Each year, market research firm J.D. Power ranks car brands in terms of dependability after three years of use. While Lexus and Porsche tied for the top spot in that study, for many buyers it’s the brands that ranked worst that may be of greater interest.
By Mark Toljagic
When J.D. Power asked more than 35,000 Americans how their 2014-model-year car or truck held up after three years of ownership, they didn’t always paint a rosy picture. In fact, the industry average of 156 reported problems per 100 vehicles has gone up for the second year in a row.
Bluetooth connectivity, voice recognition and other infotainment system issues are common complaints again this year. But lurking on the naughty list are real nuts-and-bolts issues such as hesitating transmissions and oil-burning engines.
J.D. Power expresses dependability as the number of problems per 100 vehicles (PP100); the higher the score the lower the reliability. While Lexus and Porsche maintained their dominance at the top of the rankings, many of the nameplates residing at the bottom are familiar, too. Let’s count down the 10 least dependable brands, according to J.D. Power, to the inglorious bottom.
Honda’s premium brand has not enjoyed a lot of success lately, what with the long delayed introduction of its halo car, the NSX, and declining sales in a luxury segment that’s been carpet-bombed with comely new competitors. More disconcerting is the fact that Acura – derived from good Honda stock – was always considered a dependable nameplate. It resided among J.D. Power’s top 10 brands for years. So why the precipitous drop in the ranking? Its popular MDX crossover was redesigned for 2014, but some owners discovered the sport utility is plagued by malfunctioning warning lights for various vehicle systems, such as lane departure warning, front collision warning, traction control and more. Cost cutting has resulted in frequently warped brake rotors and fit and finish issues unbecoming of the brand, owners noted online. Still, the ILX earned an honourable mention in J.D. Power’s compact premium car category, and the RDX did the same as a compact premium SUV.
Nissan has been on a roll as Canada’s fast-growing brand, and has sales winners in the Altima, Sentra, Rogue, Pathfinder and Versa Note. But there are numerous complaints about the poor-performing continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) that grace these models. Nissan, through its subsidiary Jatco, has cornered the market with its CVT technology, which it sells to other automakers, such as Mitsubishi and Jeep (see below). The pulley-driven transmission allows the engine to work more efficiently, lowering fuel consumption. Trouble is, the Jatco CVTs have exhibited hesitation, jutters and generally provided unhappy driving experiences for some owners. Nissan has cheerfully changed a lot of transmissions under an extended warranty program (10 years/200,000 km), but Nissan owners dislike the inconvenience of a roadside breakdown. Other problems include cracking windshields, drivetrain vibration and more. Nissan had long been associated with Japan’s best brands, though in reality it never quite hit the same lofty quality benchmarks as standard-bearers Toyota and Honda.
Land Rover has been working hard to cultivate a better reputation as a purveyor of high-end luxury sport-utilities. Now under the stewardship of India’s Tata Motors, the brand has enjoyed improved sales with its updated designs and newfound attention to detail on the trucks’ U.K. assembly lines. The work has seemingly paid off, with the brand moving up 20 PP100 in the J.D. Power rankings. Still, Land Rovers continue to exhibit reliability issues early in the ownership experience. Electronics can present numerous problems from failed instrument displays to malfunctioning cameras. Bluetooth integration can be spotty. Drivetrain vibration is a common irritant. Owners reported lots of Check Engine lights to decode and software upgrades to perform. The heavy trucks consume brakes and tires rapidly, and engines can seep oil. Repairs are costly and parts can take weeks to arrive from England. Despite Tata’s best efforts, Land Rover continues to be dogged by less than flattering assessments by its long-suffering customers.
As Japan’s first manufacturer of mass-produced automobiles, Mitsubishi ought to be a household name here, but it’s not. It only opened its first Canadian dealerships in 2002, though it sold thousands of captive imports in Canada under the Dodge banner going back decades (you might remember the Dodge Colt). Fortified by a five-year comprehensive warranty and 10-year powertrain warranty, the cars are decently made, but the franchise is floundering in a hyper-competitive market. Its Lancer compact sedan hasn’t been redesigned in 10 years (!), and even the Outlander crossover hasn’t recently seen a re-think. Mitsubishi is a massive conglomerate with deep pockets, but the automobile division has to sink or swim on its own merits. We don’t see a lot of complaints by Mitsu owners online, although the CVT transmission (hello, Jatco) has been less than bulletproof. The updated Outlander for 2014 did introduce some electronic snafus related to the forward collision mitigation system and other high-tech driving aids.
Ford has undergone an extraordinary transformation by adopting smaller, turbocharged “Ecoboost” engines to yield better fleet fuel consumption numbers than the old V-6 and V-8 powertrains provided. While their performance is rewarding – turbos provide copious torque – their reliability has been less than ideal (J.D. Power said as much in their study last year). Add to that Ford’s notorious dual-clutch automatic transmission that has ruined the ownership experience of plenty of Focus and Fiesta drivers, and Ford’s reliability record is far from stellar lately. The Escape sport-ute has been plagued by engine fires traced back to the British-made 1.6-L turbo four (subject of several recalls). Faulty fuel pumps have introduced an epidemic of sorts, too. The Sync and MyFord Touch infotainment systems have not met owners’ expectations. It’s no secret Ford has had trouble executing its smart driver interface technology, an irritation some owners may over-emphasize. Despite the bad news, the Ford F-150 was the highest ranked large pickup in the light-truck segment for 2014.
Fiat Chrysler’s truck division was only three years young as a separate brand (formerly Dodge) in 2014, but its longhorn brand identity was cultivated long before that. Dodge Ram pickup trucks earned some hard-fought market share after their re-invention in 1994. Engines were key to their success story: the 395-hp 5.7-L Hemi V-8 is a legacy draw, while the Cummins 6.7-L turbodiesel six-cylinder enjoys a huge following. Unlike the V-8 diesels offered in the heavy-duty GM and Ford pickups, the Cummins is an inline six, which is inherently smoother and mechanically simpler. However, all is not well in the House of Ram. The ZF eight-speed transmission migrated to the Ram 1500 pickup in 2013, which prompted complaints about abrupt and hard shifting. The Hemi V-8 has been known to snap rocker arms. The new “EcoDiesel” engine is an Italian-sourced V-6 that does not appear to hold up nearly as well as the older Cummins. Owners report ongoing issues with the diesel engine’s emissions system.
Fiat Chrysler’s Dodge division has hitched its star to the successful Chrysler 300 rear-drive chassis, which underpins the nostalgic Challenger and Charger models. In the same vein, a lot of Dodge models share components; trouble is, if those common components are flawed, the entire lineup is prone to mechanical issues. The popular Pentastar 3.6-L V-6, for example, can reportedly develop a cracked cylinder head. The automaker’s totally integrated power module (TIPM) has introduced all kinds of drivability issues in numerous models, including the Grand Caravan and Durango. Dodge owners have spent a small fortune on repairs for batteries, fuel pumps and other components prescribed by dealers, all while the real trouble was caused by defective TIPMs. A major class action lawsuit was recently settled in the U.S. The Alfa Romeo-based Dart compact sedan uses a dual-clutch automatic that is prone to failure (and the manual gearbox is barely more durable), while the Fiat-supplied engines can exhibit oil consumption and other wear issues at an early age.
Here’s proof that Japanese manufacturers aren’t immune to dependability challenges. Nissan’s luxury and performance division has never had an easy go of it in North America, and its 2014 models – which adopted the curious “Q” nomenclature – have been riddled with technology hiccups that irritate owners. Chiefly, Infiniti’s inTouch electronics are buggy, slow or won’t respond to inputs at all, owners report. The adoption of all-season run-flat tires on most trim levels of the Q50 sedan equates to subpar handling when the car is driven hard, and owners note the tires are noisy, notoriously unreliable and expensive to replace. The sedan’s drive-by-wire steering system is inaccurate and has frustrated drivers. The forward collision warning system reportedly can interfere with the driver when it falsely senses an obstacle in the road. In an attempt to emulate its segment target (BMW), Infiniti engineers were too clever by half, resulting in high-tech gear that has yet to have the bugs worked out.
Fiat Chrysler’s storied 75-year-old brand continues to sell very well – the iconic Wrangler enjoys excellent resale value, too – but owners have to contend with ongoing problems such as leaking transfer cases, faulty transmissions, poor electrics (related to faulty TIPMs) and the telltale “death wobble” exhibited by the Wrangler’s suspension as it wears. Problems are also rampant in the more modern unibody Jeep platforms, including the newly redesigned Cherokee for 2014. Built on Fiat’s modular CUS Wide platform, the Cherokee has been the subject of overwhelming complaints about its ZF-designed nine-speed automatic transmission. Owners have reported sudden lunges from unexpected downshifts, a lack of kickdown upon entering highways, front-axle vibration in low gears, as well as wholesale failures. The Cherokee’s base 2.4-L Multiair2 four-cylinder engine has also generated a lot of gripes, including oil consumption. The aging Compass and Patriot models had problems of their own, such as stalling at speed – a nerve-wracking problem to contend with on a busy highway. Jeep continues to linger at the bottom of the dependability rankings – which, oddly, doesn’t deter buyers.
Last year we gave props to Fiat for toiling to get out of the basement of the J.D. Power’s Dependability Study – it scored 171 problems per 100 vehicles – but this year the brand has fallen to a new low. Consider the score of 298 PP100 is 74% worse. What gives? The 2014 model year saw the introduction of the chubby 500L, a proper five-door hatchback with room for five occupants. The car rides on a unique platform, but it uses some familiar Fiat pieces, including a 160-hp, 1.4-L turbocharged four-cylinder engine and two transmissions: a six-speed manual and a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. That latter gearbox has been plagued with problems, say owners, including burning clutches, locking gears, and shutting down completely (Fiat wisely replaced the dual-clutch transmission with a conventional six-speed automatic on most 2015 models). Even the manual transmission was criticized for its fast-wearing friction material and pressure plates, and electrical faults are rampant in all Fiat models. Dare we ask: Will Fiat once again beat a hasty retreat back to Europe?
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