Digging into the Consumer Reports data gold mine, we have again found treasure in the insights shared from more than one million cars in our latest survey. From these ownership nuggets, we can report in detail the problems experienced in cars over the last decade and predict how cars will perform in the year ahead. And this year, there are several key findings. Some of them might surprise you.
Infotainment systems cause lots of problems
Just as a brain surgeon isn't the best person to do a heart transplant, it turns out automakers aren't the ideal source for sophisticated, cutting-edge infotainment electronics. As evidence, these systems remain the leading source of trouble among new cars, especially if it is a brand-new design. The good news: Improvements in previously trouble-prone systems such as MyFord Touch and HondaLink show that automakers can typically work the bugs out of the systems as the years tick by.
Lexus and Toyota stay out in front
Once again, Toyota's luxury brand Lexus proved to be the most reliable brand overall, with Toyota a close second. Part of the secret for accomplishing this feat is that as a rule, Toyota and Lexus usually avoid fully redesigning their products, reusing enough components to support good reliability out of the box.
The most reliable car isn't necessarily the best car to buy. And vice versa.
The most reliable new car honor goes to Toyota's Scion xB. Seven years of building the same car gave Toyota plenty of time to get this roomy little box right, but, to drive, the xB lacks refinement and gets worse fuel economy than many larger SUVs. Likewise, the Toyota Tundra wins most reliable pickup truck honors, but even with a new, gigantic grille, it feels well past its sell-by date compared to the much-fresher competition.
More proof that road test scores don't match reliability: The updated-for-2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee rates high in Consumer Reports tests. But recent changes, including a new version of Chrysler's Uconnect infotainment system, put its reliability into a tailspin. The high-scoring Ram pickup also fell below average in reliability. That's too bad because we really like driving those models.
Signs of life at the 'new' GM
Look beyond the near-daily barrage of safety recalls. They're important, but when it comes to things breaking, it looks like the "new" GM has left its prebankruptcy days behind. For the second year in a row, GM is the most reliable domestic car company. Important new products—including the Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Corvette, and Chevrolet Impala V6—have proven reliable in their first year. Buick is the top domestic brand, with every one of their models being reliable.
Not all GM news is good news, though
The new Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra pickup truck is a problem-child for the company, suffering from many early bugs. They're the least-reliable new half-ton pickup in our survey. The Chevrolet Cruze, with its turbocharged 1.4-liter engine, is also trouble-prone
Ford improves as its products mature
Ford's corporate reliability dropped over the last three years as the company moved from conservative product updates to total top-to-bottom redesigns. But as products such as the Fusion and Explorer mature, their bugs are getting worked out. A big reason for the gains: reliability improvements in the MyFord Touch infotainment system. In next year's survey, we'll be looking to see if Ford broke its trend and cleanly kicks off its all-new Mustang and F-150 pickup.
And then there's Fiat-Chrysler Group
Fiat-Chrysler sits at the bottom of the pack, with four of its brands—Dodge, Ram, Jeep, and Fiat—sweeping our least-reliable rankings. Partly to blame: The new Jeep Cherokee four-cylinder is the least-reliable new small SUV on the market. The Fiat 500L is the least reliable new car in our 2014 survey, with a reliability score that is 219 percent worse than average. The smaller Fiat 500 is better, but it still scores poor for reliability.
Nissan struggles after big product line revamp
With ambitious plans to increase sales, Nissan extensively redesigned many of their cars within a short window of time. Too bad many of them, including the Altima midsized sedan, Pathfinder SUV, and Sentra small car, now rank among the least-reliable choices in their segments. (At least the Rogue small SUV had an average first year.)
It's hard to buy an unreliable new midsized family sedan
The Nissan Altima's woes especially stand out because almost every new midsized family sedan has average or better reliability. Even some newly designed models that you might not expect to be reliable, such as the Mazda6 and Volkswagen Passat with its new 1.8T gasoline engine, proved excellent. Yet after its second year on the market, the Altima still has below-average reliability.
Luxury car buyers shouldn't rely on conventional wisdom
Want a reliable luxury car? Conventional wisdom says to buy a Japanese brand. But that only really works for Lexus. Acura has a reputation for high reliability, but its new RLX luxury sedan and MDX SUV had only average reliability in their first year. Again, blame their complicated infotainment systems.
Nissan's luxury brand, Infiniti, fared even worse. Reliability of its new products has plummeted. The new-for-2014 Q50 is meant to phase out the super-reliable G37 (now Q40), but the Q50's first-year reliability is abysmal. Its new InTouch infotainment system is even less reliable than MyFord Touch was in its famously troublesome first year. That takes some doing. The QX60 SUV (formerly JX35) is also unreliable, even without InTouch.
German luxury can be very reliable—or not
For the second year in a row, Audi ranks among the top five most reliable brands, even showing some improvement from last year. Their six-cylinder Audi Q5 is more reliable than an Acura RDX, and in its first year, the Audi Allroad had fewer problems than the Honda Crosstour or Toyota Venza.
But models on both ends of their price spectrum hurt Mercedes-Benz. Starting at $29,900, the new entry-level CLA looks great. But you get what you pay for with this baby ‘Benz. Not only does it have a low road test score, it's also the least reliable new compact luxury car you can buy, falling just below the Infiniti Q50.
Perhaps no cost was spared for the range-topping Mercedes-Benz S-Class flagship sedan, but this hyper-complex car had lots of problems. Maybe that's to be expected for a car that can (almost) drive itself and even pumps perfume through the interior.
The one place where the Tesla Model S proves to be only average
Elon Musk's all-electric luxury sedan tops Consumer Reports' test scores, and it outsells many conventional uber-luxury sedans. Reliability holds steady at average. Older Model S's show some problems, but extensive updates are improving the lot for newer Teslas.
That's a lot to digest, but we have even more information to share with you. Later blogs will feature other reliability issues, and we will roll out multiple videos highlighting the most and least reliable choices in popular categories. Also check for an in-depth discussion of reliability on our latest "Talking Cars" podcast.
As always, Consumer Reports' online subscribers have access to all of the details to help them make wise buying decisions.