CR's Car Reliability Survey Reveals Shuffles in Brand and Model Rankings

It’s easy to assess the style, spaciousness, and features of a new vehicle in a showroom. You can even take it out for a spin to see whether its performance is up to your expectations. But there’s no way to test drive a vehicle’s reliability. For that, you need time and data. So every year we send Consumer Reports subscribers our Annual Auto Reliability Survey to determine which vehicles are likely to be dependable and which ones are an invitation to years of headaches.

This year we gathered data on more than half a million vehicles, covering more than 300 models from 2000 to 2016, plus a few early 2017s. With that much information, Consumer Reports can predict the future reliability of established models. We can also make predictions on new or redesigned models based on similar models and brand history.

Car Reliability Trends

  • First, the least surprising news: Toyota and Lexus topped our list of the most reliable brands again. Toyota uses tried-and-true methods to build its vehicles, taking a conservative, evolutionary approach.
  • Buick moves into the top three brands this year. Its core product line is mature, with most problems having been ironed out. But Buick has introduced several new vehicles, which could have an impact on future brand performance.
  • Subaru dropped out of the top 10 reliable brands because of multiple problems in the Legacy sedan and Outback wagon, which now have average reliability. The drop was compounded by the WRX/STi falling to below average reliability.
  • Tesla’s Model S has improved to average reliability, which now makes the electric car one of our recommended models. But its new Model X SUV has been plagued with malfunctions, including its complex Falcon-wing doors. Both vehicles can be upgraded to include Tesla’s optional semi-autonomous Autopilot software, which can allow the car to maintain lane position, speed, and following distances on its own.
  • Consumer Reports has serious concerns about how some automakers, including Tesla, have designed, deployed, and marketed semi-autonomous technology. We believe automakers need to clearly communicate what these systems can and cannot do. To that end, we have identified models in our ratings that offer semi-autonomous features.

More From Consumer Reports

Lessons From CR's Annual Auto Reliability Survey

If you study reliability as long as we have, you start to notice recurring themes. Those are general principles that cut across pretty much all models and brands, and serve as good advice for anyone in the market for a new vehicle. Here are three key insights.

Lesson 1: Don't Just Shop by Brand

Not all vehicles in a brand lineup are created equally. In fact, most are a mixed bag. Infiniti, for instance, has products that stretch from a best score of 91 for the Q70 sedan down to a lowly 33 for the QX60. Ford’s Expedition SUV is impressive, but the Fiesta and Focus have persistent reliability issues. And Audi is in the top five brands, but its small A3 ranked below average.

Lesson 2: Wait a Year or Two Before Buying a New or Redesigned Model

It’s true that a few brands, like Lexus and Toyota, have lines that are consistently reliable, but even they can launch a few clunkers. The redesigned Tacoma pickup was unreliable in its first year, and it took three years after being redesigned for the Ford Escape to improve to average reliability. It can take years for an automaker to work out the kinks. When a car model is brand new or “completely redesigned,” that can mean new parts, new systems—and new problems.

Lesson 3: Increased Complexity Equals Increased Problems

It’s also wise to avoid complicated new systems. In the past few years, Ford introduced its troublesome MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch infotainment systems, as well as a dual-clutch automated transmission in its Fiesta and Focus that also had significant problems. Honda and Acura owners told us they have been stymied by problematic infotainment systems and transmissions as well. For Ford and Honda, models with less complex infotainment systems or proven transmissions fared far better.

Our Expert Predictions of Reliability for 2017 Cars

Consumer Reports' Annual Auto Reliability Survey is the largest of its kind. This year we gathered detailed data from our digital and print subscribers on more than half a million vehicles. Our survey takes a deep dive into the numerous things that can go wrong with a vehicle. We study 17 trouble areas, from nuisances, such as squeaky brakes and broken interior trim, to major bummers, such as out-of-warranty transmission repairs or trouble with four-wheel-drive systems.

We weight the severity of each type of problem to create a Predicted Reliability Score for each vehicle. That score is then combined with data collected from our track testing, as well as our owner-satisfaction survey results and safety data, to calculate each test vehicle's Overall Score.

Our new survey has probed deeper than ever before to get a more complete picture of vehicle dependability. Previously, we collected information on 10 years of history for each model. To better reflect the longer service life of modern cars, we've gone back 16 years.

We also now have the confidence to predict reliability for new and redesigned models. For obvious reasons, reliability data for those models is limited. But by combining what we know about the reliability of the brand with detailed information about previous models, we can give a rating for models that are new to the market.

New this year, we converted the Predicted Reliability Score from a percentage better or worse than average to a 0 to 100 point scale. This makes it easier to compare different models. The average rating now ranges from 41 to 60, with better than average and worse than average spanning 20 points on either side of that range.

Our predictions for the 2017 models are based on the frequency of problems for each car for the past three model years, provided the vehicle wasn't changed significantly in that time. Some ratings might be based on a single model year’s data; those vehicles are marked with an asterisk (*).

We hope this information can help you make a more informed decision on your next new-car purchase.

Who's In and Who's Out

Our recommendations are based on: our road-test scores; predicted reliability and owner-satisfaction data from our Annual Auto Survey; and independent safety testing. The recommendations may change from year to year based on the latest information available. Here we list models that are either newly recommended or no longer recommended based on our newest reliability data.

Newly Recommended
Models with improved reliability

BMW i3
Cadillac XTS*
Chevrolet Camaro*
Chevrolet Corvette
Chevrolet Cruze*
Chrysler 300
Ford Escape
Hyundai Santa Fe
Mercedes-Benz GLC*
Porsche Macan
Tesla Model S

No Longer Recommended
Models with declining reliability

Audi A3
Chevrolet Volt
Dodge Durango
Ford F-150
Honda Civic*
Lincoln MKX*
Mini Cooper
Subaru WRX/STi
Volkswagen GTI
Volkswagen Jetta
Volkswagen Passat

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the December 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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