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How reliable will your new car be?

What we'd all like to know is what are the most reliable car brands in Australia, and the most unreliable cars for that matter.

When you buy a new television, or a fridge, a phone, a laptop or even a heater, you really don't expect to have problems with them, so why is it that we seem to just accept that, even today, with automated manufacturing excellence and quality control, some new cars will be lemons, and that plenty of cars will have niggling faults, teething errors and software crashes from day one?

If I think about the TVs and other electrical goods I've bought in my life, I can't recall many warranty issues at all - indeed, a warranty is more of a nice warm feeling than something you need to use, most of the time.

And yet with cars, consumer items that cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, and are usually the second-most expensive purchase most of us make, I've had plenty of failures, and even breakdowns.

Fortunately, none of the cars have been mine, because I borrow brand-new - and no doubt meticulously prepared - vehicles from car companies for work. And yet at least several times a year, I witness problems on new cars that would, if I'd just paid big bucks for them, drive me bonkers, ranting mad.

The argument from car companies would be that motor vehicles are far more complex and have far more moving and interacting parts than fridges or phones, which is also how they justify their price tags, but shouldn't reliability still be more of a given?

What we'd all like to know is what are the most reliable car brands in Australia, and the most unreliable cars for that matter.

If only there was some kind of car reliability ranking system in Australia. Well, the good news is that there is such a thing - it's called the Automotive Retail and Manufacturing Syndicate (ARMS) survey, but the bad news is that we're not allowed to look at it, and nor are you.

ARMS is a coalition of more than 30 car makers that runs an annual survey of car buyers to find out how their new car is performing, from initial purchase through the first three years of ownership.

What a very interesting story the survey must tell about the most reliable cars in Australia, and car life expectancy by brand, but there seems to be no way that the car companies will release this fascinating and consumer-vital information. Trust us, we've tried.

As one Hyundai spokesman put it, the survey is "not really meant for public release", because "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." Which is an answer so hilariously filled with politician-style comedy that it should be in Yes Minister, or Mad As Hell.

Try telling someone who has a fault with their new car that the fault that's bothering them isn't actually a fault, and perhaps it's their fault for describing it as one.

Finding fault

So, with the information you really need unavailable, how can we go about finding out which brands are the best, and worst.

Well, you can start with reputation, of course, and the fact is that car reliability based on country of origin is one of those cliches that's a cliche for a reason - most of the time it's true.

The fact is, Japanese cars are, and have long been, the most reliable - so Toyota, Lexus, Mazda, Subaru (which has a particularly strong reputation for mechanical strength) and Honda are all pretty safe bets.

For several years now, the South Koreans have been working hard to match the Japanese for reliability and our industry sources tell us is it's now a closer-run thing than ever, so you can expect Hyundai reliability and Kia reliability to be right up there.

While you might think German cars are wonderfully engineered - and they are, when it comes to driving dynamics - their reliability is not generally as good as the Japanese (with the exception of Porsche). Volkswagen reliability is certainly, in global terms, not as impressive as Toyota's, and nor is Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz for that matter.

French and Italian cars are famous for having almost equal levels of flair and faults, and there are some cruel people who say you are taking your chances if you buy any of them. But, to be fair, they've been getting better over the past decade or so.

Down in the cellar of reliability are Australian brands - which effectively are now American brands, which occasionally import some European-built cars - and… American brands, like Jeep, which has a truly woeful reliability record.

The most recent actual data available in Australia is a customer survey of thousands of motorists who have bought a new car in this country in the past three years by the folks at Canstar Blue.

The company's 2019 surgery handed our star ratings and declared one brand - Mitsubishi - to be the number one in terms of new-car reliability.

Audi, Holden, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes, Nissan, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota and Volkswagen all scored four stars while BMW and Ford got just three stars. That's a surprisingly good result for Holden reliability and suggests it might be moving in the right direction since it stopped building cars locally.

Ask the Americans

In America, the car companies do not get away with keeping their dirty laundry out of sight, thanks to a hugely feared and seemingly infallible annual survey run by new-car-quality analysts JD Power.

The JD Power survey asks more than 30,000 Americans each year to measure how their cars have performed over the first 90 days they've had them, and then over the first three years.

The results are always both enlightening and disturbing. The rankings are based on the number of problems reported per 100 vehicles for each brand.

The 2019 survey put Lexus at the very top as the most reliable brand, with 106 problems per 100 vehicles, with Porsche and Toyota just behind on 108 (the more problems, the worse you're doing, just to be clear).

The average number of problems across the industry was a disturbing 136 per 100 vehicles.

Fiat came in a disturbing last with a whopping 249 problems per 100 vehicles (we did mention that Italian reliability reputation).

BMW (122), Audi (124), Hyundai (124), and Kia (126) took seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th places resepctively, while Volvo and Land Rover were down at the bottom with Fiat.

1. Lexus: 106

2. Porsche: 108

3. Toyota: 108

4. Chevrolet: 115

5. Buick: 118

6. Mini: 119

7. BMW: 122

8. Audi: 124

8. Hyundai: 124

10. Kia: 126

11. Infiniti: 128

12. Volkswagen: 131

13. Mercedes-Benz: 134

14. Subaru: 136

15. Nissan: 137

16. Chrysler: 146

17. Ford: 146

18. Honda: 146

19. Lincoln: 147

20. Mitsubishi: 158

21. Mazda: 159

22. GMC: 161

23. Cadillac: 166

24. Jeep: 167

25. Jaguar: 168

26. Acura: 171

26. Ram: 171

28. Dodge: 178

29. Volvo: 204

30. Land Rover: 221

31. Fiat: 249

Stephen Corby
Contributing Journalist
Stephen Corby stumbled into writing about cars after being knocked off the motorcycle he’d been writing about by a mob of angry and malicious kangaroos. Or that’s what he says, anyway. Back in the early 1990s, Stephen was working at The Canberra Times, writing about everything from politics to exciting Canberra night life, but for fun he wrote about motorcycles. After crashing a bike he’d borrowed, he made up a colourful series of excuses, which got the attention of the motoring editor, who went on to encourage him to write about cars instead. The rest, as they say, is his story. Reviewing and occasionally poo-pooing cars has taken him around the world and into such unexpected jobs as editing TopGear Australia magazine and then the very venerable Wheels magazine, albeit briefly. When that mag moved to Melbourne and Stephen refused to leave Sydney he became a freelancer, and has stayed that way ever since, which allows him to contribute, happily, to CarsGuide.
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