Are German Cars Reliable? The Myth of “German Engineering”

Are German Cars Reliable? The Myth of “German Engineering”

There are a lot of car stereotypes out there, like that Toyota builds dull appliances. While true on many fronts, the Japanese automaker does also make exciting sporty cars like the Scion FR-S, and Lexus LFA, both praised for their exhilarating rides, edgy styling and pulse-raising performance. But there’s another stereotype that needs to be dealt with.

Likely you’ve heard the phrase “German engineering” more than a few times in your life and there’s a popular misconception that it equals good reliability. German cars are well engineered, sometimes to be amazing performance machines and sometimes to be incredibly high-tech (and often both) but, Porsche aside, German cars don’t have the best track record for reliability.

A REPUTATION EARNED

Part of the reason for the misconception about German engineering is that German automakers did, at one time, earn it. When Consumer Reports started its Long-Term Reliability Tests and Initial Quality Index tests way back in 1972, German brands like Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz came out on top. The initial quality of even the lowly VW Beetle topped many domestic vehicles from Ford, Jeep, Pontiac and Mercury.

For a while afterwards, Mercedes and VW managed to stay near the top in reliability rankings. But their Japanese rivals weren’t sitting idly-by. In the 1980s and 90s the most reliable models ended up coming from Honda, Toyota, Acura, Infiniti and Lexus.

“Back then, the cars like the Beetle were pretty simple. But then came stronger competition, the Japanese [automakers], especially Toyota and Honda got their problems per 100, down to a science,” Said Gabriel Shenhar, an automotive engineer at Consumer Reports.

A REPUTATION LOST

In the late ‘90s Mercedes had released the dismally unreliable M-Class SUV (left) and the brand’s initial quality scores have plummeted since. Other German brands had similar experiences. Even though they stayed at the forefront of new technology and engineering practices, their new gizmos were prone to failing.

“They’re quick to adapt new technologies but rely on suppliers that supply these technologies and in a lot of cases what we see is problems with the electrical systems, the entertainment systems and other interface,” said Schenhar

According to Consumer Reports, Mercedes boosted its reliability a bit in 2011, but is still inconsistent. The same can be said for Mercedes’ German competitors, Audi and BMW. In Consumer Reports last five annual reports, the last time these German brands have been above average in reliability was back in 2007. Since then, they’ve all slumped below the average in the industry.

Consumer Reports’ Long-Term Reliability test documents a car’s reliability over the course of three years, while the Initial Quality Index is based on consumer feedback from the first few months of a new cars ownership.

Consumer Reports also has a report card that ranks automakers based on their average car score, reliability score and the percentage of recommended vehicles. The average score for these carmaker report cards over the past five years (when they started the report cards) of the German brands doesn’t crack 68/100, below the industry average and the competition from the top Japanese automakers.

These results are reflected in numbers released by J.D. Power & Associates as well. In the both of the latest J.D. Power Surveys, the German brands can’t match up to their luxury peers. In the most recent vehicle dependability survey, Mercedes-Benz only gets a four out of five, which is “Better than most” rating, while Audi and BMW get 3/5 or “About Average.” Volkswagen falls below average with 2/5, what J.D. Power describes as “The Rest.” Porsche is also ranked “Better than most” in J.D. Power’s dependability survey, which give Mercedes-Benz some nice company. It’s important to note that only one car maker had a score of 5/5, and that’s Lexus.

Nothing changes in J.D. Power’s Initial Quality rankings. Mercedes and Porsche have 4/5 ratings, BMW and Audi get just 3/5 and VW only achieves 2/5. Lexus tops that ranking as well with a 5/5.

The J.D. Power ratings are based on consumer surveys. Initial Quality is measured after 90 days of a new car’s purchase. Vehicle Dependability Ratings are surveys based on the past 12 months of original owners of three-year old cars.

POOR RANKING NOT JUST ABOUT QUALITY

Some of the reasons why German cars struggle in J.D. Power’s rankings in the past are entirely trivial and are not related to actual vehicle quality at all says Karl Brauer from Total Car Score.

“German cars didn’t offer cup holders for years, and while this isn’t a mechanical failure it was often noted as a dissatisfaction point for buyers on J.D. Power and Consumer Reports surveys, and this drove down their scores” said Brauer. “Most German cars (even Porsches) now have cup-holders because the manufacturers realized they were suffering in terms of owner satisfaction scores by not having them,” he added. The same thing could be said about some of the complicated technologies and infotainment systems like BMW’s first generation iDrive system (pictured right).

SACRIFICE FOR PERFORMANCE

Along with these more trivial complaints and technology issues, Shenhar of Consumer Reports tells us that German automakers, by their own admission, sometimes come up short because of their singular focus on performance. When and if they cut costs, the likely areas that will get cheaper quality parts will be with some of the stuff the customer might not notice.

“They are susceptible to cost-cutting and anywhere they can, in the hopes that the customer won’t know, they use suppliers that will deliver and sometimes won’t,” says Shenhar.

While the phrase “German Engineering” has become synonymous with reliability, Shenhar suggests it should more accurately be a reference to performance. And in regards to performance, there’s little doubt they have some high standards. In fact, looking away from initial quality and reliability, German vehicles rank quite well.

GERMAN CARS STILL APEAL-ING

In J.D. Power’s Automotive Performance, Execution & Layout (APEAL) study, which looks at how gratifying a new vehicle is to own and drive, based on owner evaluations, Porsche comes out on top, as the only automaker to get 5/5. Audi, BMW Mercedes and VW all achieve a 4/5 in this survey as well, showing that these cars are no slouch when it comes to performance and execution.

With its new 3-series, BMW has set the bar even higher for sport sedans, and the new Porsche 911 has again solidified the automakers place in automotive history for making the best sports car in the business. It’s no surprise then that both cars were in the running as finalists for the 2012 World Car of the Year Award.

Neither won, however, but that accolade did still go to a German car: the VW up! In fact, it’s VW’s fourth win in the past five years. Winners are selected based on overall merit, value, safety, environmental responsibility, emotional appeal, and significance.

It’s clear then that there are plenty of reasons to buy a car from automakers like BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Volkswagen, but if reliability is your top concern, don’t be fooled by the myth of “German engineering”.

See page two for features on vehicle reliability: