Finding and Keeping a Reliable Passenger Car

If you're looking to buy a passenger car, chances are you're operating within a set budget, have people and cargo to move around, and don't have time to deal with an undependable car and persistent breakdowns.

So how exactly does one secure a reliable passenger car? There isn't one answer for that question, but there are some things buyers can do to better their odds of obtaining a car they can count on.

1. Learn From Your Peers
J.D. Power ranks the Ford Crown Victoria among its most reliable passenger cars.

J.D. Power ranks the Ford Crown Victoria among its most reliable passenger cars.

The best test of dependability is time. That's why reliability studies from organizations like J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports are so valuable.

According to J.D. Power, top passenger cars for reliability include the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Crown Victoria, Lexus LS 430, Lincoln LS, Lincoln Town Car, Mercury Grand Marquis and Toyota Avalon.

The last generation Toyota Prius did well with Consumer Reports' readers, who rated it 63 percent more reliable than average based on the magazine's survey of all vehicle categories. Also rating well were Honda's Accord Hybrid, Civic, Civic Hybrid, the Lexus IS 300, Subaru's Impreza and Toyota's Camry and Corolla.

In the Consumer Reports' survey, of the top 10 cars listed, the Impreza was the only model not made by either Honda, Toyota or their luxury brands, Acura and Lexus. The top American-made finisher was the Pontiac Vibe, which ranked No. 13.

At the bottom of the Consumer Reports' list were Jaguar's S-Type, at 121 percent less reliable than average, and Volkswagen's New Beetle Convertible, at 136 percent below average. The hardtop New Beetle was rated just 21 percent less reliable than average.

J.D. Power's study is based on problems reported per 100 vehicles over three years of ownership, meaning results in the 2005 study are based on 2002-model-year vehicles. Consumer Reports surveys its subscribers and calculates reliability based on average scores for the past three model years, where available, so long as the vehicle remains substantially unchanged over those years.

2. Know When the Data Doesn't Apply

Obviously, it's impossible to know just how reliable a brand-new model will be, and the same thing is true for redesigned models.

Gabriel Shenhar, Consumer Reports' senior auto test engineer, said that when a vehicle is redesigned its reliability record usually takes a dip in its first year, no matter how reliable previous generations of the model had proved to be.

"Some manufacturers have it more severely than others, but even manufacturers with excellent reliability records are not immune to it," he said. "There's no way to project on a brand-new car or redesigned car."

In those cases, Shenhar said a buyer's best bet is to go with a manufacturer with a history of solid reliability.

3. Determine a Maintenance Schedule
For the Toyota Prius, or any passenger car, experts recommend following the maintenance schedule outlined in the owner's manual.

For the Toyota Prius, or any passenger car, experts recommend following the maintenance schedule outlined in the owner's manual.

That may sound a bit too empowered for comfort, but the proper maintenance schedule for your car will depend in large part on how you're using it. Most owner's manuals include two recommended schedules, one based on normal use and the other on severe use, but what constitutes "severe use" can be a bit fuzzy.

Denny Kahler, an Automotive Service Association chairman, said there is no formula to determine a foolproof schedule, so the best method is for owners to go to a full-service auto shop and consult with a technician they trust.

"If a person is using a repair shop and being forthright in how they're using their vehicle, they'll be able to get a recommendation," he said. "If [a technician] is working on the car, they'll be able to tell."

For starters, know that cars that log mostly stop-and-go, city-traffic miles will need maintenance much more frequently than those used mostly for freeway commutes.

Secondly, don't be too quick to think your vehicle use couldn't possibly fall into the "severe" category. Angie Wilson, ASA's vice president of marketing and communications, said use of few of the vehicles on the road today would be considered "normal."

"City driving, mountains and even temperature variations can move you from the 'normal' column to the 'severe' column," she said. "Be sure to also consider the number of hours your engine is running [and not just your mileage]."

4. Do as You're Told
If the recommended maintenance schedule of the Honda Civic, or any other car, calls for a particular fuel or oil, experts say it's best to use it.

If the recommended maintenance schedule of the Honda Civic, or any other car, calls for a particular fuel or oil, experts say it's best to use it.

Many manufacturers recommend first-rate treatment for their cars, such as premium fuel or synthetic oil. It may seem a bit nose-in-the-air, but Kahler says the best rule of thumb in those cases is to "just do it."

"If they say synthetic oil, use it," he said. "If they say you have to run it on premium fuel, run it on premium fuel. Lesser fuel means lesser performance and lesser mileage."

Thanks to onboard computers, Kahler said, using lower-grade fuel won't ruin your engine the way it would have in the days before cars were so sophisticated. The computer will protect the engine by compensating for the lesser fuel, but drivers will see a dip in performance.

5. The Price of Technology
So far, advanced safety systems including stability control, such as the system available on the Toyota Camry, have not decreased a vehicle's reliability.

So far, advanced safety systems including stability control, such as the system available on the Toyota Camry, have not decreased a vehicle's reliability.

You don't need an expert to tell you that the more components your car has, the more things there are that might someday break, but Kahler said advanced features like electronic stability systems and traction control have yet to prove themselves a burden.

"We don't see a lot of problems [with those kinds of features], but we do sometimes," he said. "They may need maintenance and repair. A car with those features has more sensors and therefore there could be more problems."

Still, he's quick to point out that they make cars much safer; on the balance, he said, they're worth it.

Posted on 3/8/06