LONG TERM QUALITY INDEX: Seven Facts That Shatter the Myth of Reliability

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Everyone who is trying to sell you something wants you to foolishly believe that their choice is always the best choice.

With cars they continuously slogan you to death.

One brand likes to offer, “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection”, while another likes to tell you that they are, “Engineered Like No Other“.


Is being engineered like no other a good thing when it comes to cars? As a guy who has spent several years liquidating over 10,000 vehicles for an auto finance company, I can tell you that it’s almost always not. A truck may be built, “Like A Rock“. But in the wholesale auction business where over 10 million vehicles are liquidated every single year, ‘rocks’ don’t move. And that’s quite a bad thing if that rock happens to be sitting dead on your driveway.

For nearly 16 years I saw an enormous disconnect between what consumers were told was a reliable car when it was purchased new, and what I would see many years later once that new vehicle was traded-in. Some models would truly go the distance. While others simply became rolling junk that contained a fatal and financially deadly flaw within their powertrain.

The problem was that a lot of folks simply still didn’t know whether one used model was perfectly fine or if another was a ticking time bomb. Even those vehicles that are advertised and promoted as having the pinnacle of reliability, can end up with unforeseen engine and transmission issues that cost several thousands of dollars to repair.


So I decided to something about it. On January 2013, after nearly a year of planning with statistician Nick Lariviere, the two of us were able to slowly co-develop what would eventually become known as the Long-Term Quality index.

Every week over 6,000 vehicles are traded-in from all over the country and inspected by certified mechanics or car buying professionals. We decided to perform a few tweaks so that certain biases that are common with other industry studies would be eliminated with this one.

For starters, we completely removed the owner from determining the car’s mechanical condition. Some owners simply don’t want to admit that there are problems with their car, while others don’t have the ear or background to figure out a car has issues. If you have ever ridden with someone whose hood sounds like a choir of castanets, or a car that suddenly jolts with every single shift, you’re quite familiar with the issue of owner bias. We decided to let the professionals figure it out.

The second bias we eliminated is the one you get from the dealership. Just as every car company likes to market themselves as the best, car dealers have a strong tendency to put their own brand at the front of the line however possible. And it’s not just their balloons and inflatable gorillas at play. When vehicles are typically traded-in to the dealership, about half of those vehicles will be that same brand. Chevy dealerships attract more Chevy owners. Toyota dealers attract more Toyotas, and so on. To eliminate this bias, and to make our data more reflective of the American car owner, we only get our findings from independent dealer networks that don’t market a specific brand. This especially helped us with defunct brands like SAAB and Suzuki.

Finally, we wanted to focus on the long-term aspect of car ownership. While J.D. Power only studies long-term reliability for the first three years of car ownership, and Consumer Reports loses contact with a subscriber’s car once that vehicle is traded-in (the average vehicle is only kept for about six years in the USA), the average vehicle on American roads is now 11.5 years old according to IHS Automotive. Millions of cars that were built in the Clinton Era and early W years are still chugging away. So to make this study as relevant as possible for used car shoppers, we decided to focus on older used cars that range from 5 years old (2010 models), to 20 years old (1995 models).

What we ended up with is over 820,000 data samples from all over the country, and within that big bunch of rolling automobilia, we found some truly weird outcomes. Things that you as a consumer would never imagine, but what your neighborhood mechanic likely has a steady pulse on at this point.

So without further ado, here are seven things we found that were well off the beaten path of common knowledge.

Mitsubishi Is Mightier Than Mercedes: There was a time when a Mercedes-Benz was built like a vault. That time has come and gone. Mercedes is now ranked 10th when it comes to long-term reliability with the S-Class leading the way.

Reliability Mitsubishi Outlander
While Mitsubishi, a brand that has just recently raised some eyebrows, is now ranked 8th overall. Mitsubishi has benefited from long model runs over the past ten years, along with avoiding the unproven electronics and technologies that hurt certain other brands — like Mercedes-Benz.

And GMC Outranks Honda: GMC full-size SUVs and trucks in particular offer exceptional long-term reliability with a very low engine and transmission defect rate.

Reliability GMC Sierra
Honda has suffered from defective transmissions with their 1998 thru 2002 Accords along with a slew of other Hondas that are equipped with a V6. The four-cylinder engine with the five-speed manual transmission tends to be Honda’s strong suit.

Toyota Camry > The European Union: Despite having a sixth as many trade-ins as all the EU manufacturers (Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover, SAAB, Volvo, Volkswagen and Mini) more Camrys are traded-in with over 200,000 miles than all of these brands put together.

Reliability Toyota Camry
The Toyota Camry
also has a lower engine and transmission defect rate than any of these manufacturers as well. So if you want sport and reliability with an older used car, you may want to shop around for a Camry SE instead of a 13 year old VW.

Old Cadillac Cars Are Like Old Kias : They break in such an expensive way that owners can’t wait to get rid of them. The Northstar engine that was installed in most Cadillac cars (and a few Oldsmobiles) is now world renowned for blowing head gaskets. Reliability Cadillac DTS

The Cadillac Catera, which uses a 3.0 Liter V6 engine from Europe is also known as a ticking time bomb. As for old Kias, in the early days of this study we used to refer to the worst performing cars as those that fell below, ‘The Kia Line’. Because more often that not, they were Kias.

The Odds Of Keeping A Land Rover And Jaguar Past 180k Is…. : About 1700 to 1. No that’s not a typo.Both brands are traded-in with fewer than 180,000 miles more than 97% of the time. Despite the best efforts of Ford and BMW, which equate to several billions of dollars, both historically British brands are a bit glitchy.

Four Brands Encompass Nearly 70% Of The Vehicles With Over 200,000 Miles: If you stick with Chevy and Ford full-size trucks and SUVs, Honda cars, and Toyota everything, your chances of having that vehicle past 200k is about two and a half times the industry average. Reliability Ford F-150

Also feel throw in old rear-wheel drive Fords such as the Ford Crown Victoria, Lincoln Town Car, and Mercury Grand Marquis.

Finally, the oldest trade-in on average is not a Lexus or an Acura. It’s a Buick! : Some may say that Buick attracts the blue hairs and the cranky old geezers. And they’re right. Reliability Buick Century

But a big part of Buick’s success comes with using proven powertrains that have already been built in the millions and offer cheap replacement costs on that rare occasion that something important breaks. In fact, a friend of mine was recently able to find a transmission for his 1998 Buick Century. The cost? $150.

Most major components cost a lot more than $150 these days. So whenever you like, feel free to take a look at your specific model here. We also offer plenty of links to other commercial free sites that can provide with the real world fuel economy, the safety record, reviews from actual owners, and enthusiast forums that can handle those pesky issues that happen along the way. Happy motoring!

Steven Lang

Steven Lang