Howes: Toyota leads in reliability, Detroit, Tesla lag badly

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Toyota and its luxury Lexus brand top Consumer Reports' reliability survey.

Conventional wisdom 'round here holds that Detroit’s building its best cars, trucks and SUVs in decades.

Maybe so — with the possible exception of a lot of stuff coming from its Japanese rivals, according to Consumer Reports’ annual reliability survey. And electric cars produced by California-based Tesla Inc.? Fuhgeddaboutit: they ranked 27th out of 29 brands.

The flagship Model S from Elon Musk Motors dropped to “below average,” the magazine says. Its Model X SUV remained “much worse than average.” Even its compact Model 3 rated “average,” hardly a ringing endorsement for the most widely anticipated launch of an American car since who knows when.

The highest-ranking American brand: Ford, now in only its 115th year putting the world on wheels. That suggests the continuing gloom and doom about the Blue Oval’s prospects, mildly reinforced Wednesday by its third-quarter earnings, isn't necessarily translating to its cars, trucks and SUVs or the people who buy them.

The magazine’s influential survey is a bracing dose of reality. A decade after two of Detroit’s three automakers collapsed into bankruptcy and emerged leaner and more profitable, the Motor City's most recognizable brands still appear to be struggling with the reliability issues its Japanese rivals routinely manage.

Cadillac? Second to last. Jeep, the profit engine of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV? "Mixed results," with its Cherokee and Compass SUVs below average. Lincoln? Only its Continental claimed "much better than average" honors. And Buick, typically a strong performer? Its Lacrosse, Envision and Encore rated average, but its redesigned Enclave clocked in at "much-worse-than-average." 

The top two most reliable brands? Toyota and Lexus, the automaker’s luxury unit. Five of Consumer Reports’ 10 most reliable brands are Japanese, two are Korean and two are German. Britain’s Mini, a unit of BMW AG, ranked ninth. Ford doesn't appear until No. 18.

With the glaring exception of Chinese-owned Volvo (dead last at No. 29), the Detroit Three plus Tesla round out the bottom of the order. Not exactly a stand-tall moment, that, to instill hometown pride. 

Now, these surveys are not dispositive and immutable. But they do highlight trends and problems, especially with newer models touted as the answer to previous under-performance. You know, like this new Cadillac is better than the one it replaces. Too often, that's turned out not to be the case.

"Our newest survey collected data on more than 500,000 vehicles from CR’s members," the magazine said, "and from this data, we can let shoppers know which vehicles are likely to have troublesome turbocharged engines, infuriating infotainment systems, and taxing transmissions, among other problems.

"The survey reinforces our recommendation that consumers should avoid brand-new or redesigned models and wait a year or two until the automaker has had the chance to work out the kinks and headaches that often arise."

It also reinforces stereotypes this town has been working to bury for the better part of 20 years: namely, that in the quality-and-reliability sweepstakes, Detroit too often runs a distant fourth to the Japanese, the Koreans and (most of) the Germans.

This is not helpful. Shares in Detroit's automakers are sagging as the intensifying headwinds of tariffs, rising interest rates, higher vehicle prices and slowing consumer demand make a sales slowdown look inevitable. 

What they don't need are more excuses for would-be customers (who don't qualify for manufacturer discounts) to look elsewhere for their next ride. Besides Toyota, Japanese automakers like Subaru — the fastest growing mainstream brand in the U.S. market — and Mazda are packing more infotainment and driver-assist technology into packages proving more reliable and less costly than hometown metal.

It's long been fashionable in this town to denigrate surveys that don't rate Detroit metal highly — until they do. But it's important for homers to acknowledge a simple fact about rankings like these: they come from people who buy the cars and trucks, not professionals paid to rate them.

That ought to count for something with automakers who pledge to be putting the customer first. They're saying something, and it isn't necessarily good.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.