Whether you are buying a brand new car or a used car, you want to choose a vehicle that will be reliable, dependable and require few repairs. In recent years, vehicle reliability has improved a great deal. Newer models are experiencing fewer problems and lasting longer than ever before. Even so, ANY new car or truck may experience problems that range from minor annoyances (squeaks, rattles, leaks, infotainment issues, etc.) to major component failures. Serious problems such as brake, steering, suspension, engine or transmission failures are rare. If a serious problem does occur, and happens in a number of similar vehicles, the NHTSA may investigate the problem and require the vehicle manufacturer to issue a safety recall (such as the massive Takata airbag recall).
So how do you determine which brands of vehicles are least likely to cause problems and which ones should be avoided? There are numerous online resources that publish reliability rankings for new and used vehicles. These include:
Consumer Reports Reliability Ratings
Edmunds Used Car Ratings
J.D. Power Vehicle Ratings
Repair Pal Reliability Ratings
The "best" and "worst" rankings of vehicle reliability should be viewed as a guide only. Just because a vehicle ranks towards the bottom of a list does not mean it will give you trouble if you buy it. It might or it might not. Likewise, there are no guarantees that a vehicle ranked towards the top of a list will be trouble-free. However, the relative ranking on a list is a fairly accurate indication of how one brand of vehicle compares to another in terms of overall reliability.
Some sources include more detailed information about the nature of the problems that are being reported, if the problems are major or minor, if the problems are covered by warranty, and whether or not vehicle owners were able to get their problems fixed by their new car dealer to their satisfaction. In other words, a particular brand may have a lot of reported problems. But if the problems are mostly minor ones that are easily resolved and do not create any safety or driveability concerns for the motorist, it's not the same as a brand that may have few reported problems but the problems are more serious in nature (like engine, brake or transmission failures, or potential fire hazards).
Most of these vehicle reliability rankings are based on consumer surveys. Motorists are asked to list the year, make and model of their vehicle, and what (if any) problems they have had within the past year. If they have had a problem, they may be asked to indicate the nature of the problem by checking a general category (engine, transmission, brakes, electrical, air conditioning, infotainment, etc.). The information is then complied, sorted and used to rank the various brands against one another.
In some cases, a brand may get a bad rap due to a major problem or recall associated with a particular model. All of the other models the vehicle manufacturer makes may be good vehicles and relative trouble-free, but the one troublesome model drags down the overall ranking of the entire brand.
Another point worth noting is that many of the reported problems, especially among luxury brands, are relatively minor glitches with infotainment systems (problems such as getting your phone to sync with the vehicle software, operating touch screen controls, climate control issues and things like that). The more complex the infotainment system, the more likely you are to have problems operating it. The "fix" in many cases is a software update installed by the car dealer.
Safety recalls are an entirely different matter. A safety recall may be issued if a real or potential problem might result in loss of vehicle control, an accident or personal injury. Recalls may only affect a very limited number of vehicles, or it may be a massive recall that affects thousands or millions of vehicles. Safety recalls should never be ignored and taken care of ASAP!
Vehicle reliability is obviously better with newer vehicles than older vehicles. A new car or truck should give you fewer problems than a used one with a lot of miles on it. As time and mileage add up, wear and tear causes things to wear out and eventually fail. For more information on this topic see What Goes Wrong With Cars (and When).
Although late model vehicles do not require as much maintenance as older vehicles, regular oil changes and filter changes are essential to keep y our vehicle running trouble-free. For more information on this subject, see Maintenance Tips .
In addition to reviewing various vehicle reliability ratings such as the one at the top of this page, you can do a Google search for the year, make and model of vehicle you are interested in, followed by the keywords "recalls" or "problems." This works best for vehicles that are more than a year or two old. Brand new vehicles have no repair history yet and are probably too new for any recalls to have been issued by NHTSA or the vehicle manufacturer.
If you know someone who owns a similar vehicle to the one you are thinking about buying, ask them how they like their vehicle and if they have had any problems with it. If you get a favorable reply, it's reassuring and a positive indication for buying a similar vehicle. But if they launch into a 20 minute tirade on what a POS their vehicle is, better steer clear of that particular year, make and model.
If you are buying a used car, it's also a good idea to check out a vehicle history report such as those offered by CarFax and similar services. You do have to pay a small fee for the report, but it may save you some real headaches if a vehicle has a history that indicates it has been in an accident, flood damaged or changed owners frequently.