Not only are cars and trucks getting more reliable, but everyman vehicles overall are now more dependable than luxury brands. That’s according to the 2019 J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study, which looks at how well 2016 models have held up.
Lexus was first, followed by a tie between Porsche and Toyota, with Chevrolet taking fourth. Buick, Mini, BMW, Audi, Hyundai and Kia rounded out the top 10.
“The industry continues to make more and more reliable vehicles despite putting more and more technology on those vehicles,” said David Sargent, a J.D. Power vice president.
That doesn’t mean perfection has been achieved.
Owners complained about a wide variety of problems, including batteries that fail, wind noise, transmissions that shift oddly and things that just break, Sargent said in an interview. While they may upset owners, these issues are not likely to leave them stranded, he said.
J.D. Power, which sells automakers the right to advertise good ratings from its research, has conducted the Vehicle Dependability Study for 30 years. For 2019, almost 33,000 owners of 31 brands were asked about problems in eight major categories, including engine, transmission, controls, entertainment and navigation.
The vehicles and automakers are ranked on the number of problems for every 100 vehicles, with lower numbers being better. The industry average this year was 136 problems per 100 vehicles. That’s down from 142 in 2018 and 156 in 2017.
When J.D. Power combined the scores of “mass market brands,” it came up with an average of 135 problems per 100 vehicles. That compared with 141 for the luxury marques, which weren’t helped by Volvo (204) and Land Rover (221). They took the 29th and 30th spots. Fiat (249) was ranked last.
A Land Rover spokesman said the automaker had problems with its infotainment system and was correcting those. A Fiat spokesman said the automaker expected to move up as a result of a quality improvement program. A Volvo spokesman did not respond to a request for comment, but Sargent said that Volvo had just introduced its new 2016 XC90 and that it was not unusual for new models to have problems.
The difference isn’t just that luxury owners are more likely to complain because they spent more money. That’s always been the case, yet this is the first time the mass-market brands came out ahead, Sargent said.
The major reason comes down to infotainment systems, with features like navigation, voice recognition and the ability to link a smartphone, Sargent said. It amounts to a triumph of the simple.
On mass-market cars and trucks, the systems are less complicated. Consequently, they are easier to operate, work better and are less likely to frustrate their owners. Luxury automakers’ efforts to dazzle and amaze may instead confuse and annoy.
“Complex, infuriating systems have a much, much greater impact,” Sargent said.
Another factor is an improvement in good, old-fashioned engineering. “The mass-market manufacturers have gotten a lot better at fundamental reliability, the absence of things going wrong, wearing out, falling off,” he said.
While the luxury automakers as a group faltered, some brands triumphed. It’s the eighth consecutive year at the top for Lexus, with 106 problems per 100 vehicles. Porsche followed at 108, along with Toyota.
For the first time, Porsche and the other German brands were all better than the industry average. BMW was seventh, Audi eighth, Volkswagen 12th and Mercedes-Benz 13th.
One shift during the past decade is that Japanese automakers no longer dominate. A decade ago, five of the top 10 were Japanese. This year, only Toyota and Lexus, its luxury brand, were in the top 10.
Sargent said that reflected fierce industry competition — and how some officials who had worked for Japanese automakers moved to help competitors.
Honda, once a regular in the top 10, is 18th — four spots below the average. The 2019 study looked at 2016 models — the year Honda introduced a new Civic and Pilot.