Are foreign vs. domestic car brands statistically more reliable?
May 23, 2010 7:08 AM   Subscribe

Are foreign vs. domestic car brands statistically more reliable?

I'm hoping that someone can provide objective information or web links on the reliability / quality of foreign vs domestic car brands over the past ten years or so. Ideally, this would include some statistical info on number of repairs, percentage of foreign / domestic cars still on the road from the total number purchased, etc. Call my googling skills sub-par, but I haven't been able to find much consistent, conclusive evidence from a credible source.
posted by Dr. ShadowMask to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Depends what country you're in....
posted by IndigoJones at 7:14 AM on May 23, 2010 [8 favorites]

Consumer Reports would tell you that the Japanese automakers are more reliable, but their data only comes from their subscribers, so it isn't statistically reliable.

JD Power surveys might be more accurate, but I'm not sure how you access that info.
posted by gjc at 7:17 AM on May 23, 2010

And it depends on how you define "imported." So many cars that are called "imports" in North America are actually assembled here. There is a Honda assembly plant in the Toronto area, for example.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:19 AM on May 23, 2010

For clarification, I'm considering 'domestic' to be the American Big Three, regardless of where they are assembled.
posted by Dr. ShadowMask at 7:30 AM on May 23, 2010

And what about for foreign? Japanese makes? British cars? Korean, or French, perhaps? German?
posted by kellyblah at 7:38 AM on May 23, 2010

For foreign, I think any would be okay, but based on volume I'm guessing that the major Japanese brands would be the most relevant (Toyota, Honda, Nissan).
posted by Dr. ShadowMask at 7:57 AM on May 23, 2010

Big agree with ThatCanadianGirl. A lot of Japanese cars are made in the US and Canada, and I know Ford makes some in Mexico. But that doesn't mean that a Ford or GM plant and a Toyota or Honda plant run the same way.

I'm totally biased having only worked on the Japanese side, so keep that in mind. When the automotive industry practically imploded last year, a lot of suppliers closed plants and consolidated. So we've had to change a lot of suppliers for our components, and there is a definite difference in some of the new supplier's...quality awareness. And I've been to a sister plant that supplies to a US automaker and saw the same thing.

This isn't to say that the finished car isn't good quality. But there does seem to be a philosophical difference between 'preventing bad parts from being made' and 'just making sure bad parts don't get out the door.'

Again, that's just my impression based on my own limited experience. Not the statistics you're looking for.
posted by Caravantea at 8:00 AM on May 23, 2010

I think you'd be better off looking at individual brand reliability -- why lump in Honda and Audi with, I don't know, a low-budget Indian car maker with a small export business to the US? "THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE OF FOREIGN CARS" vs. "ALL US MANUFACTURERS" seems like a really odd comparison to make, especially when individual brands rise and fall so much -- Ford has really addressed reliability over the last several years; Toyota's reputation for it has taken a hit with the acceleration problems.

(And, yes, is a Mitsubishi assembled in central Illinois foreign or domestic?)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:11 AM on May 23, 2010

For clarification, I'm considering 'domestic' to be the American Big Three, regardless of where they are assembled.

This gets really difficult then, because many Ford and GM cars are made, sold, and live their working lives in Europe, and there are reported quality differences between Euro-GM and Euro-Ford and their North American divisions. This is also true for Hondas and Toyotas; you can/could buy CR-Vs in the US that were made in Britain. If you're comparing Ford and Honda, do you just want to compare the Focus in the US to the Civic in the US, or wouldn't it really make more sense to compare the global Focus to the global Civic?

It's not really a comparison that makes sense, especially given that different manufacturers have different mixes of passenger cars and SUVs and pickups, and pickups in particular tend to have terrible reliability. The more pickups you sell, the worse your manufacturer-wide reliability is likely to be. Likewise, some manufacturers' cars are commonly used in fleet service where they get the shit kicked out of them for a few years, while others rarely see fleet service. You might as well just compare the 20 or 30 major models of passenger cars independently.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:22 AM on May 23, 2010

If you can't find good american statistics you might be interested in looking into the statistics from swedish "Bilprovningen" (swedish gouvernment source). All swedish cars are tested every year and the results are published by model. The problem as mentioned before are that these cars are probably not assembled in the same places as the american cars, but if it is the brands you are interested in they could still be interesting.

3 year old cars
5 year old cars
8 year old cars
10 year old cars

In case you don't know swedish a quick translation ;)
The second column are precentage of faults related to the specific model. The third are how many cars were tested and the fourth are their average travel distance in 10 km.

To put the data into perspective. Swedish people are known for taking care of their cars and keeping them for a long time. Rust is a big problem because of the cold climate.
posted by furisto at 8:26 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

The list provided by Furisto is along the lines of what I was looking for. It seems that what I'm hearing in general is that it's difficult to make a good comparison, but I think in terms of very general, overall data, his list is helpful. I was hoping that there was something like this generated in the US, but on second thought, a European list may have less risk of biased information when it comes to assessing American and Japanese brands. Any other data like that would be helpful.
posted by Dr. ShadowMask at 9:30 AM on May 23, 2010

Data generated in the US will still be good though, if its out there.
posted by Dr. ShadowMask at 9:34 AM on May 23, 2010

I've seen many references to the Warranty Direct 'Reliability League Table' for 2007. It appears that Warranty Direct sells used-car warranties in the US and UK, and collects data on the reliability of cars: Here's a page with English data. There may be an American version, but I couldn't find it. Expect the results to be similar, though (Mazda, Honda, Toyota at the top, Jeep, Land Rover at the bottom).

Consumer Reports' results match up almost exactly (AFAIR), despite the flaws in their methodology.
posted by klanawa at 9:54 AM on May 23, 2010

This is what Consumer Reports says.

gjc: "Consumer Reports would tell you that the Japanese automakers are more reliable, but their data only comes from their subscribers, so it isn't statistically reliable."

Despite what gjc states, it is in fact statistically reliable. It doesn't tell you the exact number of problems across the entire population of vehicles, but it does provide very good insight into the reliability of cars by brand, model, year and more. Their data are based on an annual survey of their subscribers' experiences (not just their opinions) with the vehicles they actually own. For all the limitations on survey methodology, this does a pretty good job of providing a relatively unbiased sample. The 2009 data reflect experiences with over 1.9 million vehicles. Their data on used cars tracks cars up to 10 years old, and has been reliable across annual surveys.

Subscribers to their website can see these results at this page. Because it is behind a pay wall (one month of access is available for $5.95), I won't copy all the details from their site.

Based on that page, the brands with reliabilities that are above average (from highest to lowest) are:


Their results show the mean score, the lowest model's score and the highest model's score for each brand, as well as the rankings for those that are below average in reliability.

Also from the used car survey are these findings (quoting from behind the paywall):

* Japanese cars are still the most trouble free, especially those made by Toyota, Honda, and Subaru. Five-year-old vehicles with American or European nameplates had about 11/2 times as many problems as those made by Japanese automakers.
* Ford and Hyundai are narrowing the gap with Japanese carmakers on more recent models. The newest models from Mercedes-­Benz and BMW are also making some headway.
* The most troublesome car in the survey was the 2002 Kia Sedona. Owners reported 207 problems per 100 cars.
posted by i love cheese at 10:26 AM on May 23, 2010

I recall seeing some statistics about reliability of Toyota Camry models assembled in the US vs Japan (alas I can't remember where I saw this). The Japanese Camrys were better built and more reliable. Of course this is just anecdotal evidence since I can't cite the source, but I can confirm that my Japan-built 95 Camry XLE is the best car I've ever owned, and at 15 years, drives like it was only 2 or 3 years old. But then, this particular model is considered possibly the best car of its time, it has the same basic drive train and body as a Lexus ES300.

Anyway, even for Toyota, there isn't really any such thing as a Japan-built or US-built car, and that goes for ALL manufacturers. Major components are built all across the world, and brought together at assembly. I recall seeing some stats (again, sorry can't remember where I saw them) that even the most American of cars is only barely 50% US-made parts.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:49 AM on May 23, 2010

Great information, everyone. Thank you!
posted by Dr. ShadowMask at 10:55 AM on May 23, 2010

Why is everyone so hung up about where cars are manufactured? Reliability is also affected by engineering and design, which is generally done in the home country of the brand.

Also, the methodology generally used for measuring reliability doesn't account for the severity of the problems - Toyota may still have very few failures per car, but if a lot of those failures are stuck accelerators that's a lot worse than lots of minor problem.
posted by kenliu at 6:48 PM on May 23, 2010

Place of manufacture does make a difference. Just ask anyone who bought a Ford made in Mexico. Sure design problems can cause more serious problems, but build quality is significantly affected by the labor force. I've seen it happen in other products too. A few years back, Sony moved their CRT TV production mostly to Mexico for the lower end models, they were significantly less reliable than the same model manufactured in Japan the year before. Now Sony doesn't make any CRT TVs, you could see they were dumping the low end of their product line on a manufacturing subcontractor that didn't care much about serious build quality, and the product lines were end-of-life so Sony didn't care either.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:20 PM on May 23, 2010

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