Most dependable: Lexus, Kia top 2021 JD Power auto study

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Automobiles are more complex than ever, and more dependable than ever.

That’s the encouraging news from data analytics firm JD Power which released its 2021 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study Thursday. The widely-watched study found vehicle durability at an all-time high, improving 10% over 2020 — and 25% over 2016 when the industry was backsliding in durability due to the swarm of new electronics debuting on vehicles.

2021 Kia Seltos

This year’s survey also marked a victory for Kia as the Korean brand beat perennial #1 Toyota as the most dependable mainstream brand. Toyota’s luxury brand, Lexus, continued its dominance as the most reliable automaker overall for the ninth time in 10 years. The Porsche 911 sports car was the most dependable model surveyed.

Just five years ago dependability was declining — by 3% year-over-year — provoking flashing lights from JD Power, especially in so-called ACEN features (infotainment, navigation, in-vehicle communication systems) as automakers rushed to integrate connectivity and autonomy in their vehicles.

But the latest study indicates that that these systems are maturing, with reported defects dropping from 152 problems per 100 vehicles five years ago to just 121 PP/100 today.

“Today’s three-year-old vehicles are of higher quality and more dependable than in previous years,” said JD Power vice president of global automotive Dave Sargent. “Most owners aren’t experiencing their vehicles breaking down or falling apart. In the future, dependability will partially be determined by the ability to solve problems through vehicle updates and the avoidance of technology obsolescence.”

The ability to update vehicles over the air is accelerating with, for example, the Ford F-series pickup — the top-selling vehicle in autodom — introducing OTA updates with its 2021 models. Ironically, Tesla — the pioneer of OTA updates — had one of the poorest scores on JD Power’s test (172 PP/100) as the Silicon Valley brand struggled with manufacturing quality issues.

The closely-watched Vehicle Dependability Study, now in its 32nd year, tracks 33,251 original owners of three-year-old cars (2018 models for this year’s study) over 12 months. JD Power covers 177 specific problems grouped into eight major vehicle categories: audio/communication/entertainment/navigation (ACEN); engine/transmission; exterior; interior; features/controls/displays (FCD); driving experience; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; and seats.

All categories improved this year, led by exterior and driving experience. The ACEN grouping, where consumers have seen the biggest advances in recent years (from voice recognition software to navigation programs to satellite radio features) showed marginal improvement and remains the category with the most problems reported.

“From early in the ownership experience, many owners complain about these systems being problematic,” Sargent said. “It’s a recurring theme. With smartphone apps increasingly giving owners an alternative, some will give up on the vehicle’s built-in systems that caused that initial frustration.”

Among vehicle segments, cars were the most dependable, averaging 111 problems per 100 vehicles. Trucks averaged 130 PP/100 and SUVs 122 PP/100. Given that trucks and SUVs now account for a whopping 80% of monthly retail sales, JD Power noted the industry’s attention should be on those segments.

Asian brands continued to lead the way in reliability, a calling card that has gained them significant market share since the 1980s. Owners of Korean and Japanese vehicles reporting the least problems — 115 PP/100 — compared with U.S. brands (126 PP/100) and European autos (131 PP/100). Credit this gap in part to Korea’s Hyundai Group triumvirate — Hyundai/Kia//Genesis — which were big movers in the survey.

Not only did Kia leapfrog Toyota for most dependable mainstream brand, but the three Korean brands averaged 99 PP/100 — 19 points better than Japanese brands collectively (118 PP/100).

Luxe-brand Lexus put up an overall best low score of 81 PP/100, an improvement of 17% from five years ago when it was also top dog. Rounding out the 2021 Top Five were 2) Porsche (86 PP/100); 3) Kia (97 PP/100); 4) Toyota (98 PP/100); and 5) Buick (100 PP/100) tied with Cadillac (also 100 PP/100).

Kia showed the greatest improvement year-over-year — 37% — followed by Cadillac, Acura, Hyundai, and Mitsubishi.

Per individual models, Toyota led the way with five segment awards: Lexus ES, Lexus GX, Toyota Avalon, Toyota Sienna, and Toyota Tundra.

GM garnered four segment awards: Buick Envision, Chevrolet Camaro, Chevrolet Silverado HD, Chevrolet Tahoe. Hyundai also racked up four segment awards with the Genesis G80, Kia Optima, Kia Sorento, and Kia Sportage.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.