Annual study ranks brands' dependability after three years.
By Mark Toljagic
Some say there’s no such thing as a bad car anymore, but for drivers struggling with the latest electronic features controlled with the use of complicated touch screens and menus, all may not be quite right with today’s automobiles. So says J.D. Power’s seminal Vehicle Dependability Study, which ranks 32 automotive brands according to the number of problems reported by owners of three-year-old (2013) cars and trucks. Once again, the number-one frustration for consumers is Bluetooth connectivity and voice recognition difficulties while behind the wheel.
There are the traditional mechanical hiccups that continue to dog many manufacturers, too, things like mysterious stalling, jerky transmissions and short-lived batteries. Still, some nameplates get it right pretty consistently. Here are the top 10 (actually 11 with a tie) automotive brands in the J.D. Power 2016 Vehicle Dependability Study – which examined 2013-model-year vehicles three years later – presented in ascending order with the best left for last. Dependability is expressed as the number of problems per 100 vehicles (PP100); the lower the score the higher the quality.
Despite the widespread perception that German engineering is near faultless, Audi hasn’t often enjoyed strong finishes among the top 10 most dependable nameplates. In the latest iteration of J.D. Power’s dependability study, Audi managed to climb five places to rank 10th among the most reliable brands. So what did Audi do with its 2013 models to garner the honour? Mostly housekeeping, really: the best-selling A4 received a little mid-cycle cosmetic work and there were some powertrain changes; principally, the old 4.2-L V8 got swapped out of a few models and replaced with a new 330-hp, 3.0-L supercharged V-6. Retiring a troublesome drivetrain sometimes can pay dividends for a nameplate, though it’s hard to say if the 4.2 was a liability for Audi. The A4 ended up with an honourable mention in J.D. Power’s compact premium car category.
Ford’s luxury division is battling strong headwinds these days as it competes for market share in the rapidly expanding luxury segment that has attracted numerous domestic and import nameplates (witness Hyundai’s foray with its new Genesis brand). With the sturdy Canadian-built Town Car no longer around to defend Lincoln’s standing in the dependability survey, the nameplate slipped two places in the ranking this year. The only new product it offered in 2013 was the reconstituted MKZ sedan, which was based on the second-generation Ford Fusion (there’s a well-received hybrid model, too). Styled to be a crowd-pleaser, it arrived packed with cutting-edge technology, including MyLincoln Touch, a sophisticated driver interface that proved troublesome in various Ford products. The J.D. Power numbers suggest the system did not win favour with many traditional Lincoln buyers, either.
Chrysler’s truck division was only two years young in 2013, but its long-horn brand identity was cultivated long before that as part of the Dodge brand. Its Ram pickup trucks earned some hard-fought market share after their re-invention in 1994. The engines were key to their success story: the 395-hp 5.7-L Hemi -8 is legendary, while the Cummins 6.7-L turbodiesel inline six-cylinder enjoys a huge following. Unlike the V-8 diesels offered in the heavy-duty GM and Ford pickups, the Cummins is a straight six, which is inherently smoother and mechanically simpler since it has just one cylinder head and half as many camshafts as an OHC V-8. It even came with a Jake brake, which releases compressed air trapped in the cylinders to slow the vehicle. That’s the kind of authenticity truck buyers look for and it certainly motivated truck buyers to swap allegiance – no small feat in a segment where brand loyalty is sacred.
Acura was the first premium nameplate introduced by a Japanese importer in Canada, arriving in 1987 with just two models: the Civic-based Integra sport coupe and sedan, and the V-6-powered Legend sedan. Acura was an overnight success at first, outselling Mercedes-Benz and BMW with its friendly sticker prices. In more recent times, however, Acura hasn’t been all that competitive, being averse to rear-wheel drive and -8 engines – essential gear in the luxury segment. What Acura does offer is sophisticated cars and SUVs that appeal to diehard Honda folk. For 2013, Acura introduced the Civic-based ILX sedan and the second-generation RDX sport-ute, which featured a smooth V-6 in place of the previous thirsty four-cylinder turbo. With these, the brand was rewarded with a return to the top-10 dependability ankings. In addition, the ILX earned an honourable mention in J.D. Power’s compact premium car category.
As the maker of Canada’s favourite passenger car – the Civic – Honda has honed through repetition the good things it brings to market: sterling reliability, exceptional fuel ecnmy, good comfort, utility and styling to boot. The Civic’s saintliness has spread to many of Honda’s other models over the years. It’s an enviable track record for a humble lawn mower maker. Honda has had its share of setbacks, too, including a dreadful run of automatic transmissions in the early 2000s, and some aluminum engine blocks that cracked. For 2013, Honda released its next generation Accord, which returned the former bestseller to winning form. Its new direct-injection Earth Dream four-cylinder engine did suffer from some vibration issues. Consequently, Honda slipped a little in the ranking. However, the diminutive Fit did win J.D. Power’s compact car segment, and the CR-V was an honourable mention in the compact SUV class.
With Saturn and Pontiac long gone, Chevrolet became the go-to brand of a leaner and more savvy General Motors. Having purged some of its more troublesome models and incorporated improved platforms and new powertrains into its lineup, Chevrolet moved up four rank positions compared to last year’s study to sit comfortably in the top 10. There’s something with the Chevy bow-tie for everyone, including the new-for-2013 Spark hatchback sourced from GM’s South Korean division (formerly Daewoo). When J.D. Power identified the most dependable models in each of 19 auto and truck segments, Chevrolet garnered four category wins for its Malibu (midsize car), Camaro (midsize sporty car), Equinox (compact SUV) and Silverado HD (heavy-duty pickup). The light-duty Silverado truck and Tahoe SUV earned honourable mentions in their respective segments.
General Motors’ truck division neatly encompasses a range of light- and heavy-duty pickups, crossovers and big sport utilities. Even though virtually everything in the GMC fold is duplicated by Chevrolet, buyers continue to support the distinct truck brand. Fleet buyers gravitate to GMC’s full-size pickups and SUVs, considered the most compelling offerings in its lineup. Differences lie in the work-ready features and design tweaks that give its offerings a more upscale image. The Denali trim level has proven popular with truck folks. Given that GMC and Chevrolet share their truck platforms, drivetrains and technology, it only makes sense that GMC should follow (and this year lead) Chevrolet in lockstep up the dependability rankings. GMC rose six places in the rankings. The Yukon won the large SUV category and the Sierra earned a honourable mention in the light-duty pickup segment.
The world’s largest automaker has demonstrated astonishing consistency in building durable cars and trucks, placing it high among the most dependable nameplates in the industry. It’s especially impressive for a manufacturer that has spawned such a wide variety of models aimed at virtually every segment and niche in markets on every continent. In the J.D. Power 2016 study, Toyota’s Prius V hybrid was the highest ranked compact MPV, while the Sienna topped the minivan segment and the Texas-built Tundra full-size truck dominated the light-duty pickup category, despite the formidable competition from the Detroit Three. Honourable mentions included the Prius and Corolla (compact car), popular Camry (midsize car), Avalon (large car), FJ Cruiser (compact SUV), Venza and 4Runner (midsize SUV). Despite the strong showing, Toyota actually slipped one place to finish fourth in this year’s study.
Your father may not recognize today’s Buick, but he will be familiar with the brand’s reputation for reliability. Buick’s strong scores in J.D. Power studies stretching back 27 years, along with owners’ steadfast brand loyalty, were likely contributing factors in GM’s decision to keep Buick a going concern while taking Pontiac and Saturn out behind the shed during its bankruptcy reorganization seven years ago. No longer satisfied courting older buyers with cushiony land yachts, Buick turned to Opel, GM’s German subsidiary, to provide contemporary platforms and models that offer sharper dynamics and are more rewarding to drive. The strategy is winning friends, yielding stronger sales and younger buyers that have yet to cash their first pension cheque. The 2013 Buick models that won their J.D. Power categories for dependability included the Verano (compact car), the all-new Encore (small SUV) and LaCrosse in the large car segment.
Porsche has frequenly occupied a lofty spot in J.D. Power’s dependability top-10 over the past decade due to its dedication to meticulous engineering that recalls the groundbreaking work of founder Ferdinand Porsche. Regarded as the quintessential sports car maker, Porsche has seemingly had to swallow its pride to develop sport utilities (the Cayenne and Macan) and luxury cars (the Panamera) to avert insolvency, but the resulting profits have sufficiently enriched the automaker to allow it to build better and quicker sports cars. By way of example, Porsche released its next generation mid-engine Boxster in 2013 to rave reviews. It helped to elevate the nameplate, as Porsche moved up four places in the rankings in the most recent iteration of J.D. Power’s dependability study. Additionally, the Cayenne earned an honourable mention in the mid-size premium SUV segment.
For the fifth year in a row, Toyota’s premium Lexus brand proved to be the most dependable nameplate in the business. Fittingly, it’s also an enduring dynasty; Lexus began dominating the J.D. Power dependability studies soon after Lexus showrooms opened in America in 1990 (1991 in Canada). While its cars and sport utilities may not deliver the same invigorating driving experience that the German makers provide, Lexus knows how to craft vehicles that avoid service bays. Part of that reputation for durability can be attributed to the introduction of several gas-electric hybrid versions of its popular models. Lexus has three models in the winners’ circle in the 2016 dependability study by segment: the ES sedan ranked highest as a compact premium car, while the GS earned the midsize premium car title and the GX won the midsize premium SUV title.
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