Built to Last
10 vehicles that will stand the test of time.
Reliability is a tricky business with automobiles. They are increasingly complex mechanical and electronic objects with thousands of parts, any one of which can fail at any time. Plus, says Michael Pecht, a reliability expert with the Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering at the University of Maryland, many companies outsource complex electronic parts such as engine control modules, and just assume they will work with their vehicles. "However, often there are no statistically acceptable accelerated tests conducted on the vehicle as a whole," he says. In other words, many of the complex systems in a modern vehicle might be linked by a bond of pure faith.
Yet, amazingly, today's high-tech autos seem to work — and more reliably than ever before. Dave Sargent, vice president of vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates, which performs the industry-standard Initial Quality and Vehicle Dependability studies, says that the company's research has shown steady improvement in vehicle quality across the board every year. "Basically, we've seen about a 5 percent reduction in the number of problems reported each year," Sargent says. "So if you buy a 2011 model-year vehicle, chances are that it will have fewer problems in its first five years than if you had bought a 2010 vehicle."
While buying a new vehicle is good advice if long-term reliability is your goal, it doesn't really address questions about individual models. Studies such as J.D. Power's vehicle dependability survey are inherently backward-looking, so they do not tell the whole story. So how, for example, can you assess the potential reliability of a new model or redesign? "We wrestle with that question," Sargent says. "The easiest way to determine long-term reliability is to wait a long time. It's hard to predict the reliability of a new car, by definition."
While predictions are not foolproof, they're also not impossible to make. We've cross-referenced analysis of J.D. Power's Initial Quality and Vehicle Dependability studies, and thrown in a few extra points for any vehicle or manufacturer that has shown significant momentum toward quality improvement over the past few years. The resulting list of cars should have just the right recipe for long-term reliability: Start with a good reputation, then stir in some well-earned faith.
Let's start with something obvious. The Honda Accord has scored between 3.5 and 5 — the top rating — every year for the past 10 years on both J.D. Power's Initial Quality and Overall Dependability studies, which rank user satisfaction in the first year and the third year of ownership, respectively. Luckily for Honda, neither study quantifies excitement, which is pretty hard to muster when you're driving one of the plainest-looking and -driving sedans on the market — and harder still when you realize that for less than the Accord's $21,180 base price, you can find a more exhilarating vehicle in either the Nissan Altima or the Ford Fusion.
Here's a vehicle that has scored a perfect 5 in J.D. Power's survey of Initial Quality for the past six years and between 3.5 and 5 in Overall Dependability for four out of the past five years. While most Porsche owners are reluctant to breathe a bad word about the brand for fear of being tossed out of the "club," there has to be something behind years of stellar satisfaction ratings. And if you're paying a base price of $77,800 — and nobody ever pays base price on a Porsche 911 — you have a right to demand perfection.
The LaCrosse was overhauled in 2010 from its Geritol-friendly earlier design to a new shape and chassis that is about as sprightly and sexy as this brand is likely to get. A dose of re-engineering is likely to dip any model's satisfaction numbers a bit while the manufacturer works out some of the kinks — Sargent recommends that buyers steer clear of a new redesign for at least a year — which makes the 2011 Buick LaCrosse a pretty safe bet. Plus, starting at $26,995, the LaCrosse is a pretty good deal for a big car with a smooth ride and a quiet interior. It's like somebody slipped a little Viagra in with the Geritol.
Why is a car we haven't even seen yet on this list? Well, first off, we're sticking to the "give 'em a year to get the kinks out" philosophy. Secondly, rumor has it that next year Hyundai may upgrade the Equus' competent 4.6-liter V8 engine with an even more competent 5.0-liter V8. It took cojones for Hyundai to produce the Equus, a $58,000-plus, limolike sedan that takes straight aim at the Mercedes S-Class and Lexus LS. But the Equus is an insanely comfortable, quiet and indulgent vehicle that, next to offerings from Mercedes, BMW and Lexus, is also an insanely good deal.
Since its introduction in 2006, the Ford Fusion has delivered impressive build quality and reliability. The 2010 redesign has made this midsize sedan even more appealing. Some of Ford's newer introductions, such as the relaunched Fiesta and upcoming Focus, have stolen some of the Fusion's econocar thunder, but there's no denying the record of satisfaction and value that this bargain 4-door — starting at $19,720 — has established. In the most recent J.D. Power rankings, it scored an impressive 5 in overall initial quality.
No SUV posts long-term reliability numbers like the Toyota Highlander. For years, it has owned its SUV segment in J.D. Power's dependability rankings. Even Toyota's widely reported recalls in 2009-2011 haven't put a dent in the Highlander's reputation. The model has undergone a slight design refresh for the 2011 model year — prices start at $27,540 — but no major engineering overhauls that might jeopardize its reliability. Of course, as SUVs go, the Highlander is more grocery-getter than mountain-climber, but we're talking reliability over the long haul here, not Sherpa-style surefootedness.
Much as in the SUV category, Toyota has dominated the dependability ratings in the big-pickup segment for several years now. The Ford F-150, though, has been posting some serious competition in both initial satisfaction and dependability rankings of late. Nevertheless, Toyota's big truck has built a solid-gold reputation for quality, and because work vehicles take a considerable beating, it's only logical to pick one with a history of holding itself together over the long haul. The 2011 Tundra comes in Regular Cab ($23,935), Double Cab ($26,275) and CrewMax ($29,245) trims.
Like Buick, Lincoln is another nearly moribund American nameplate that used to set the standards for automotive quality and luxury. In the 1980s and 1990s, these brands were left to grow old, stylistically speaking, with their customers. The 2000s have seen a reinvigoration of design in both marques, and the rankings of both the LaCrosse and Lincoln's MKZ on J.D. Power satisfaction and dependability studies speak to a renewed focus on quality. The MKZ is outfitted with a dramatic "waterfall" grille and chrome accents on the outside, nice leather and fixtures on the inside, and a 3.5-liter 263-horsepower V6 engine under the hood.
Although they both come from the same parent company, the Toyota Highlander and Lexus GX 460 come at the SUV segment from totally different angles. The Highlander is, essentially, a Camry goosed up for SUV duty, while the GX, which was redesigned for 2010 and starts at $52,445, is a true body-on-frame truck, engineered to climb mountains, even if it will probably never see much more than a suburban snow bank. The GX sports full-time 4-wheel drive, a hill-descent control feature and an innovative Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System that adjusts the front and rear stabilizer bars to allow more wheel travel in off-road conditions. It also has a strong track record of reliability.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Hyundai's steady march forward on quality has been the company's popular Sonata sedan, which has been completely redesigned for 2011. Its J.D. Power Initial Quality and Predicted Reliability rankings are impressively high, and the vehicle is a remarkable bargain. Starting at $19,195, the Sonata delivers all the fit and finish of competing sedans such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, while undercutting comparably equipped competitors by thousands of dollars. With the redesign, the Sonata also manages to be a far handsomer vehicle than the Accord, Camry and even the Nissan Altima. Add to that impressive road manners, quiet ride and lots of standard features and the Sonata seems a no-brainer buy.
Sam Foley is a Connecticut-based automotive journalist who has written for GQ, Forbes, USA Today, the New York Post and various other publications.
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Buy American? Dodge/Jeep/Chrysler is owned by a German company which in turn is owned buy an Arabic Company. Most Ford and Chevy parts are produced and imported. My Chevy truck has an engine built in Mexico and transmission produced in Canada.....but legislation allows Chevy to say "American Made" because 40% of the parts are produced domestically (even though they fail to tell you that those are shipped over seas for final assembly). Here is a fun fact: 90% of ALL American Flags are produced in foriegn countries (primarily asian). Agree or not, but the fact remains, NAFTA, free world trade is not good for our country, its economy and red blooded Americans like you and I. Buy what you want, drive what you want, but always check the label cause "American Made" died with the "American Dream" fabel..........