A car dealer's data-driven guide to the 10 most reliable brands

April 21, 2014

Every car brand likes to market themselves as the best. From "The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection" that launched Lexus to the top of most quality surveys, to "The Ultimate Driving Machine" solidifying the performance pedigree of BMW, automakers like to tell us that they alone are going to offer the absolute best long-term ownership experience. 

But are they telling the truth?

I have been a car dealer, an auctioneer, and part-owner of an auto auction over the past 15 years. During that time, I have seen a lot of easily detectable patterns between those brands that have truly stood by their promise, and those that were merely giving lip service.

However, one man's experience can only go so far. That's why over the past year and a half, I have co-developed a long-term reliability study that now has nearly 350,000 sample trade-ins from all over the country.

These vehicles were all independently inspected and appraised by professional car buyers who are trained to detect mechanical and structural issues, which can be overlooked or unreported by the owners in other industry studies, and are recorded by those who have no owner bias.

We also took a close look at whether certain models began to show severe mechanical issues after the usual period when new cars are under the microscope. Most quality studies offered to the general public either focus on initial quality (90 days) or what industry analysts have called long-term quality (3 years to 5 years). As a result, an awful lot of vehicles end up receiving recommendations earlier in their life, and then become rolling money pits as they get older.

We wanted to show whether specific brands and models were living up to their public billing, or simply using clever words at the beginning and shafting their customers in the long run.

The 10 worst vehicles and the 10 best vehicles have already been covered. However, the majority of new car buyers are brand loyal (51.5 percent buy the same brand according to the market analysis firm R.L. Polk). Therefore, we’re focusing specifically on the 10 best brands in the marketplace today.

Listed here, the top 10 in ascending order:

10: Mitsubishi This was a complete shocker. However, Mitsubishi has benefited from long model runs over the past ten years, and much of what they sold was devoid of the unproven electronics and technologies that have hurt other brands. Four-cylinder models are particularly strong in terms of long-term reliability.

9: Hummer The short-lived Hummer brand may have been the butt of many a joke before it's demise. But the best-selling versions of these over-sized, gas guzzling models offered durable engines and transmissions that were shared by several other GM trucks and SUVs.

8: Mercedes-Benz Mercedes is helped by three big ingredients that help their long-term reliability: Long model runs for their most popular vehicles; a multitude of models that share the same engines and transmissions; and finally, a quality initiative that made long-term customer satisfaction a priority. We should note that all three of these brands are surprisingly close to each other in terms of long-term reliability.

7: Acura Honda's Acura division is helped by four-cylinder models such as the Acura RSX and Acura TSX, which are ranked among the highest quality vehicles in the study. The poor reliability of transmissions for V-6 models throughout the late-90's and early 2000's pulled down the overall rankings of both brands. 

6: Infiniti Six of the top 10 Inifiniti models are ranked among the top 15% in overall quality. The Infiniti QX4, an SUV based off Nissan Pathfinder, has enjoyed particularly long periods of trouble-free ownership as have the G37 and M35.

5: Chevrolet While Chevrolet cars have routinely averaged middling to mediocre reliability, Chevrolet trucks and full-sized SUV's have rightly earned their reputation as workhorses. The Corolla-based Prizm and the Chevrolet Corvette are the best Chevy cars when it comes to long-term reliability.

4: Honda The entire Honda line-up has offered excellent long-term reliability with two notable exception: V-6 Accords and Odysseys. The frequency of bad transmissions for the Odyssey, and the Accord from 1998 thru 2002 was enough to pull them well outside the top rankings of reliable vehicles, although four-cylinder Accord models continue to be ranked among the top. 

3: GMC Once again it's the full-sized American truck and SUV that makes all the difference for domestic manufacturers. The same strong showing in full-sized trucks is also true for Ford. For GMC, it's the Sierra truck, Suburban SUV, and Savanna full-szied van that are true standouts.

2: Lexus Lexus has three of the top seven ranked vehicles when it comes to long-term reliability; including the Lexus LX which is ranked at #1 along with it's sister model,  the Toyota Land Cruiser. Lexus is the only brand in the study that offersexcellent long-term reliability for every single model they sell.

1: Toyota There are certain weeks when the Toyota Camry will offer more high-mileage trades than all European models.... combined. Part of Toyota's dominance comes from having two of their models, the Camry and Corolla, represent nearly half their sales. However as Lexus offers three of the top 10 vehicles when it comes to long-term reliability, Toyota nails four more spots. The Land Cruiser, 4Runner, Sequoia and Avalon are all top ranked with the Corolla and Camry firmly in the top 3% of reliable models.  
Author's note: Brands with the bulk of their trade-ins from 2000 and before were removed from the rankings to maintain consistency between brands.