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JD Power released their 2023 dependability study, which ranked vehicle manufacturers based on the problems per 100 vehicles. The usual suspects are near the top – Toyota, and on the bottom – Land Rover. Here’s the full list if you haven’t seen it:
Source: J.D. Power
The devil is, as usual, in the details, so let’s dig in deeper:
The media happily picked up the report and is producing headlines like “long-term dependability is improving”. What’s not immediately obvious is that the study is based on responses from 30,062 original owners of 2020 model-year vehicles after three years of ownership. This means vehicles no older than 3 years and still covered by manufacturer bumper-to-bumper warranties, with roadside assistance, service loaners, hassle-free repair experience, and no out-of-pocket expenses for vehicle owners.
The JD Power study boasts looking at 184 specific problem areas across nine major vehicle categories. Some of these categories are objective, such as powertrain, while some are more subjective, such as driving experience or seats.
Below the pretty graph, the report notes that infotainment systems continue to be the most problematic: 6 of the top 10 problem areas in the study are infotainment related, including voice recognition, Bluetooth, phone connectivity, touch screen, and navigation.
The first question is whether JD Power properly distinguishes infotainment system bugs from usability issues. Just like with any software, it takes time and deliberate exploration to get the most out of an infotainment system, get familiar with its operation, shortcuts, menus, and settings.
Turning to Consumer Reports, there’s a vehicle satisfaction survey of 73K members, which reported that built-in systems of some of the most reliable vehicles (Lexus) were among the most frustrating to use. At the same time, the highest ranking systems are in Chrysler vehicles, which are squarely on the opposite side of the JD Power dependability scale. Does it mean that Chrysler’s systems are more dependable, or are they simply better designed and easier to use?
The second question is whether something like a confusing infotainment system is a representation of the vehicle's dependability. Software quality of infotainment systems certainly affects the perception, but how does it stack against a mechanical failure that leaves you stranded? Or how does a failure to pair your phone on the first attempt rank against paying $150 to diagnose a check engine light? Finally, what if you decide to keep your vehicle for longer than 3 years?
Let’s go to the definition of dependability. I see it as the ability of a vehicle to operate smoothly and consistently for a long time, with predictable expenses on repairs and maintenance. It means having the confidence of never being stranded on the side of the road. It means not facing an unexpectedly large repair bill for fixing or replacing a major component. In short, dependability means trustworthiness.
Here’s another way to look at dependability. The company called iSeeCars ranked brands on their likelihood of reaching 200,000 miles by analyzing 11,8 million cars sold in 2020. If you drive close to the average mileage per year, vehicles from these brands are the most likely to last for at least 15 years.
Or, another interesting data is presented in the Vehicle Health Report from CarMD, which analyzes engine repairs. The report from 2020 highlights the following vehicles as having the fewest engine-related repair incidents. Note that the list of brands does not quite match JD Power’s report.
ConsumerReports has the most thorough report on reliability. It obtains its data from surveys on over 300,000 vehicles going back up to 20 years old. The survey asks drivers to identify problems and their severity (cost, safety, downtime, etc.) A typical vehicle has about 200 to 300 samples for each model year. For each model the report shows whether it had more or fewer problems than the average model of that year in 17 trouble spots.
Here’s the list of the most reliable vehicles from 2022 according to Consumer Reports. Again, the list is quite different from JD Power’s. In fact, it has more overlap with the list of vehicles that are likely to last to 200K miles produced by iSeeCars.
To wrap it up, I recommend examining the data with a critical eye. If you are looking to keep a new car for 3 years, the JD Power report is a good source of information that can help you focus on specific makes.
If you are shopping for a used car, dig deeper and look at things like the total cost of ownership, durability of components, and the vehicle's ability to withstand the demands of daily use without breaking down.
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