The Most and Least Reliable Automotive Brands

A recent survey of automotive brands by Consumer Reports suggests that reliability –- good and bad -- runs deeper than the engineering department.

Charles Murray

December 9, 2016

16 Slides

When a vehicle exhibits poor reliability, it’s easy to blame the design engineer.

But that may ignore a larger problem.

A recent survey of automotive brands by Consumer Reports suggests that reliability -- good and bad -- runs deeper than the engineering department. In most cases, it can be traced all the way back to the manufacturer’s corporate philosophy. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the engineers at Chrysler, Tesla, and Toyota are all very smart and capable,” Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, told Design News. “The difference lies in the priorities set by the management of those companies.”

Indeed, corporate priorities spell the difference between reliable and unreliable brands, Consumer Reports says. Using data on more than half a million vehicles, including 300 models from 2000 to 2016, the organization predicted the future reliability of established models. And, because corporate philosophy matters, fleet averages played a big role in those predictions.

That’s why Toyota vehicles are consistently at or near the top of the organization’s massive owner surveys, while Chryslers and Fiats consistently bring up the rear, Fisher said.

Fisher contends that automakers who place a high value on tried-and-true technologies, as opposed to complex, high-tech gadgetry, do better in reliability. “With Toyota, we don’t see a lot of small displacement turbos,” he said. “We don’t see a lot of dual clutch transmissions. Those are the technologies that are bogging down some of the other manufacturers.”

Not surprisingly, manufacturers who “nickel-and-dime” their suppliers also suffer in owner surveys, Fisher said. That’s because suppliers who deal with big, high-volume automakers will always aim to please. “An automaker can go to a supplier and say, ‘We want the water pump with the lowest price,’” he said. “Or they can say, ‘We want the part with a simulated life of 300,000 miles.’ Suppliers will meet whatever criteria they’re being judged on.”

The simple takeaway from the Consumer Reports study is that product reliability improves when manufacturers care about -- product reliability. That’s why, for the second straight year, Consumer Reports engineers factored fleet averages into their predictions of future models. When forecasting reliability, a top-down emphasis matters, they said.

“It’s about the common practices of the manufacturers and the consistency of the brands,” Fisher told us. “You can judge a lot about a manufacturer by looking at the quality of their fleet.”

The slideshow above shows the eight best and eight worst automotive brands, as judged by more than half a million owner-respondents, and as compiled by Consumer Reports. The brand ratings provide a convincing snapshot of how corporate philosophy drives product reliability. Scroll through the slides to see the best and worst nameplates.

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 32 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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