What is the most dependable car on the road?

Lyndon Shi
answered on Quora by Lyndon Shi, Research Assistant in Industrial Engineering at University of Michigan (2017-present)
The oft-repeated and commonly-accepted mantra is to buy Toyota if one desires reliability. Let’s look at some studies to see if this checks out.

In 2014, Mojo Motors, a website for used-car classified ads (which now redirects to Carfax, not sure what’s going on there), studied its listings to determine which manufacturer produces cars and trucks that are most reliable in the long run. Its data set consisted of more than half a million cars and trucks, all of which are from model years 1995 through 2014. The company estimated the value lost per mile driven (using linear regression) and applied its model to calculate the maximum number of miles accumulated when a vehicle is theoretically worthless. The top ten brands, along with the maximum number of miles, is as follows:

  1. Toyota – 210,705 miles
  2. Honda – 209,001 miles
  3. Ford – 198,409 miles
  4. Dodge – 198,266 miles
  5. Chevrolet – 195,754 miles
  6. Nissan – 195,593 miles
  7. Subaru – 189,370 miles
  8. GMC – 188,584 miles
  9. Acura – 178,947 miles
  10. Mazda – 177,729 miles[1]

This comes with three caveats. First, as the article pointed out, the presence of American manufacturers near the top of the list is largely due to their trucks. Second, it was noted that some manufacturers may have dropped out of the list due to a small sample size; these may or may not include luxury car brands that are not often resold. Third, the article only stated that these numbers are the maximum number of miles before worthlessness and was unclear as to whether this meant the absolute maximum across all models in each brand, or the average of the maximums of each model. Thus, take the results with a grain of salt.

In any event, so far the data indicate that Toyota is the most reliable brand when taking longevity into account, with Honda a close second.

Next, I turn to the J.D. Power U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study, an annual study which “examines problems experienced during the past 12 months by original owners of 3-year-old vehicles”[2].

2017 marked the 28th year of the study; unfortunately, it appears that no one has compiled a history of the best performers in each year of the study. The following are images (pulled from J.D. Power’s press releases each year) of results from the past 3 years.

To avoid bombarding you with pictures, I will now state the top 5 brands from years prior to 2015, in order:

  1. 2014: Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Acura, Buick
  2. 2013: Lexus, Porsche, Lincoln, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz
  3. 2012: Lexus, Porsche, Cadillac, Toyota, Scion
  4. 2011: Lincoln, Lexus, Jaguar, Porsche, Toyota
  5. 2010: Porsche, Lincoln, Buick, Lexus, Mercury

The caveat here is that only 3-year-old vehicles are evaluated so these studies only cover short-term reliability. With this frame in mind, it is clear that luxury brands are typically the most reliable (at least in the short-term), with Lexus a consistent industry leader. Additionally, Toyota found itself near the top of the list fairly often, the lone affordable brand among the high-end manufacturers. This is not surprising, as Lexus is the luxury car division of Toyota.

It is surprising though that Ford and Dodge scored so well in Mojo Motors’ study yet far below industry average in J.D. Powers’ study. Perhaps these manufacturers make vehicles that are prone to breaking down in the early years of ownership, but the vehicles that do make it through those years end up being reliable? Incidentally, that would fit with anecdotal evidence; my family has only owned Fords and we always have problems within 1–2 years of purchasing a new car, but few major problems beyond that.

For further analysis I turn to Consumer Reports. The following image shows results from car brand reliability analysis based on the company’s 2015 Annual Auto Survey.

The blue bars illustrate a brand’s consistency by showing the reliability range between its top and bottom model. The numerals indicate the number of models included.[3]

Lexus and Toyota top the list once again as number one and number two, but there is no indication as to how old these vehicles are.

By now, I think it is safe to say that Toyota is one of the most reliable brands in both the short-term and long-term. Meanwhile, Lexus, with its consistent top performance in short-term studies, deserves another look for its longevity even though it was not mentioned in Mojo Motors’ study.

To continue my evaluation, I found a website called dashboard-light.com. Founded by Steven Lang (who has published on Yahoo Autos) and Nick Lariviere, the purpose of the website is to “offer free information about the long-term reliability of vehicles, forever”. The site provides Long-Term Quality Index scores for vehicles and brands which takes into account the frequency of powertrain issues, the mileage distribution of when those issues take place, and vehicle age at the time of trade-in. They have collected information on 1.2 million used cars[4] and so have a vast data set.

Incidentally, the website mentions that its quality index focuses specifically on vehicles at least three years old to provide long-term reliability information that J.D. Power and Consumer Reports do not.

It turns out that Lexus is the manufacturer with the highest quality index rating.

Source: Lexus – Dashboard Light

Thus, as Lexus consistently dominates J.D. Power’s dependability studies and is also reliable beyond three years, I claim that Lexus is the most reliable car brand in both the short-term and a reasonable long-term time frame. If you want your vehicle to outlast everything else though, your best bet is Toyota.

Somewhat tangentially, they also found that “four brands encompass nearly 70% of the vehicles with over 200,000 miles”[5]. Which four?

If you stick with Chevy and Ford full-size trucks and SUVs, Honda cars, and Toyota everything, your chances of having that vehicle past 200k is about two and a half times the industry average.

Also feel throw in old rear-wheel drive Fords such as the Ford Crown Victoria, Lincoln Town Car, and Mercury Grand Marquis.

Well then, I guess Americans do make good vehicles sometimes. Here’s a 2017 Ford F-150 for reading this ridiculously long piece.

Footnotes

[1] Toyota Leads Top 10 Longest Lasting Brands, Says Mojo Motors

[2] 2017 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study: Excellent Long-Term Quality Isn’t Exclusive to Luxury Brands

[3] How Car Brands Compare for Reliability

[4] Long-Term Quality Index – 1.2 Million Used Cars Inspected From 1993 To Today

[5] LONG TERM QUALITY INDEX: Seven Facts That Shatter the Myth of Reliability

1 comment to What is the most dependable car on the road?

  • perachtis

    Key finding: ” If you stick with Chevy and Ford full-size trucks and SUVs, Honda cars, and Toyota everything, your chances of having that vehicle past 200k is about two and a half times the industry average.”

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