out of luck on repairs. Not even going to discuss the issues they have had and are having with their CVT transmissions. German cars are notorious for electrical problems. Range Rovers and Jaguar make some of the most expensive mainstream cars and are always at the bottom in terms of realiabilty. Of course, with all of these mfr you will hear a bunch of people that say they have 100K-120K without a problem. You will be hard pressed to find a car/truck today that will not last 200K or more, the difference is how much time and money you are going to spend on repairs. I have a Subaru now, too new to determine reliability, and Chevy Traverse. The Chevy has been a complete POS. I have been to the dealer 9 times in the 3 years I have owned it to do repairs, usually having to go back a second time because they have to order parts. Not sure I will get another Chevy.