J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study discloses losers as well as winners
The first 36 months of new vehicle ownership is often the sweetest time any ownership experience – but when market research firm J.D. Power asked some 33,500 Americans how they liked their 2013-model-year car or truck, the responses were not always glowing testimonials.
J.D. Power expresses dependability as the number of reported problems per 100 vehicles (PP100); the higher the score the lower the reliability. Lexus and Porsche resumed their dominance at the top of the heap in the 2016 Vehicle Dependability Study, but many of the nameplates residing at the bottom of the ranking were in familiar territory too.
Bluetooth connectivity and voice recognition issues are common complaints again this year as motorists continue to expect their four-wheeled device to be an extension of their phone or tablet. But with 30,000 parts underfoot, there’s bound to be more to go wrong with a modern automobile than there is in a flash-drive-equipped laptop. Transmissions can shift roughly, engines can vapourize coolant and wheel bearings can grind themselves to smithereens, even in 2016. Here are the 10 least dependable brands, according to J.D. Power, listed in descending order, from tenth-worst on down to worst - #1 in our countdown.
Born with airplane DNA, the industry’s most enigmatic brand offers a somewhat rare engineering solution: its horizontally opposed “boxer” engine architecture. It’s what gives Subaru its reputation for marching to the beat of a different drummer. At the same time, Subaru engineered a legacy of dependability with owners and competitors alike. But the Japanese automaker has not won many accolades for quality lately.
Because its heavily revised 2.5-L DOHC four-cylinder boxer engine powers so many of its models, the engine’s tendency for high oil consumption has marred the experience for many owners of 2013 models. For some, adding several litres of engine oil between oil changes has negated the engine’s benefits, including its low centre of gravity and equal-length output shafts. Subaru has begun replacing the most severe oil-burning engines for customers. Turbocharged versions of the 2.5 have also proved troublesome. Subaru slipped two rank positions in the.D. Power study since last year’s iteration.
Toyota’s soon-to-disappear youth brand grew out of a Petri dish in 2002, cultivated to appeal to image-conscious youth that had rejected Toyotas for being dull and stodgy. Scion was a fitting handle for a car brand spun off from a well-bred family. Toyota tapped its models designed for overseas markets to stock its new North American showrooms, starting in California in 2003 and, eventually, Canada in 2011. While the same running gear that makes a Toyota Camry such a fail-safe choice is also found under the Scion tC coupe, the latter has seen its perceived quality erode significantly.
Scion plummeted 14 ranking positions since last year’s survey. So what gives? The 2013 model year marked the launch of the FR-S sport coupe, Toyota’s joint project with Subaru. Owners have been outspoken about the car’s truculent manual transmission, waterlogged tail lamps and frequent tire failures. Younger owners tend to be more critical of product quality than older owners, and they use social media to let everyone know it.
“Dieselgate” notwithstanding, Volkswagen has been working to wrestle the title of world’s largest automaker away from Toyota, which in North America requires VW to address some longstanding reliability issues. Over the past decade, the brand has fared relatively poorly in the J.D. Power dependability studies, often ranking among the bottom three or four brands. Last year’s study saw it move up two positions to come within 20 points of the industry average. This year it slipped a bit, but it’s still doing better than it used to.
Commonly reported problems in Volkswagens – many of which share the same powertrains – include high-pressure fuel pump failures in the turbo engines, intermittent stalling and underperforming air conditioners. The vaunted TDI turbodiesel has had a slew of problems involving the high-pressure fuel pump, which can disintegrate and contaminate the fuel system. Other reported issues include failed fuel injectors, broken turbochargers, frozen intercoolers and clogged particulate filters. Being German-sourced, component costs tend to be expensive.
Old-timers who remember the excessive rust and countless warranty claims that hounded beleaguered Canadian Fiat dealers in the 1970s (before it retreated to the motherland), may have no trouble believing the dismal ranking Fiat earned in its debut year in the J.D. Power study last year. It finished dead last with a colossal 273 problems per 100 vehicles. The Internet filled up with complaints about flimsy pressure plates and paper-thin clutches – an odd gripe, given Fiat’s long history of making manual gearboxes.
Early examples of the retro-styled 500 hatchback and cabrio models were plagued by issues including oil leaks, cracked cylinder heads, electrical gremlins, prematurely worn suspension bits, broken radios and more. Fortunately, Fiat Chrysler acted quickly to fix the cars and learn how to make them better for the fickle North American market. In this year’s dependability study, the 2013 Fiats have fared better, raising the brand well above the basement floor. Keep it up and Fiat may learn to be a winning brand like never before.
It’s touted as Canada’s fast-growing brand, but with growing sales sometimes comes bigger headaches, especially when it requires managing customers’ expectations. Being one of Japan’s oldest automakers, Nissan (once marketed as Datsun in North America) has long been associated with that nation’s best brands, though in reality it never quite hit the same lofty quality benchmarks as the standard-bearers, Toyota and Honda.
This time out, Nissan plunged 13 rank positions in the 2016 J.D. Power study. Why the precipitous drop? Clues can be found in the introduction of the all-new Altima sedan for 2013. There are numerous complaints about the poor-performing CVT transmission, which hesitates, jutters and generally ruins the driving experience for some owners. Other problems include mysterious shattered windshields, drivetrain vibration, poor tracking by the power steering and stalled engines. The Altima is an example of how the launch of one popular, but problematic, model can drag down the whole brand.
Jeep fans are deeply loyal to the 70-year-old brand, but even they have had to contend with ongoing problems such as leaking transfer cases, faulty transmissions, poor electrics and the telltale “death wobble” in the iconic Wrangler. Jeepheads chalk it up to the nameplate’s celebrated, petulant character. Unfortunately, problems persist in the more modern unibody Jeep platforms, including the top-of-the-line Grand Cherokee.
Owners talk about bizarre TIPM (Totally Integrated Power Module) faults that include running the fuel pump after the engine stops, and wearing out batteries and alternators. The air suspension system breaks regularly, the steering shaft may require replacement, the back-up camera works intermittently, and radiators and water pumps may fail. The smaller Compass and Patriot models had problems of their own in 2013, including stalling at speed – a nerve-wracking problem to contend with on the highway, say owners. Jeep continues to linger near the bottom of the quality rankings as a result.
For those who enjoy lording it over the serfs sharing the Queen’s highways, only a Land Rover will do. Now under the stewardship of India’s Tata Motors, Land Rover has enjoyed improved sales with its updated designs and newfound attention to detail on the truck’s English assembly lines. And yet, despite the astronomical cost of entry, Land Rovers continue to present reliability issues early in the ownership experience.
The Landie’s air-spring suspension is notoriously trouble-prone, requiring repeated repairs to the system. Electronics can present numerous problems from failed displays to malfunctioning cameras. Bluetooth integration can be spotty. The heavy truck consumes brakes and tires rapidly, and engines can seep oil. Repairs are dear and parts can take weeks to arrive from the U.K. Despite Tata’s best efforts, the vaunted Land Rover nameplates seems to have a permanent place in the basement of the J.D. Power dependability rankings – perhaps proving the point that no amount of money can buy happiness.
The Smart Fortwo launched in Europe in 1998, the product of an unlikely union between watchmaker Swatch and automaker Daimler-Benz. The diesel-powered, two-seater Fortwo eventually arrived in Canada for 2005. To groom the tiny city car for U.S. sales, Mercedes opted for a gasoline engine, and America’s first Smart became Canada’s second-generation Fortwo in 2008. Smart dropped in and out of the J.D. Power surveys due to minuscule sales; it registered enough in 2013 to appear in the latest study.
Criticisms largely focus on the Smart’s automated manual transmission, which can shift erratically and with frustrating delay in automatic mode (using the paddles improves the drive). The clutch actuator can be problematic and the gearbox has been the subject of multiple fixes. Other maladies include short-lived batteries and blower fans, broken trim pieces, cracked roofs and under-performing air conditioners. The engine, a 70-hp 1.0-L three-cylinder supplied by Mitsubishi, may require an early valve job. The Fortwo Electric Drive model may be the smarter choice.
Widely acclaimed for its refusal to take government bailout cash, Ford more recently has been dogged by dependability issues as seen in its J.D. Power scores. It’s no secret Ford has had trouble executing its smart driver interface technology. The Sync and MyFord Touch systems, developed with Microsoft, have not met owners’ expectations. Ford slumped from just below the study’s industry average in 2014 to well below average last year, and dropped five more positions in the 2016 study.
The reasons go beyond the frustrating driver interface, however. The rough-shifting and troublesome six-speed dual-clutch automated transmission found in both the Fiesta and the Focus have aggravated unlucky owners. Some transmissions were replaced outright under warranty. The debut of the redesigned Escape CUV for 2013 introduced stalling engines, electrical snafus and more. The bigger Explorer sport ute exhibited problems including early rust. Ford is another example of new models hijacking the quality story and taking down the brand.
Fiat Chrysler’s Dodge division has several winning models at the moment, including the nostalgic Challenger and Charger models that use the proven rear-drive Chrysler 300 chassis. The relatively new Pentastar 3.6-L V6 powers a number of Dodge models and while it’s been a decent performer, it’s prone to developing a cracked cylinder head. In addition, Dodge owners have complained online about no-start conditions and other electrical issues, poor air conditioners, lit Check Engine lamps and other mechanical setbacks.
But a big reason Dodge has dropped to the very bottom of the rankings in the 2016 study may be the 2013 introduction of the Alfa Romeo-based Dart. The car’s dual-clutch automatic is problematic and prone to failure (the manual gearbox is barely more durable), while the Fiat-supplied engines can exhibit oil consumption and other wear issues at an early age. Some turbocharged engines have been replaced outright. As more Fiat platforms and technology infiltrate the Dodge lineup, the brand may have a hard time lifting its dependability score.
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