Gap has Narrowed
“Traditionally, Toyota and Honda are leading in terms of reliability and durability,” says Renee Stephens, vice president of automotive quality research at J.D. Power. “Lexus for example, has been on top of the durability ratings for 15 of the past 18 years.”
But Stephens explains that the gap has narrowed lately. This year, Daimler leads the charts, and GM is sitting in fourth place. Are the Japanese automakers slipping?
“Not exactly,” says Stephens, “but vehicles (from other brands) are improving year over year.” The industry as a whole has been improving she says. “Looking at tech and electronic in all cars, there used to be 155 problems per 100 vehicles,” Stephens says. “Now it’s down to 133 problems per 100 vehicles in 2014.”
Hanging on to Lead
Consumer Reports has a similar finding. Other vehicles are improving, but it’s still the Japanese brands that hold a strong lead. Of the 10 most reliable cars Consumer Reports lists, nine are from Toyota, Lexus or Scion. Furthermore Lexus, Toyota, Mazda and Honda hold the top four spots in the publication’s automaker reliability report.
If you look at the full list of the most reliable cars, 92 percent of them are from Japanese automakers.
Reliability not Region Specific
“Overall, Japanese manufacturers have been making very reliable vehicles, especially those from Toyota and Lexus,” says Anita Lam from Consumer Reports’ Automotive Data team. “But it doesn’t mean all Japanese models are reliable.”
According to Consumer Reports, Nissan and its Infiniti luxury brand are struggling.“Nissan hasn’t been a standout for years,” the latest reliability report reads. “The redesigned Rogue managed an average reliability score, but the Altima, Pathfinder, and Sentra all did poorly.” Infiniti is equally unimpressive. Both the Q50 sedan and QX60 crossover had “more than their fair share of problems,” the report says.
Even Acura’s rating declined in large part because two very reliable cars – the TL and TSX – retired while the newly introduced RLX sedan and redesigned MDX SUV were merely average in their first year, according to the survey.
“Your odds might be better with the Japanese automakers,” says Lam but it’s certainly not a surefire bet. If you’re looking for your best chances, the publication clearly singles out Toyota and Lexus cars as the best.
How did They Come to be so Good?
“[They] strive to building vehicles of high quality rather than excitement,” says Lam. “One reason why they can achieve this high reliability is, perhaps, they introduce new technologies slowly and on proven platforms.”
Look at how Toyota still manages to sell cars with ancient four-speed automatic transmissions or engines that have been in use for several years. “Their redesigns are seldom a drastic change from previous [products]” says Lam.
Consumer Reports even noted that the most reliable cars aren’t necessarily the best cars to own. The Scion xB won the “most reliable” rating, but even the folks at CR admit that the car suffers from poor fuel economy and an unrefined powertrain. The same concern goes to the Toyota Tundra, which wins the title for most reliable truck but lacks many of the features competing trucks offer.
“[In] contrast, other manufacturers will redesign or launch a new model from [the ground] up, and introduce new technology at the same time,” says Lam. These new generation models can be a headache for reliability, but automakers tend to patch things up in following years.
That follows the longstanding advice of never buying a first generation product. But very few of the products Toyota and Lexus sell are totally new. Even the latest Toyota Camry, with 2,000 new parts, still sports the same drivetrain as the last generation product from 2007.
The new Corolla also offers the same engine and transmissions as the last generation model although a new revised version of the engine with direct injection is also offered, mated to a new CVT.
The company clearly shows restraint in changing its products, which helps preserve its high reliability rating.
Few automakers maintain such a slow pace in adopting new trends. Honda also makes very slight changes to its core vehicles as well, which help bolster its reliability ratings.
Furthermore, a company that spends more time and money engineering products to last tend not to abandon or replace them quickly.
Stephens sums it up nicely. “Devotion to quality and reliability isn’t region specific,” She says. “It’s a brand mentality.”