Are American Cars Reliable, And Does it Even Matter?

Are American Cars Reliable, And Does it Even Matter?

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


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Infernus

    After trying BMW 3 series, Few Toyotas and Dodge Charger I have to say that American cars are really good. Right now I own a 2015 Dodge Charger R/T Scat Pack with a 489hp 6.4l V8 and it’s cost is almost same as my sisters BMW 328i xDrive Sedan which comes with a puny 2.0l 4 cyl engine with weak ass 240hp power output and believe me my Charger packs more bang for the buck compared to her overpriced and overhyped BMW. My sister who works in a big corporate company often labels Charger drivers like me as reckless and hooligan but seriously I know all those BMW owners are shithead elitists who don’t know a thing about cars, the very sound of my Charger makes her puny BMW cower in fear, although I respect her choice of car because she has kids and family but still then all these BMW owners are elitist assholes. American cars for life….m/

  • Infernus

    My Dad owns a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle Sedan and it still runs good as new.

  • Infernus

    You are right buddy, my Dodge Charger is much better than any Jap-crap and overpriced BMW.

  • Infernus

    And those Mercedes Benz cars are way overrated.

  • Infernus

    The only cars I find to be better than American cars are the Italian cars like Maserati, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Alfa Romeo but they cost shitload of money. A normal person can only dream of buying those beauties.

  • Infernus

    Go for a Dodge or Ford they are reliable, reliability of Chevys have gone quite downhill nowadays.

  • richulsm

    240hp out of a 2.0L? Sounds pretty awesome to me.

  • Richie Roads

    In 15 years I’ve used 3 mechanics, they tell me to avoid American cars (except SUVs) because they are more unreliable and cost more to fix because of the way things are laid out under the hood. I’ve owned an 89 Oldsmobile Cutlass (bought at 80000 miles, died at 90000), an 89 Ford Escort (90000, 120000), a 97 Honda Civic (60000, 210000), a 97 Mercedez C230 (55000, sold at 175000). My wife had a 2001 Toyota RAV4 that she bought brand new in 2001, we just sold it after it clocked 200000 miles. My Honda Civic, the RAV4, and the C230 have never had to be towed. The Ford and Oldsmobile, on the other had, were towed more times than I can count with my fingers.

  • Marcus Fleury

    I guess everyone has forgotten about the old crown vics and the Mercury grand marquis, Marauder, and lincoln town cars. All the important parts (engine, transmission) were rock solid and many police stations mourn the passing of the Crown Victoria.

  • Marcus Fleury

    Funny. You chose the only cars that are LESS reliable than american ones.

  • Jonny_Vancouver

    These articles about reliability must be tough to write. I appreciate them. I agree with this one, it seems domestic automakers suffer a lot of ups and downs and playing catch up, whereas the Japenese automakers have seemed pretty consistent in terms of reliability and fuel economy (taking my own experience into account). While I see a few cars by domestic and Euro auto makers that I think would be cool to own within their warranty period, right now I’d only consider owning Japanese for “no more car payments long term ownership” and would just lease the rest. Which is kinda sad 🙁

  • Jonny_Vancouver

    Solid perhaps, but overly large, unwieldy and wasteful beasts. Not only of oil, and gas, but also of space or a lack there of to use the space they had more efficiently. As space becomes more of a premium in cities especially, and the cost of gas constantly rising, I think it was only a matter of time and natural progression that big, heavy, American cars went the way of the dodo bird, no matter how solid or reliable they were. How about a 300hp AWD four door Yaris as a police car? Now that would be something. Who ever said you needed a big car to catch the bad guys?

  • Jonny_Vancouver

    Lol! From the horse’s mouth right there.

  • Jonny_Vancouver


  • Marcus Fleury


  • Okay

    My father’s ’98 Nissan Sentra ran until 230k miles with only a starter and an alternator replaced at around 190k. He did not keep up with maintenance well, and its head gasket blown at 230k, probably due to low coolant.

  • Okay

    I disagree. When your labor cost is double your competitors, you have to cut corners in materials and design to keep the price competitive. So highly paid union workers do indirectly affect the quality of the cars built there.

  • Jon

    I wonder how much you or anyone else mocking american cars actually know about automobiles or engines in general? I haven’t heard you (or anyone else) give a single reason why american cars are less reliable, just fallacies that lack any true mechanical reasoning.

    Let’s compare Sports cars – after all, they are the true measure of a manufacturers engineering abilities.

    lets take the 2015 Corvette Zo6 – the vette has a 6.2L pushrod supercharged V-8 engine that produces 650HP and 650 ft lbs of torque, all without revving past 6200 rpms. If you think a 3-4Lforeign job revving past 8k RPMs to create less power is both more reliable and more efficient, then you need to take an engineering course….. But anyway, The Vettes power train technologies don’t end there, it can deactivate 4 of its cylinders while in “Eco” mode to achieve over 30mpg on the highway. Pretty cool when a 3500lbs Vette with 650hp can achieve the same gas mileage as the 3000lbs 200hp civic….but let’s move on.

    The Vette’s far more than a big powerful highly sophisticated engine, it’s an engineering marvel from bumper to bumper. The “space” frame is fully aluminum and stiffer than that of the ferrari 458, Porsche 911 and the Nissan GTR’s while also being lighter. It’s makes more downforce at 150mph than anyother car ever tested on a wind tunnel, it stops from 60-0 in 90ft and it has suspension, brake and chassis components that are regarded as the best in the industry (Brembo brakes, eibach springs, carbon splitters, roof, hood and body panels, mag ride control, ect).

    Now Vettes in the past have always been criticized for lacking in interior quality, which has now been fully addressed. The entire cabin is wrapped in soft leathers, soft touch plastics and the technology features approach luxury sedan levels.

    The fact that this car can be had for 100k in its top level trim with every available option is astonishing. The Fact that it comes with a 5yr/100k mile warranty is mind blowing. Show me a Porsche, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, ferrari, Lexus or BMW that can compete with that? They simply can’t .

    Now that’s just one car, but the same argument can be made for just about every American car these days when it comes to class comparisions. We offer the largest range of vehicle selection and we now can do it without sacrificing on initial quality. Anyone who still goes by the stigma that American cars are inferior, simply is living in the past.

  • nioncobra

    Still, I own a 2004 Birch Silver Marauder and couldn’t be happier. Like Marcus said, the panthers are very reliable, although saying they aren’t wasteful would be lying.

  • Tom

    Recalls – yes they are annoying and no doubt American cars could be doing better.

    But reliability is also about the ability to clock in high mileage without any maintenance apart from regular fluid changes/top-ups and tire rotation and brake pad replacement (this one shouldn’t need to be done THAT often though). The car should not break down while in motion, or have its trunk closer fail and leave the trunk un-openable, or have its air suspension fail and cause the car to list to one side until it’s fixed.

    At one point German cars were indeed much more reliable than American cars from that perspective. The Japanese, needless to say, had and still have the top spots.

    But in recent years, American cars have surged ahead of any European make when it comes to that definition of reliability. I’ve had a last gen Fusion with no mechanical or electrical issues in 6 years – at 120,000 km I traded it for a new hybrid current-gen Fusion and it’s also been running great without issues. No check engine lights, no lights failing, no wipers failing, and the fancy electronic gizmos like parking sensors are all in good order.

    All my friends who own German cars have had fuel pumps or water pumps needing replacement in less than 2 years, and check engine lights galore, and fancy electronic luxury features short out. The most impressive problem was a windshield wiper on a BMW failing and colliding with the other one, tearing it right off during a storm. One friend in particular is kicking himself after replacing an Acura (which went for 13 years and 300,000 km with zero issues) with a brand-new fully loaded VW Touareg diesel that has seen 8 problems and over 20 dealer visits in 2 years, and now the diesel scandal has left him unable to resell it without taking a loss that would make Fords seem like an investment.

    In Europe, where Asian brands have historically had a difficult time penetrating, Ford (along with GM’s subsidiaries like Opel and Vauxhall) are selling very well as “regular reliable” cars for the masses, and even managed to steal some luxury market share (i.e. loaded trims of the Mondeo or the Insignia).

    American brands were crap, but now have a well-deserved second place.

  • Charger

    dodge is the best

  • charger

    dodges are great. I love them.