Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac led J.D. Power and Associates' 2014 Vehicle Dependability Study, which tracks problems per vehicle from original owners of 3-year-old cars — in this case, 2011 models. But overall problems rose 6 percent versus last year's study of 2010 models, the first time since J.D. Power's 1998 VDS that reliability in late-model cars has declined.
Among non-luxury brands, Honda (sixth overall), Toyota (eighth) and Subaru (12th) ranked highest in the 31-brand study. Hyundai, Jeep, Land Rover, Dodge and Mini rounded out the bottom five.
Vehicle dependability, which J.D. Power expresses in problems per 100 ("PP100") vehicles, rose to 133 PP100 in the 2014 study. A year ago, it was 126 PP100 — the lowest in the 25-year study's history. Drivetrain problems led to most of the increase, the company said, as four-cylinder engines and large diesel motors accounted for more problems than conventional five- and six-cylinder engines.Dependability vs. Quality
With automakers "trying to squeeze as much fuel [economy] out of the vehicles as possible," Sargent said, "it comes at a price. And some consumers are complaining that the vehicles are not performing well, the engine's hesitating, the transmission's shifting erratic or rough."
Is that a dependability issue? Technically not, Sargent said, but it drives the same result.
"You have a number of consumers who are downsizing not necessarily in the vehicle [class] but in terms of the engine" in the same type of vehicle, Sargent said. "Guess what? The vehicle doesn't perform the way you want it, and they perceive it to be a quality issue. Technically, it's not dependability. … An engineer could argue that that's technically the way the car is supposed to operate, but the consumer [still] doesn't like it."
Don't Like, Don't Buy
What people dislike, they avoid. That's hardly earth-shaking, but the extent to which it happens might surprise you. After comparing VDS data with trade-in data and its own 2014 Avoider Study, J.D. Power concluded that 56 percent of owners who reported no problems stuck with the same brand when buying their next car. With three or more problems, brand loyalty slipped to 42 percent. And 23 percent of consumers avoided brands that ranked in the lowest quarter of 2013's VDS because of reliability concerns.
For VDS, J.D. Power surveyed 41,000 original owners of 2011 models with help from R.L. Polk registration data between October and December 2013. The study differs from the company's midyear Initial Quality Study — which Porsche, GMC and Lexus led in 2013 — in that VDS looks specifically at things that break, while IQS analyzes things that break plus things that drivers merely dislike. But as researchers seek to pinpoint what people find dissatisfying, the two have grown closer together.
"It's probably becoming a little more so" related, Sargent said. "We're actually going to redesign VDS for next year and try to be more explicit to try and identify things that are getting worse" in terms of dependability, not quality.
"Some of those things are dependability, some of them are bad design," he added. "We're trying to balance the two ends of the spectrum."
Bells and Whistles Can Work
Today's study plays against a long-held adage: More features equals a higher risk of things that can go wrong. That's what Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports' director of auto testing, said in 2013.
Sargent agrees in principle: "Net-net, more features should lead to more problems," he said. "One could argue that if [the top luxury brands] didn't have any of these sophisticated features, the dependability might actually be better."
Even so, luxury brands still led the pack in the 2014 VDS. And Consumer Reports and J.D. Power can agree on one thing: Lexus. Toyota's luxury division topped VDS by a mile, and Fisher said in 2013 the brand has impressive reliability.
See J.D. Power's results below:
Cars.com photo by Ian Merritt