Something You Can Rely On

J.D. Power lists Lexus as the most reliable brand.

To say the automobile has changed substantially over the last century is something of an understatement. Obviously these vehicles that we all love and rely on so much have changed in many ways, but something that has changed within the last 5 or 10 years represents something that has never been seen before. Cars today are so reliable. This has not always been the case but it is safe to say that cars today are far more reliable than they have ever been.

When your grandpa talked about his trusty old Buick or Chrysler  that he had as a young man back in the 50’s or 60’s he is either lying, or he doesn’t know what he is talking about. The fact of the matter is that cars from the past had far more problems than the cars of today, and really we only need to back 10 years or so to see this. Those who love the classics often argue that the old cars are better because there was so much less that could go wrong with them. The statement that they had less to go wrong with them is true, but the few things that were potential problems on the old cars were not really potential problems, they were guaranteed problems. If it could go bad it did, over and over again.

The marketing research firm J.D. Power and Associates has become one of the leading companies for tracking vehicle reliability. Some of their methods seem simplistic, and the fact they only count complaints without giving any weight to what the complaint is doesn’t seem as helpful. The other problem is that only track complaints with vehicles that are just two or three years old. If they wanted to make their information especially useful they would track which vehicles have the most problems after several years or even 100k miles.

Testing methods aside, the most recent J.D. Power and Associates survey of owners of 2009 model year cars and trucks shows an average of 132 complaints per 100 vehicles. This is the lowest number of complaints ever and is part of a trend towards fewer and fewer complaints. The company with the fewest problems reported is Lexus with just 86 complaints per 100 vehicles. The most complaints came from Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep with 192 problems per 100 vehicles. These numbers don’t tell all, but they do indicate that problems are not as common as they used to be. The other thing that is interesting is that the number one complaints across all makes and models are excessive wind noise and noisy brakes. Both of these problems are not even legitimate problems in many ways and if these are the most common issues then reliability of cars and trucks looks good and the chance of being broken down on the side of the road are lower than they have ever been.
1982 Toyota Corolla. Not much to look
at but much more reliable than other
cars from the period.

Back in the old days cars only had 5 digits on the odometer because if your vehicle made it past 100k it was some kind of miracle. We can thank the Japanese for the 6 digit odometers and for the overall reliability that is found in most cars and trucks today. Old Japanese cars like the Early Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics set a new standard for reliability. Some say that the old Volkswagens of the 60’s and 70’s were also instrumental in showing the car buying public how reliability can be engineered into inexpensive cars. This might be true up to a point but nothing comes close the solid build of the Japanese cars that started to become common on American highways in the early 80s.
1983 Honda Civic

This reliability on the part of the Asians has done more for the industry than anything else. The competition became steep as all manufacturers have paid more attention to reliability. This has been a win for the consumers. Not only do vehicles last longer but they require far less maintenance then what they used to. In the old days you had to adjust your points every month or two just to keep the car running halfway decent. The points had to be replaced a couple times a year because they quickly wore out. The spark plugs had to be replaced every year or so because they didn’t last very long either. Other things like spark plug wires, distributor cap and rotor, and of course the carburetor, were constantly being replaced or adjusted. The common “tune up” was indeed very common.
Ignition points in a distributor. These used to require constant attention.
Not only points replaced decades ago but cars haven't even had distributors
for the last 10 or 15 years.
Today the tune up doesn’t really exist anymore. Parts that were adjusted as part of an old car tune up no longer need to be adjusted, and most of the parts that were replaced as part of the tune up, don’t even exist on modern vehicles. Spark plugs remain but most of the time those now last anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 miles before they wear out.

Part of the reason for the new unfailing ways of the modern automobile is that nearly everything on the vehicle is computer controlled. If an adjustment needs to be made, the computer can do it. If something needs to be monitored, the computer can do it. If something requires immediate service, the computer can alert the driver. Some might think that adding complex computer controls only increases the potential for failure, this is not exactly true. The thing about computer control circuits is that they don’t have much in the way of moving parts and it’s the mechanical movement of parts that wears them out more than anything else.

This dependability is unheard of in any other industry that resembles the world of cars and trucks. Heavy-duty trucks, buses, heavy equipment, or anything else that can be driven or operated by a single person, is not going to be this reliable. For the average consumer, end reliability will affect the buying decision and which companies they are loyal to more than anything else. In similar decisions affecting transportation industries, such as the purchase of buses for a municipal transportation service, or buying earth moving equipment for a mining operation, the party that makes the purchase might make the decision based on politics, volume discounts, or the fact that only one company builds the machine that they are looking for, rather than personal experience with dependability. In the world of cars and trucks for the masses, the competition is steeper because every individual looking to buy your product must be sold on your product, or they will go elsewhere.

Considering what a car has to do and how far it must go to do it, a case can be made for the modern car to be considered the most reliable machine ever crafted by the hand of man. Despite the fact that it may not seem so on that morning when you are left stranded by the side of the freeway on your way to work. No car is perfect and even the most reliable car can suffer from catastrophic failure, but without a doubt fewer cars are having fewer catastrophic failures. That's good for all of us.

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