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How reliable will your new car be?

CarsGuide

22 Apr 2016 • 7 min read

We lift the bonnet on reliability statistics car makers want to keep secret from buyers.

There's little more frustrating than buying a new car that starts throwing tantrums.

Life would be simpler and less stressful if, as part of your car buying research, you could find out which makes and models are reliable and which ones give their owners grief.

This information is available here but the car companies have an agreement among themselves to keep it top secret.

You have probably never heard of the Automotive Retail and Manufacturing Syndicate (ARMS), a coalition of more than 30 car makers that runs an annual survey of car buyers to find out how they're getting along with their new car, from initial purchase through the first three years of ownership.

It asks about problems and faults with the car itself, plus the buyer's opinion of the dealer's customer service and the overall feel-good factor — or otherwise — of their experience with brand X, Y or Z.

Brands are ranked, from best to worst, and the results shared among ARMS syndicate members — but not with the people who buy new cars.

CarsGuide has tried to obtain the results of the latest ARMS survey, without success.

Hyundai is a member of ARMS. As a producer of high quality cars, backed by a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, and one of the market's boom brands, is it in favour of releasing the results?

No. "They're not really meant for public release," says Customer Experience and Aftersales Manager Hyundai Australia Tony Hutton. "Sometimes what is perceived as a quality issue isn't really a quality issue and there are also vagaries with new cars that sometimes mean faults aren't faults," he says.

So there you go. If you think your new car has a problem, it may not be a problem at all. You're probably just imagining it.

In the car business the strong usually devour the weak but, when it comes to ARMS survey results, even those brands that continue to make unreliable cars are protected by the syndicate.

"Rule 101 says you don't get far by pointing out the problems of your competitors," says Hutton.

We don't have the make and model rankings from the ARMS survey but a CarsGuide source has provided some details about trends and the overall quality performance of new cars in Australia.

"It is improving," he says. "There are a lot fewer engines blowing up today and many of the niggles now are more to do with new technology, such as infotainment systems and smartphone connectivity."

"Price and quality are definitely not related. If you want to know the really bad cars, just use the net and social media."

There's an unofficial, but pretty accurate, quality and reliability pecking order in new cars, based on their brand's country of origin.

The Japanese makers are at the top, closely followed by the rapidly improving South Koreans ("who are certainly getting close to the Japanese," according to our source), then the Europeans ("they all have their idiosyncrasies"), followed by the Americans and then, at the back of the pack, the Australians, Ford and Holden.

If ARMS won't hand over its results, let's see what we can find elsewhere.

According to the 2016 Lemon Car Report, published by consumer advocate Choice, 68 per cent of Holden owners had a problem with their new car in the first five years of ownership, the highest in the survey, followed by Ford on 65 per cent. Mazda was the best brand in the Choice results, with 44 per cent of owners having a problem.

"Australian brands are actually getting a bit better," according to our ARMS source — cold comfort given both are about to shut the factory gates.

Choice's report also backs up ARMS results in identifying Bluetooth connectivity as the most common problem area in new cars, followed by battery and electrics, the interior then the engine.

The industry benchmark in new car quality analysts, US firm JD Power, runs annual surveys of more than 30,000 American new-car buyers to measure initial quality — how their car performs over the first 90 days of ownership — and reliability over the first three years.

JD Power cautions against using its US results in the Australian context. However, its Initial Quality Study (IQS) and Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS) rankings, based on problems per 100 vehicles, are the most accurate publicly available information about the relative quality and reliability performance of new cars.

Its 2016 VDS, which covered 32 brands, also identified voice recognition, Bluetooth pairing, connectivity, and navigation issues as the most problematic areas on new vehicles.

Lexus was the most reliable brand in the survey, for the fifth consecutive year, followed by Porsche, Buick (a GM brand not sold here) and Toyota.

Dodge took the wooden spoon, behind Ford, Smart, Land Rover and Jeep.

Consumer Reports in the US is feared by the car companies because its opinions count among American car buyers. It analyses new cars based on road test performance, predicted reliability, safety and owner satisfaction, then publishes the results in its car brand Report Card.

In its April 2016 Report Card, Consumer Reports also ranks Lexus as the most reliable brand, along with Toyota. Its "Worst" predicted reliability rating goes equally to Land Rover, Jeep and Fiat.

Choice found that 66 per cent of new-car buyers had problems with their cars in the first five years of ownership. Given the advanced, complex state of current automotive technology, which has produced cars that are infinitely safer, more efficient, refined and sophisticated than ever before, that's not a bad result.

But the lemons are still out there, protected in Australia by the syndicate's code of silence.

Lemon squeeze

The Australian Consumer Law 2011 (ACL) says that if you buy a new car and it has a "major failure" you are entitled to take it back to the dealer and claim a refund, or a replacement — either an identical new car or a car of similar value. The choice is yours.

A major failure is when a reasonable consumer would not have bought the car if they had known about the problem, or when the car is substantially unfit for its normal purpose.

In other words, the car is a lemon.

To date, the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission has not prosecuted dealers or manufacturers for breaches of the law.

It has the industry in its sights, though, particularly over the practice of forcing consumers to sign confidentiality agreements as a condition of refunding money or replacing a car.

This year, the commission tells CarsGuide, it has made a priority of "consumer issues arising in relation to new car retailing, including responses by retailers and manufacturers to consumer guarantee claims".

"The ACCC is aware that in some instances consumers have signed confidentiality agreements as part of settlement agreements with car manufacturers," it says.

"The ACCC would have some concerns when a business seeks to impose confidentiality clauses as a condition of providing remedies a consumer is entitled to under the consumer guarantee provisions of the Australian Consumer Law."

Tony Weber of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries says that car buyers have exercised their rights under the consumer law in a "very low proportion" of new car sales.

A review is under way on the effectiveness of the legislation. Have your say — public submissions are open until May 27 and can be made at consumerlaw.gov.au.

Problems per 100 vehicles
Lexus - 95
Porsche - 97
Toyota - 113
Honda - 126
Audi - 134

Mercedes-Benz - 135
Infiniti - 136
BMW - 142

Volvo - 152
Industry Average - 152
Kia - 153
Mini - 155
Hyundai - 158
Mitsubishi - 161
Mazda - 163
Chrysler - 165

Subaru - 166
Volkswagen - 169
Fiat - 171
Nissan - 173
Jeep - 181
Land Rover- 198
Ford - 204
Dodge - 208