Buick, a subsidiary of General Motors, has become the first domestic brand in more than three decades to earn one of the highest ratings for reliability from Consumer Reports. Results from the Consumer Reports Annual Brand Reliability Survey were released in Detroit Monday.
Lexus, owned by Toyota, was the top brand. Toyota itself came in second, followed by Buick. The company ranks cars and car brands based on its survey of more than a half-million car owners.
"Yes, really, Buick," says Jake Fisher, who runs Consumer Report's auto testing lab in Connecticut. Fisher tells NPR that Buick has been making reliable cars for quite a while, and he says the brand continues to improve. According to Fisher, what sets Buick apart from the other GM brands is that it has a small number of models and doesn't make large trucks or SUVs, which have been a problem for GM.
This year Buick sold more than 1 million vehicles through September, according to GM. Buick is a near-luxury brand and skews older in the U.S., but the company's sales are overwhelmingly dominated by China, which is the largest market for Buick. China accounted for nearly 40 percent of GM's global sales.
Consumer Reports has been criticized in Detroit for being too enamored of Japanese carmakers. The Japanese brands all finished in the top 15 of 29 brands surveyed. "Anyone who's not doing well with our ratings thinks that the system might be rigged against them," says Fisher. "This is data. These are real situations. This is cars breaking down. This is not opinion. This is not what people think about their cars. It doesn't matter if you're from an automaker called Honda or Buick. Each car needs to be reliable."
Honda And Subaru
If Buick was a surprise, it wasn't the only one. "The Honda Civic, this year with a redesign and a lot of changes, has really fallen way down," Fisher says. That was one of many surprising results in the survey. All of the Asian nameplates scored among the top half of the 29 brands tested. They accounted for seven of the top 10 spots. What Fisher found "absolutely surprising" was Honda. The company fell two spots, barely holding on to its slot in the top 10. "This is the first time really in history that we did not recommend a Honda Civic because of reliability problems," Fisher says.
Despite a decade of double digit sales growth, Subaru fell out of the top 10. Fisher says that's in part because of problems with its midsize sedan as well as quality issues with the Subaru Outback.
Tesla And Technology
Automobiles are safer than they've ever been and in many ways more reliable, according to Fisher. He says reliability remains just as important a factor. "Certainly cars are lasting longer. It's not uncommon to have a car that goes 100,000 or 200,000 miles. But today's cars have [different problems than] they did five or 10 years ago," he says.
From Consumer Reports:
- "Tesla's Model S has improved to average reliability, which now makes the electric car one of our recommended models. But its new Model X SUV has been plagued with malfunctions, including its complex Falcon-wing doors. Both vehicles can be upgraded to include Tesla's optional semi-autonomous Autopilot software, which can allow the car to maintain lane position, speed, and following distances on its own.
- "Consumer Reports has serious concerns about how some automakers, including Tesla, have designed, deployed, and marketed semi-autonomous technology. We believe automakers need to clearly communicate what these systems can and cannot do. To that end, we have identified models in our ratings that offer semi-autonomous features."
"We're seeing problems with in-car electronics that we didn't see five or 10 years ago," says Fisher. He says that as the car companies introduce new technologies "often to make cars better to drive or better to live with, sometimes they add reliability problems, reliability headaches."
Fisher uses Tesla as an example of a company that pushes the envelope and puts the latest technology in its cars. "It's going to be a problem," Fisher says, pointing out that "the Model X is one of the least reliable cars on our survey. And there's a lot of possibly needless complexity in that car which is otherwise a quite simple power train. I mean, electric cars should be reliable," Fisher says. He says all of the technology, including autopilot, is what's pulling Tesla's rating down.
Fisher says as some companies race to use the newest technology, whether it's proven or not, other companies prefer more of a methodical, slow rollout. He says Toyota and Lexus, which won the top prizes, tend not to put the absolute latest and greatest technology in their vehicles. "Some people say [Toyota is] a bit boring, but there's a reason they are. Because they're a little bit slower at rolling out that technology." Fisher says Toyota's dominance in terms of reliability "kind of proves their point."