Don’t rely on reliability studies

At the core of Toyota’s prolonged travails is a sense the Japanese giant is no longer infallible. Never mind that no person, thing or company — at least of the terrestrial variety — is without fault, Toyota’s trouble is that its entire raison d’être was dependability.

Whether that be a Matrix’s ability to start every morning at the very first twist of the key or a Camry’s willingness to stop when the brake pedal is depressed, Toyotas are sold to people who want their to toasters to work dependably on cue. Indeed, it is a measure of just how much North Americans (compared with, say, Europeans) value reliability as a desirable trait above all others that Toyota is North America’s dominant brand.

This focus on lack of automotive drama means reliability — both real and perceived — is a massive selling point, making studies that supposedly correlate otherwise boring dependability data hot news, none more so than that of J.D. Power and Associates’ Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), the granddaddy of all such collations.

While it comes as little surprise that this year’s winner no longer wears a Toyota or Lexus badge, that the most dependable automotive brand in the United States is Porsche has to raise a few eyebrows. Not only does it blow by Honda, but now its cars spend less time in the shop? Gadzooks!

Nor is Porsche the only surprise in the J.D. Power survey. The No. 2 spot in these reliability sweepstakes? Lincoln! No. 3? Buick. Lexus, the top Japanese brand, doesn’t show up until fourth, with the top five rounded off by Mercury. If you’re still not catching the “it’s a whole new world” theme, consider this: For the first time in more than a decade, a U.S.-produced domestic car — the Cadillac DTS — achieves the lowest incidence of problems in J.D. Power’s entire survey.

A major discovery from this year’s Power study is that consumers’ perceptions of some brands’ dependability — notably Cadillac, Ford, Hyundai, Lincoln and Mercury (the last not sold in Canada) — dramatically lags their performance.

“Producing vehicles with world-class quality is just part of the battle for automakers; convincing consumers to believe in their quality is equally as important,” says David Sargent, vice-president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power. Of course, one of the items J.D. Power hopes said underachievers will use to convince the misguided public is the survey company’s statistics, elevating both J.D. Power’s profile and its coffers.

While all such studies aid in making considered purchase decisions, it’s important to understand their limitations. J.D. Power can brag of surveying more than 52,000 vehicle owners, who reported on 198 different symptoms of automotive reliability, but those problems could include brake squealing and even wind noise. Indeed, a little extra turbulence around the outside mirrors counts equally with an engine throwing a rod through the crankcase and depositing its innards all over the road.

Like all such surveys, it’s important to read between the lines. For instance, in J.D. Power’s tabulations of Porsche’s reliability, the German automaker had only one model place in the top three in any one segment — the 911 placed second to the Mercedes SL-Class in the Premium Sporty division.

According to John Tews, media relations director for J.D. Power, the Boxster and Cayman were less worthy (but also improved), but they formed a much smaller portion of Porsche’s sales (the Cayenne was not measured in this survey of 2007 models), which didn’t significantly reduce the company’s ranking.

Another survey (this time out of England) notes that while Porsches are fairly reliable (this survey had them pegged at a still credible 10th), their average repair bill was the highest of all the brands reported. And, just when you think you have the whole plot sussed — OK, Porsches are fairly reliable, but when they do break they are the most expensive cars in the world to fix — the very same study notes that Porsche was actually penalized in this last regard because its cars are so popular. It was the only exotic manufacturer with enough data for a meaningful survey, where any number of less popular brands might have been more expensive.

Even for someone who spends his entire day perusing such four-wheel data, it can all be confusing. Determining which car or brand is most reliable based on just one survey can be misleading. But one thing is certain: Cars sold today are dramatically more reliable than before. This year’s J.D. Power VDS saw 155 problems per 100 vehicles, down from 167 last year and about half of the incidents reported just a decade ago. If the trend continues, these surveys are going to make themselves redundant — cars will become so reliable that dependability will cease to be a selling issue.

Photograph by: Mark Ralston, AFPphoto