What Does it Mean for a Car to be Reliable?

We live in really stressful times. Domestically, there is uncertainty about our political future, and overseas can be a dangerous place to travel. In times like these, it’s natural for people to gravitate toward things that are reliable and familiar. People take comfort when they’re surrounded by things that they know they can count on.

In the fourth quarter, 2015 US consumers bought $11.3 trillion worth of gadgets, household goods, attire, and big ticket items like vehicles. For most purchases, for example a toaster oven or alarm clock, the risk of buying the “wrong” thing isn’t a big deal. If you don’t like it or if it’s not reliable, take it back to the store and get a new one or switch it for something else. No harm, no foul.

But if you buy a big ticket item, like a car, and it doesn’t meet your expectations or it doesn't turn out to be as reliable as you’d hoped, there are no do-overs. You’re stuck with it.

So it makes sense to spend some time analyzing what you want out of a car before you buy it. Most of us are pretty happy if our car works. Above all, we want it to be reliable and consistent with no surprises.

Of course there’s the basic maintenance that needs to take place - oil changes, brakes, tires, and regularly scheduled tune-ups - but beyond that, we want to put gas in the car and go. The last thing we want is to be stuck lingering on is the question: is this going to be the time my car won’t start?

Marketing influences our expectations of reliability

When you’re in the market for a car, how do you determine the most reliable vehicles? For years you have been bombarded with marketing catchphrases such as “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection” or “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” These taglines imply that Lexus and BMW are at the top of the list of reliable cars, right?

That may not be true, but to some degree we’ve been conditioned to believe it.

How to choose a reliable car

For new cars, especially Toyotas and Hondas, if you change the oil every 3,000-5,000 miles, have the car tuned up every 10,000-15,000 miles, and maintain the brakes and tires, there is a good chance your car will last more than 100,000 miles.

But let’s say that you’ve had your car for more than five years. You may begin to ask: "How many additional trips to the dealer do I need to make for rattles, squeaks, or an engine failure that didn’t exist before?" Or "Will the electronic features begin to fail on me?"

If the number of trips to the dealer have increased over the years, maybe your car isn’t as reliable as it once was, and it is starting to become a money sinkhole.

Maybe it’s time to get rid of your car and invest in a new one so you can feel like you’re driving a reliable vehicle again.

What’s the definition of reliable?

What are the criteria of car reliability? Of course, this question is open to interpretation. It depends on how well the owner took care of the car in its early years, and the conditions under which it’s been driven.

Owners of cars that primarily drive around town might define reliable as a car that doesn’t need anything more than normal repairs (oil changes, brake jobs, tires). An unreliable car could be defined as a consistent number of unplanned breakdowns.

Toyota Camry’s and Corolla’s as well as Honda Accord’s and Civic’s are known for their reliability and it’s not unheard of for them to last for 10-15 years with only the occasional out-of-the-ordinary repairs to keep them chugging along.

Best cars ranked by Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports named these cars among the most reliable on the market. They earned the ranking by offering consumers high miles per gallon, a smooth ride, steady handling, a suspension system that handles winding roads and corners well, and a comfortable cabin. If you take care of these cars, they’ll take care of you for years.

Consumer Reports named these cars as the most unreliable. They have the following characteristics in common: transmission issues, sluggish steering, bad fuel economy, a bumpy ride, cabin noise, and performance shortcomings.

Vehicles take us near and far. We use them around town and on long road trips. It’s probably safe to say we don’t give cars as much thought as they deserve. But in the end, it’s important to do basic maintenance on your car to help them remain reliable. Choosing a car that is reliable and doing your best to take care of your car today will mean less car trouble and headaches for you in the future.


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