Paying More for a Less Reliable Car

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When buying a luxury automobile, you’d think that one of the things you’re paying extra for is the luxury of not having to bring the damn car into the shop to get fixed all the time.

But far too often, cars that are high-priced are also high-maintenance—and highly irritating to owners who paid top dollar for them. That’s according to Consumer Reports, which offers its best and worst cars reviews in the April 2011 issue. A couple of the premier car manufacturers ranked toward the bottom of CR’s list, and reliability was a major reason why, per a WSJ story on CR’s reviews:

“The Europeans aren’t doing too well,” says David Champion, head of automotive testing for Consumer Reports. Mercedes-Benz and BMW placed 10th and 11th in the magazine’s ranking of 13 major auto makers.

Where European brands are falling down is reliability, Mr. Champion says. Many of the problems have to do with electronics and controls drivers find difficult to operate easily.

“When was the last time you bought consumer electronics made in Germany?” he says.

Good question. And a good point. I recall friends swearing by the brilliance of car stereos from the German company Blaupunkt—but that was back in the day of tape decks, before CDs let alone iPods or satellite radio.

Back to the vehicle reliability issue: You’d think that new equates to more reliable, but that’s not always the case. CR states that some used cars actually have fewer problems than newer models. For example:

Among the most trouble-free 2008 models were the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Yaris with 11 and 12 problems per 100 vehicles, respectively. The average 2010 car had 13 problems per 100.

Here’s a general rule from CR, followed by the inevitable exception to note:

Overall, Japanese cars are the most trouble-free, with Honda and Toyota far ahead compare with older vehicles made by other major manufacturers—especially 2006 (five-year old) and earlier models.

“Knowing a brand’s reputation for reliability can aid the used-car shopper, but it’s not foolproof. You’re buying just one model from that brand. So it’s important to check out the specific model’s reliability ratings and learn about other factors like performance and safety,” David Champion, Sr. Director Consumer Reports Auto Test Center.

Also, CR notes, paying less upfront can sometimes cost you more down the line:

A low sticker price doesn’t mean a car will be a good value in the long run. It could turn out to be a big disappointment and a waste of money because of depreciation, reliability, and other factors.

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