Buyers considering a used car may want to stick to 2010 models. J.D. Power released its annual Vehicle Reliability Study (VRS) on March 12, finding that reliability on three-year-old vehicles was down for the first time since 1998. The VRS is a highly-watched study that auto manufacturers use to design vehicles that last longer, and consumers use to choose a used car. A used car with fewer problems may qualify buyers for low cost auto insurance, as older vehicles can cost less to repair or replace in the event of an accident.
The study looks at vehicles that are three years old and finds the average number of problems reported per 100 vehicles. Since 1998, there have been fewer overall problems each year, a trend that reversed this year when problems rose by 6 percent. Per hundred vehicles, 2010 models experienced 126 problems, while 2011 models experienced 133.
Engine problems in 2011 models
The majority of this increase was driven by reported engine problems. In particular, vehicles with 4-cylinder engines experienced more problems - 10 problems per 100 vehicles (PP100). These smaller engines have become more common in the auto industry in recent years, as automakers work to comply with federal fuel economy regulations, which mandate that vehicles must reach 54.5 miles per gallon by 2026, according to USA Today.
"Automakers are continually looking for ways to improve fuel economy, which is a primary purchase motivator for many consumers, particularly those buying smaller vehicles," said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power. "However, while striving to reduce fuel consumption, automakers must be careful not to compromise quality. Increases in such problems as engine hesitation, rough transmission shifts, and lack of power indicate that this is a continuing challenge."
Reliability drives loyalty
Reliability is extremely important to both new and used car buyers, perhaps in part because of the fewer general auto insurance claims that owners of reliable cars have to make. The VRS combined data from previous years to report that owners who had experienced no problems with their vehicles had a 56 percent chance of sticking with the same brand of car for their next purchase. Owners who had experienced three or more problems, on the other hand, only bought a vehicle from the same brand 42 percent of the time.
The study also found that, unsurprisingly, customers avoided cars that were unreliable. Customers avoided buying cars ranked in the bottom quartile of the 2013 VRS 23 percent of the time, citing concerns about reliability. Car buyers, especially used car buyers, tend to stick with their cars for a number of years, so it isn't surprising that the reliability of a car is important to them.
The most reliable cars
The cars that scored the highest in 2014 VRS tended to be from high-end auto makers, though buyers are reminded that used cars are significantly cheaper than new ones. Lexus ranked by far the highest, with only 68 PP100 in 2011 models. Next came Mercedes-Benz, at 104 PP100; Cadillac, 107 PP100; Acura, 109 PP100; and Buick, 112 PP100.
As car manufacturers work toward the 54.5 MPG rule that takes effect in 2026, some industry analysts are worried that the number of problems that the average car experiences could go up. The good news is that once this ambitious goal is reached, customers will save a significant amount of money on gas. Over the long term, reliability will likely return as well, as auto manufacturers get better at incorporating new technology in ways that will last.