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Why You Should Take Reliability Studies with a Grain of Salt

You have the name-recognized JD Power report and the more scientific deep-dive report from Consumer Reports to name just a few of these lucrative surveys.

Why You Should Take Reliability Studies with a Grain of Salt

Every year a handful of publications and companies release car reliability studies. Most of them follow relatively solid logic, pitting one brand against another in the number of gremlins reported on a new car. Like anything having to do with statistics, they can be bent to move the needle slightly in one direction or the other.

The world of car reliability reports is pretty lucrative for the publication putting it out. You have the name-recognized JD Power report and the more scientific deep-dive report from Consumer Reports to name just a few of these lucrative surveys. The gremlins these reports focus on and weight can include everything from engine issues to tech issues and styling problems. But, as the old adage goes, take everything you read on the Internet with a grain of salt.

In the most recent JD Power Reliability Survey, brands like Lexus, Porsche and Buick all top the list while brands like Subaru, Scion (Toyota’s brand that its getting ready to shutter/roll back into the mothership brand), and Mazda are at the bottom and middle—which is a bit odd. As Autoblog keenly points out—there’s an issue with the math here—JD Power’s rankings somehow weight problems with tech in the car (sav, Bluetooth, Navigation, Voice Recognition etc.) the same as the stuff that puts cars on tow trucks—which in reality makes no sense. I’d rather have my Bluetooth not work than have to call a friend to come get me because my car wont start and has to be flat-bedded to a local repair shop.

The other thing that Autoblog cleverly points out is that there’s something amiss with the overall statistics. The way the JD Power ranking works is to take individual scores from the eight categories and include them in the all-encompassing score. Once that is done the final tally is expressed as problems per 100 vehicles. As Autoblog says: “This year, the industry average was 152 problems per 100 vehicles, which is a few percentage points behind the average from last year. So, it would seem cars somehow got less reliable from 2012 to 2013. Here's the problem: That's not true.” What’s happened is that JD Powers didn’t weight things like engine problems or transmission problems over things like connectivity or voice recognition problems which is what gives the impression that reliability is getting worse.

That being said, even the bastion of consumer rankings, Consumer Reports has a little odd math going on because their “Best Car” report weights reviewers feedback—which is relatively subjective and includes things like the fact that they don’t like a particular infotainment system. Brands like Audi and Subaru top the list while brands like Nissan, GMC and Jeep round out the bottom. As they note, they don’t include VW because of dieselgate—and because “Consumer Reports strongly believes that Volkswagen AG, the maker of VW and Audi vehicles, should be held accountable for manipulating emissions testing with its vehicles.”

All that being said—don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Sure these reports are good for pointing you in the right general direction in terms of reliability and they can give you a good idea of what kinds of issues you may face if you decide to purchase a new-to-you vehicle, but I wouldn’t base my decision solely on the final tally.

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Abigail BassettAbigail Bassett

Digital media content producer/consultant & former CNN senior producer, now running CN'TRL : Cars, Tech, Real Estate & Luxury.

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