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What are the most reliable cars on the road?

The most reliable cars on the road

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Tristan HoagVerified

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Biggest reliability factors

When researching reliability, look at the make, model, and year of car to tell you about its reliability.

Everybody wants to buy a car that they can depend on.

If you're getting ready to buy a car, you've probably heard horror stories about cars that turned into a nightmare. Maybe you've experienced it yourself. Unless you're an auto mechanic, you may not even know how to properly evaluate a vehicle. Identifying the most reliable cars requires a combination of research on the brand of the car, and the ability to recognize any warning signs of existing problems.

To assist you with your research, JustAnswer has collected data from questions asked in our automotive section, and analyzed it to identify trends within the different brands. We conducted a study of over 360,000 of the automotive questions that were answered by our Experts dating back to 2015.

From 2015 to 2017, total question volume in the car category stayed relatively flat, but questions about certain car manufacturers outpaced the pack.

A chart showing percent growth in car questions JustAnswer from 2015-2017
These car manufacturers had the highest growth in question volume on JustAnswer from 2015 to 2017.

In absolute terms, it's hard to say whether the growth in question volume above is attributable to higher production (more cars on the road) or reliability problems (more questions about a given car). Still, it's possible to probe. Two of the top three movers in the category, Kia and Infiniti, have high reliability ratings across the board, so it's more probable the markets for these manufacturers grew substantially in the years leading up to 2015.

A chart showing how reliably a country's cars are according to JustAnswer data
German reliability may be more of a myth than a reality, according to the amount of car questions fielded on JustAnswer.

Next, we tried to look at how many questions a country or region's cars generated on JustAnswer. Adjusted for the amount of cars in the US market, Korean cars drew the fewest questions on JustAnswer, while European (non-German) cars drew the most. If there were as many European cars as Korean cars in the US market, European cars would have more than 8 times the number of questions of JustAnswer.

A chart showing the most common problems associated with top car brands
Japanese and American cars had fewer problems associated with their brands, while German and European cars topped the list for certain common car problems.

What sorts of problems are associated with some of the top car brands? We found several insights. Adjusted for market share, Volvo had the highest percentage of questions about engine failure and noise or sound problems. BMW was top three in three separate categories and associated with high failure rates in four of five. Nissan, being a Japanese brand, is often associated with reliability. But our analysis hinted that owners of this entry-level brand may need to prepare for maintenance more than owners of their Japanese counterparts.

A graphic showing what states in America are most interested in car questions relative to their population
Are these states more misfortunate with cars or more car-crazy? Either way, they visited the most JustAnswer car pages in 2017.

Finally, we looked at which states' inhabitants visited JustAnswer car pages the most. A cluster of states in the South (Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia) as well as a pocket in the Midwest (Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, and Michigan) viewed the most car pages on JustAnswer relative to their populations. Texas, Washington, and the District of Columbia rounded out the top ten. Whether these states are the most misfortunate with cars, or the most car-crazed – or a combination of both – is hard to say.

Researching reliable cars

When Consumer Reports prepares their annual car reliability report, which is based on responses from actual owners, they find that the reliability of individual brands can change from year to year. Between 2016 and 2017, their top 10 most reliable brands changed dramatically:

 

2016

2017

1.

Lexus

Toyota

2.

Toyota

Lexus

3.

Buick

Kia

4.

Audi

Audi

5.

Kia

BMW

6.

Mazda

Subaru

7.

Hyundai

Infiniti

8.

Infiniti

Buick

9.

BMW

Honda

10.

Honda

Hyundai

When you're researching a used car’s reliability, you need to pay attention to three factors.

  • The make of the car: Different auto manufacturers will have varying reputations for reliability, whether they're accurate or not. Some car companies enjoy both fierce loyalty from their customers and a reputation for low reliability; the joke about Ford being an acronym for "Fix or Repair Daily" is a perfect example.
  • The model of the car: Even within a specific auto company, different models of cars can vary greatly in reliability. Some models are meant to be affordable and are built with cheaper parts that give out faster. Other models may be more expensive, but their complexity makes them more prone to mechanical failures. Occasionally, the stars align and a company comes out with a car like the Lexus SC300, which is considered to be one of the most reliable used cars.
  • The year of the car: In the automotive world, customer experience becomes the driver for changes to the construction of a particular model. As car companies change their designs in response to real world performance issues, the reliability can change dramatically from year to year.

Some cars can improve in reliability. In 2017 this list includes:

  • Audi A3
  • Chrysler Pacifica
  • Ford F-150
  • Mercedes-Benz S-Class
  • Ram 1500
  • Volkswagen Golf Alltrack
  • Volkswagen Passat

Other cars saw their reliability decline during the same period:

  • Acura MDX
  • Buick LaCrosse
  • Cadillac CT6
  • Cadillac XTS
  • Chevrolet Camaro
  • Chevrolet Corvette
  • Chevrolet Cruze
  • Chevrolet Equinox
  • Chrysler 300
  • GMC Acadia
  • Hyundai Tucson
  • Mazda CX-9
  • Mazda MX-5 Miata
  • Mercedes-Benz GLC
  • Nissan Maxima
  • Porsche Cayenne
  • Subaru Impreza

All of this goes to show that taking the time to research any car you're considering, whether new or used, is important, even if you think a vehicle or brand is trustworthy. Some other tips to keep in mind while doing your research to help you find the most reliable car:

Question the company’s marketing: The manufacturer wants you to buy their car, so they have good reasons to tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear! Advertising can make even the most unreliable cars sound like a gem.

Check with other people: Look for others who have the same kind of vehicle, in person and online. Ask them what they like and dislike about the car, and what kind of mechanical problems they have encountered.

Check multiple reliability reports: There are many organizations that offer aggregate information about the dependability of a brand’s vehicles. A car reliability index considers the frequency and cost of repairs and the average age of the vehicles tested, and combines them into a single number. A lower score is better, so the most reliable cars will have very low scores.

Read online reviews: The next thing that you should check is online reviews to see the kinds of problems that others have encountered. The number and types of questions can give you a bit of insight into what your experience with the vehicle might be like.

Avoid buying the newest model: Give the manufacturer time to sort out the problems with a new model before you buy in. This will help you avoid doing the company’s test driving for them.

Recognizing a reliable car

No matter how much research you do on a car, you'll still come to that moment where you have to look at an actual car and make a decision. At this point, knowing the things to pay attention to can save you from buying a car that will start to give you problems right away.

Run a vehicle history report: If you have the VIN, it can be worthwhile to have a vehicle history report run on the vehicle. This should inform you if the vehicle was involved in any major accident. Don’t place too much weight on this report, though, as there is some question regarding their accuracy. Some accidents don’t get reported to the agencies, which can impact Carfax report reliability.

According to Consumer Reports:

To test the veracity of history reports, we ordered them for dozens of vehicles advertised on such Web sites as eBay Motors and erepairables.com. The ads included photos showing smashed or missing body panels or other accident-related damage, along with vehicle identification numbers.

Many reports returned "clean" results, sometimes from all five services: Carfax (www.carfax.com), AutoCheck (www.autocheck.com), the free VINCheck from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (www.nicb.org), and two services providing information from the federal government's National Motor Vehicle Title Information Systems database (www.nmvtis.gov).

Request the title and service records: If the service records are available, they will give you the best picture of the maintenance put into the vehicle. Be sure to ask about any large repairs, as they may indicate an accident or persistent problem.

Inspect the vehicle: Pay attention to any rust or signs of wear, as those can indicate that the vehicle wasn’t maintained properly.

Take the vehicle for a test drive: You should test the vehicle on back roads and getting on and off the highway, to see how it handles under different conditions. Listen for noises coming from the vehicle. You always want to compare it to your current vehicle as a benchmark.

Bring it to a mechanic: A pre-purchase inspection is affordable, and it can identify problems that could end up costing thousands of dollars.

The importance of automobile reliability

Reliability isn’t everything. Individual usage and maintenance play a larger role in determining a vehicle’s lifecycle, and a loved and cared for car will survive regardless of make and model. No matter what the car reliability ratings you find in your research tell you, or how well cared for your actual car was, it is proper maintenance that will determine how it does from now on.

Taking proper care of your vehicle:

  • Read your owner’s manual, paying special attention to the troubleshooting section.
  • Perform a regular inspection, checking all lights, testing the tread and air pressure in your tires, and listening for strange sounds.
  • Check all fluids and look for leaks. Learn where to find your coolant, power steering fluid, and windshield wiper fluid. Be sure they are at the correct levels, neither low nor too full. If you see a leak, get it dealt with immediately.
  • Replace your timing and serpentine belts: These belts typically need to be replaced around 40,000 to 60,000 miles, but your owner’s manual should provide the actual mileage for your vehicle.
  • Change your oil regularly. Depending upon the vehicle and the type of oil you are using this can vary. Check your owner’s manual for the correct type of oil to use and the amount of time between changes. You should also check your oil regularly and add more if the level is low.
  • Check the battery for leaks or buildup on the contacts. Any buildup can be cleaned off with a battery brush.
  • Change the engine air filter as indicated in the owner’s manual.
  • Have your tires rotated and have your alignment tested regularly.
  • Change the spark plugs regularly. Most need to be replaced every 30,000 miles, but different kinds of plugs may last longer.

By keeping on top of these tasks, you will be able to get the most reliable performance from your car.

Seeking legal recourse

Not everyone is trying to sell the most reliable cars. Because so many people have been suckered into buying a bad car, most states have lemon laws to protect the consumer. If you buy a vehicle and it doesn’t work as advertised, you could have your State negotiate with the seller on your behalf.

By starting with an understanding of what is likely to go wrong in a particular brand of car, and paying attention to warning signs, you will increase your odds of picking out a good vehicle to start with. If you follow that by taking proper care of the vehicle, you will have one of the most reliable cars.

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