Top 5 most reliable cars
Sure, that shiny new car looks good on the showroom floor, but if you can't trust it to get you where you are going, what good is it?
Lucky for you, vehicles are more reliable now than ever before. But that doesn't mean everything that shines is trustworthy. So, before you hit the new car lot, it might pay to take a look at what is likely to run like a top for 200,000 miles, and what will leave you with the sour taste of lemon in your mouth.
Top 5 most reliable cars
There are really two ways to look at a vehicle's reliability, says Philip Reed, consumer advice editor for automotive resource Edmunds.com.
"First and most important is does it break down and leave you stranded?" he says.
Because, no matter how good a car looks, or how many bells and whistles it has, it is primarily a mode of transportation. And if you can't trust it to get you from point A to point B, it fails in the most basic test of reliability.
The good news, he says, is that in most cases, new cars rarely leave their owners stranded roadside anymore.
"It's been pretty amazing the advances the automakers have been able to make in terms of longevity," he says. "It used to be that 100,000 miles was the end of a car, but now it is not uncommon to see double that, or more."
On the other hand, just because a car never breaks down doesn't mean it is reliable. And that is the second, less easily measured standard of reliability: Are small things constantly breaking and falling apart? And if that is the case, you may have a trusty ride, but you are not likely to be very satisfied with your purchase.
It is tempting to think that if you want a reliable car, you have to shell out a year's pay. But according to the J.D. Power & Associates Vehicle Dependability Study, that might not be the case anymore.
That study looked at the number of problems reported by 53,000 original owners of 2004-model-year cars to see how well they held up over time. And, predictably, the top automaker in terms of reliability continued to be Toyota's luxury brand, Lexus -- a title the automaker has held for more than a decade.
The surprise from that study, however, was that the gap in long-term quality between luxury and nonluxury brands has been cut in half during the past four years.
Joining luxury brands Lexus, Buick and Cadillac atop the reliability list were Mercury, Cadillac and Toyota -- hardly names associated with the tuxedo crowd. Hummer emerged in the report as the most improved brand, although it continues to rank below the industry average.
So, what does that tell us?
"You do have to do your research and you really can't just shop according to reputation," Reed says.
The problem with shopping by reputation, he says, is that what might have been true even just a few years ago may not be true anymore. And unfortunately, it takes decades for reputations to turn around and for car buyers to notice when one brand is improving, and another is slipping, Reed says.
"Carmakers seem to go through cycles where quality falls off. Then they attract attention, and they work to reverse the trend," he says. "Even well-respected brands go through this."
One such brand that has lost reliability is Mercedes-Benz, says Jonathan Linkov, managing editor of autos for Consumer Reports Magazine.
"People might be surprised to hear that," he says. "Mercedes-Benz test highly in a number of areas, and they have good safety gear and strong crash tests, but reliability has been poor. It has been down for a number of years."
Seven Mercedes-Benz vehicles, he adds, are among the least reliable vehicles, according to the annual Consumer Reports reliability survey. Nissan is another well-respected brand that has had reliability issues lately.
One reason carmakers run through reliability cycles is because they might have changed something in their manufacturing process.
For example, Linkov says the carmaker might have changed suppliers, or some component in the car that now doesn't hold up as well as the original design.
Buyers also might be taking a risk by buying a car the first year it hits the market.
"First-year vehicles for every manufacturer have their hiccups," Linkov says. "We see this as a tooling up period. Problems often come from trying to rush something to market too quickly before they might have worked out all the bugs."
Shopping by region is no better than shopping by reputation, Reed says.
"You know, the domestic automakers are getting better, but they are still haunted by problems. And there are some good Asian automakers, but they aren't all 100 percent reliable," he says.
Linkov agrees that shopping by reputation can be a tricky business.
While Linkov recognizes some consistency over the years in several manufacturers, he says, "We recommend the whole line for only two brands -- Honda and Subaru. Just because there are some good Asian manufacturers, that doesn't mean all Asian cars are good. Just because there are some unreliable domestic manufacturers, that doesn't mean all domestic cars are unreliable."
But there are some things that are risky bets nearly across the board.
For example, Reed says most high-end performance and sports cars, such as Ferrari, will likely require much more maintenance than their slower counterparts. And Linkov warns that the more complex a vehicle's components are, the less reliable they tend to be. So, if reliability is your virtue, that supercharged engine might be the wrong choice.
"But that's not a hard and fast rule," Linkov says. "Look at a hybrid. Those are very complex, but most of them have enjoyed very high reliability so far."
He says the primary thing to be wary about is with cutting-edge electronics and optional features that haven't been around for very long.
The good news is, if you end up paying a premium for reliability, you could end up reaping a nice reward when it comes time to trade in your ride for a newer model.
That's because, as a rule, the more reliable a car is, the better it will hold its value over time.
"One of the things you have to understand is that this is based on perception," Reed says. "If people think the car will hold up, then the value will hold. But remember, we are making predictions here and nobody can know for sure how long a car will last."
But just because a car is reliable doesn't mean it will be worth much at resale.
"For it to hold its value it has to be both reliable and desirable," Linkov says. "You may have something that is reliable but not aesthetically pleasing, and that isn't likely to hold its value -- think about a full-size sedan or something along those lines."
So, how do you sort out what will hold up over time?
One strong resource Reed suggests is to search online databases for recalls and reading forums geared toward existing owners, such as the ones on Edmunds.com. If current owners are complaining about a problem, that might be something you should look out for.
"What you need to be sure is that you don't look at any single instance and assume it is an endemic problem," Reed says. "It may just be an anomaly. So, you need to go out as broadly as you can and search several different sources."
Linkov warns against relying too heavily on online forums, though, because you really can't be sure where the information is coming from and whether that source can be trusted.