A friend of mine recently asked me which car companies I would recommend—he wants to get a used vehicle, but he’s not sure where to start. I started to give him my usual answer about checking out how different brands are ranked at the moment, but then I realized I had a problem. I wasn’t sure where different brands were ranked right now; more than that, however, when I went to look, I started finding different results. One website was happy to suggest that he head to a used Chevy dealership for the most reliable vehicles, while another said that Toyota makes the most reliable cars around.
As I fell into a rabbit hole of different car websites and blogs, I quickly discovered that there’s very little consensus on which brands are the best to shop for. Everyone seems to agree that when you’re looking at used vehicles, you want to find something highly rated in terms of reliability, but no one can really agree on which brands those are. So now I was at an impasse; at this point, I was basically doing meta-research as I researched how research is done, which has me wondering how anyone shopping for a car can possibly sort through all of this. Let’s take a look at some different metrics by which vehicles are judged and awarded and what it all means.
What’s a Reliability Rating?
One of the most significant awards or scores you tend to see advertised and thrown around a lot by car companies is reliability. A commercial might mention some high ranking in “J.D. Power Initial Quality” or how they’re rated by Consumer Reports. Why though? What do those things mean, and why should we care enough about them to hear about it in an advertisement for a vehicle that we’re going to be driving for the next half-decade or so?
Well, I just answered the question: reliability is all about how well a vehicle performs initially and how analysts expect it to continue to perform in the years to come. Someone looking at a new car wants to know it will run well for as long as they have it and (perhaps more importantly) that it will retain as much value as possible for when they’re ready to trade it in. Similarly, a shopper looking for a good used car wants high reliability because it means they have a better chance of getting something in good shape that won’t need any major work done any time soon. So far, so good—right?
But here’s the rub: who decides how reliable a vehicle is? Just out of curiosity, I searched online for “highest-rated Chevy models reliability” to see what came out on top. No one seems to agree! One site told me the Chevy Bolt EV was tops, while another said it was the Chevy Trailblazer, and a third website pointed me to the Chevy Impala. Just to make things even more complicated, that third one claimed they got their rankings from information provided by the second site I looked at, even though what they’re saying doesn’t line up with the information I’m looking at on that page. So yeah, it’s a mess.
Best Sources for Ratings?
Fortunately, we do have a couple of options that let us cut through the nonsense of bouncing from site to site and blog to blog. For one thing, a lot of the sites you find if you go searching for vehicle rankings of any kind (including reliability) provide no information on how they decided on that. They’ll give you a list of vehicles, with a little blurb about each, but you have no idea why they chose those models or how they arranged the list. Some will cite another website or organization as their source but still not provide you with a direct link to that information, so you have to take their word for it.
Your best bet is to skip all of that and go straight to one of two sources when it comes to reliability: J.D. Power or Consumer Reports. Those are the two big names in ranking vehicles, particularly when it comes to quality and long-term reliability. For starters, both of them conduct their own research rather than supposedly pulling data or information from someone else, and they’re quite straightforward on how they get their data. They’ve also both been around for decades, so there’s a certain amount of confidence you can have in them.
But there’s a problem still—isn’t there always? In both of these cases, their information comes from surveys conducted with customers. They don’t have some kind of purely objective metrics by which they’re able to measure and analyze reliability. Both companies survey owners of different vehicles to find out how well they like them and where they’ve found issues or problems with getting the most from their vehicles. In other words, in both instances, you’re essentially looking at a massive group of people just talking about what they think of their cars; J.D. Power and Consumer Reports simply filter that information into a usable way.
You can tell this is largely subjective by their results. Looking at one batch of rankings from both of them this year, Consumer Reports listed their top five brands (in order) as Toyota, Lexus, BMW, Mazda, and Honda, while J.D. Power found their top five for reliability are Lexus, Genesis, Kia, Buick, and Chevy. Both seem to agree that Lexus is one of the best brands out there, but otherwise, there’s zero overlap. Super helpful.
What About Safety and Similar Features?
So far, we have just looked at reliability, but that’s far from the only thing that matters when people talk about the best cars out there. Safety is—as far as I’m concerned—the most important factor to consider. Fortunately, looking at different vehicles and how safe they are is much simpler than trying to judge models based on reliability. Once again, we have two agencies at work evaluating and ranking vehicle safety: the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The IIHS is an independent, nonprofit organization funded by auto insurance companies to test vehicles and evaluate how safe they are. Insurance companies don’t want to pay for crashes, so it’s in their best interest to have vehicles be as safe as possible; it might be self-motivated, but I have no problem with selfishness if it helps reduce car collisions. The NHTSA is a government organization, part of the Department of Transportation, which similarly ranks vehicles based on test crashes and similar programs to see how safe they are. In both cases, their results are far more objective than reliability rankings, and they award ratings to vehicles based on their performance in scientific studies.
Why Can’t Things Be Simple?
Wouldn’t it be great if reliability rankings could be just as objective as safety, with set testing and standards that gave us hard numbers we could rely on? Sadly, that’s just not possible if you’re looking at a new vehicle and wondering how well it will perform five years from now. Things are better with used models since people have already driven them for several years (or longer, depending on model year) and have typically started finding common issues that pop up. That’s why it’s best to do research beyond simply looking at reliability numbers from when a vehicle is first released or “initial quality,” and instead, we need to look at what drivers have said after owning a model for six years and driving 70,000 miles with it.
In the end, I told my friend a couple of different brands and models with high safety rankings and good track records so far from drivers; I’m not sure what he’ll choose, but it’s the best I could do.