A New Study for Drivers Who Hate the Check Engine Light

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Every driver dreads the appearance of the Check Engine light. The foreboding glow next to the odometer means that a visit to the auto repair shop is needed, and that money will soon be leaving your possession. So which automakers and vehicle models are least likely to have Check Engine-related problems? And when problems do arise, which cars cost the least to fix? A new study has answers.

It’s been a rough year for Toyota and Honda. Both automakers had to recall millions of vehicles for safety reasons, and production was off for both this year due to the Japan earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown disaster. Sales have slumped, and the two automakers have resorted to offering huge incentives to attract buyers toward the end of the year.

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Based on a new study from CarMD, a “personal car doctor” service that plugs into a vehicle and clues drivers in as to why the Check Engine light is on, however, you wouldn’t have an inkling that all is not well with Toyota and Honda. In the study, or First Annual CarMD Vehicle Health Index, as it’s called, Toyota and Honda earn the No. 1 and No. 3 rankings, respectively. Rounding out the top five are Hyundai (#2), Ford (#4), and GM (#5).

The rankings are all related to that annoying Check Engine light. The 2001 to 2011 model vehicles with the magical combination of both the fewest Check Engine-related problems and the lowest average repair costs get the highest rankings. Here are the top ten vehicles, in order starting with #1:

2009 Toyota Corolla
2008 Honda CR-V
2007 Honda CR-V
2009 Honda Accord
2009 Toyota RAV4
2011 Hyundai Sonata
2009 Toyota Camry
2009 Honda Pilot
2005 Chevrolet Blazer
2008 Toyota Highlander

The index, as you can see, stretches back years—information that’s especially valuable for consumers in market for used cars. It’s a way to judge automakers’ past performance, rather than determine who is making the most reliable cars right now. (Try Consumer Reports for that kind of analysis; Edmunds’ True Cost to Own tool, which factors in upfront costs, fuel, repairs, and insurance, is also helpful.) The way the index is calculated, an automaker’s scores can be affected dramatically by cars it no longer makes. Take Ford, for example:

The Ford Windstar, discontinued in 2003, still continues to hurt Ford’s overall score with that model near the bottom of the 10-year period looked at by this Index. The Freestar, the Windstar’s replacement, did not fare much better from 2003-2006.

General Motors, on the other hand, earned the No. 5 ranking mainly with the help of its luxury line (Buick), as well as a Chevrolet SUV that it no longer makes:

The discontinued Chevy Blazer also demonstrated consistent reliability, making it into the top 10 list and appearing a total of three times in the top 100.

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It’s actually rare for an automaker’s high-end line—like Buick—to help the manufacturer’s overall score. Other studies tracking reliability have shown that luxury vehicles actually have more problems, on average, and the CarMD index comes to the same conclusions:

Generally speaking luxury brands actually hurt their parent brands, with Buick and Infiniti as exceptions. Although the average repair costs were actually lower with the luxury brands, the reported repair instances were higher based on a percentage of vehicle population – in most cases about twice as common.

Acura, Cadillac, Lexus, and Lincoln cars all scored lower than their parent brands—Honda, GM, Toyota, and Ford, respectively.

(MORE: Paying More for a Less Reliable Car)

At the other end of the price spectrum, CarMD’s data reveals that some particularly old models still perform well. The 2001 and 2002 Subaru Legacy, the 2002 Volvo V70, and the 2001 Ford Explorer are all in the top 50 for vehicles with the least frequent and least expensive Check Engine-related repairs.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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