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Lexus and Toyota deliver a 1-2 knockout punch in Consumer Reports’ 2015 Reliability Survey

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As Consumer Reports reveals the results of its latest (2015) Annual Auto Reliability Survey, there are no surprises at the very top, as Lexus and its more affordable parent Toyota reclaim their first and second place standing, respectively, from last year. Beyond that, though, there are a number of developments and surprises that are noteworthy and newsworthy. First, though, bear with us as we delve into…

The Ground Rules
Most news outlets, upon regurgitating commenting on the CR survey and its results, simply inform us that said data is based upon surveying the owners of more than 740,000 vehicles. There’s a bit more to it than that, though, as the must-read Consumer Reports’ Car Reliability FAQ informs us. For starters,

… we (CR) require a minimum of around 100 cars to publish reliability information for a model in a given model year… (this number) is sufficient to allow us to report statistically-meaningful differences among models. With larger sample sizes, we could detect even finer differences among models. However, using a higher threshold for minimum sample size, we would have insufficient data for most lower-volume models, as well as new models introduced late in the model year. With smaller sample sizes, we would be more limited in our ability to detect differences among models, although we would then have sufficient data for more models.

The minimum sample size of about 100 cars allows a good balance for us to provide accurate information on model differences, while still covering a majority of models on the market…

We won’t offer reliability information on those models for which we do not have a sufficient amount of data to draw a solid conclusion…

However, if a new model is introduced to the market at a time of year that does not coincide with our survey period, we might not get sufficient samples on that new model.

A separate Highlights article notes yet another caveat: a car brand must have a minimum of 2 models that meet the 100 replies-per-model bogey, otherwise the entire brand will be excluded from that year’s CR Reliability Survey. Obvious exclusions are carmakers that only sell a single model, such as Smart and Tesla (the latter’s Model X production is barely getting under way), but a surprising number of brands fail to reach those numbers. More on this later in the article.

As mentioned a couple of paragraphs above, lack of correlation between a carmaker’s new model launch schedule and that of Consumer Reports‘ surveys may also lead to some vehicle exclusions. CR‘s FAQ lays out the timing of their annual survey:

All our reliability information is completely updated annually. We begin sending out each year’s survey in the spring. By late summer, we have collected and organized responses, and we complete our analysis and update the information online by late October. The new information first appears in print in the Consumer Reports New Cars, on newsstands in mid-November… Used car results are updated online and published in the Used Car Buying Guide and in the following April issue. All reliability information we publish is based on subscribers’ experiences with cars in the 12-month period immediately preceding the survey.

Lacking a Consumer Reports subscription and still nearly a month away from the appearance of the 2015 New Cars print edition, we can’t say with absolute certainty which specific models failed to appear in the 2015 Auto Reliability Survey, but the April 2015 Annual Auto Issue, which this author does have in his possession, includes the full 2014 Reliability Survey results, and, from that, we can make some fairly accurate educated guesses.

7096147021_f8b6eb06dcLexus remains at the top of the heap…
With an overall score 64% above average, Lexus maintained its habitual position at or near the top of the Consumer Reports Annual Auto Reliability Survey. Seven out of Lexus’ 10 model lines contributed to this result. The April 2015 Annual Auto Issue (reflecting the 2014 Annual Auto Reliability Survey) lacked reliability results for LX (for failing to reach 100 survey responses), NX and RC (both were too new and thus lacking sufficient samples). This may also be the case for the 2015 survey, although it’s possible that NX has reached the necessary number of replies and that the outgoing 3rd-generation Lexus RX has been removed from contention to make way for the imminent release of its new 4th-gen successor.

…as much of the luxury pack falls
Lexus’ secure place atop the reliability mountain stands in stark contrast to the upheaval besetting most of its rivals. Blame for much of this has been set at the lap of two culprits: infotainment systems and modern automatic transmissions, be they DCT (dual-clutch transmission), CVT (continuously variable transmission) or even purportedly tried-and-true torque converter automatic transmissions and transaxles that now have 7,8 or even 9 speeds. Some Lexus fans may occasionally grouse at the lack of truly new V6 engines and transmissions, but being spared the mechanical issues of its rivals is a worthwhile payoff to keeping on with the same ol’ same ol’. Conversely, it will be interesting to see if the elaborate 8AR-FTS 2-liter 4-cylinder turbo (now offered on NX, IS and RC lines in North America) and its many technical bells-and-whistles continue to uphold the Lexus tradition of seemingly effortless dependability.

In fact, all 3 of the brands reporting the steepest declines versus 2014 play in the luxury arena. One of the most shocking falls from grace is that of Honda’s luxury brand, Acura, which drops 7 spots (from #11 last year down to #18 out of 28 brands surveyed for 2015), with blame equally shared between in-car electronics and transaxle issues on its RLX and TLX sedans. We wouldn’t be surprised if the entry-level ILX soon joins the blame game, given that for the early-release 2016 model it dropped both the hybrid variant with its reliable CVT and time-tested 5-speed torque converter automatic and 6-speed manual transmission options for non-hybrids in favor of a single choice of the TLX’s troublesome 8-speed DCT.

Falling just as sharply is Cadillac, from Acura’s current #18 spot to #25, above only a trio of Fiat-Chrysler brands. Blame goes to their widely lambasted CUE and build-quality problems on its newest vehicles. Another notable (and, to this author, unexpected) faller is Porsche, down from #9 last year to #14 this year. Causes mentioned are a rocky start for the Macan SUV and a decline in Cayman reliability.

Another somewhat hard-to-conceive decline is that of Lexus’ archival, Infiniti, down 4 spots (from #20 last year down to #24 this year, just above Cadillac). We say that because of the mechanical commonality between the Q50 and its reliable siblings both current (Q70, née M37/M56) and discontinued (G37/Q40/Q60), yet the Q50 has earned the infamous Consumer Reports full black dot, for much-worse-than-average reliability. Much less surprising is the other full black dot in the Infiniti lineup, for the QX60 (née JX35) crossover SUV, a dubious distinction it shares with its close sibling, the 4th-gen (R52) Nissan Pathfinder.

Lincoln and Volvo’s rankings remained essentially unchanged from last year, while the German luxury 3 actually improved their lot versus last year. Mercedes-Benz climbed 3 spots (from 24 to 21), but we should remind you that, in CR’s 2015 Annual Auto Issue, the bookends of the range (the CLA 4-door coupe and the 6th-gen/W222 S-Class) both earned the dreaded full black dot for much-worse-than-average reliability. BMW reported a similar 3-position gain (from #14 to #11) for 2015. Seven of the marque’s 14 model lines were rated by CR, with all reporting average reliability except for the better-than-average (in its first year) 4-Series.

With reliability as a criterion, however, Lexus’ toughest rival is Audi, which for 2015 climbed to the third overall brand position in the Consumer Reports Annual Auto Reliability Survey, behind only Lexus and Toyota. Those results are based on 8 out of Audi’s 12 model lines (we’re guessing that the just-introduced TT, luxury A8, R8 supercar and either the recently-launched Q3 baby SUV or the outgoing, soon-to-be-replaced Q7 failed to appear in the marque’s 41% better than average ranking).

Toyota_Logo_2Toyota: atop the mass market brands
The Toyota brand’s solid 2nd-place finish, with a 56% better than average score, was achieved by 12 out of the brand’s 16 model lines. Presumably excluded are the Land Cruiser (less than 100 responses), Venza (discontinued for 2016), Prius and Tacoma (both revised for new generations for 2016). Or, perhaps, Sequoia respondents have also fallen below the 100-response threshold.

MazdaMazda: Toyota’s newest ally
In fourth place sits Toyota’s newest alliance partner, Mazda. Although nudged down a spot versus last year, its 35% better than average overall reliability score tops all other mass market brands bar Toyota. Those results were likely achieved by the Mazda3, Mazda6, CX-5 and CX-9 lines. The Mazda5 mini-minivan has just been discontinued, and the 4th-gen (ND) MX-5 Miata and CX-3 are too new to figure in Consumer Reports‘ 2015 database.

subaru-logoSubaru: recovering from last year’s slight fall
This Toyota affiliate and ally showed something of a dip in last year’s CR reliability ratings, but for 2015 bounces back to the 5th position overall, and a 28% better than average tally, achieved by the marque’s full 7-model lineup.

More pedestrian models like the Forester, Legacy and Outback have long been Consumer Reports darlings, but the big news this year seemingly comes from the sportier, more enthusiast-oriented end of the model range. Last year, the latest VA series WRX and STI were too new to figure in CR‘s reliability ratings, but now appear in the publication’s results, to no deleterious effect. Better yet, the Subaru BRZ sports coupe – jointly developed with Toyota – has finally shaken off its unexpected (given the two companies’ durability and reliability pedigree) “full black dot, much-worse-than-average reliability” rating and has now improved to average in that regard.

scion-logo-optBut what about Scion?
A glance at the 2016 New-Car Predicted Reliability chart contained within Consumer Reports‘ 2015 Annual Auto Reliability Survey news release reveals that Toyota’s Scion brand is nowhere to be found. For an explanation why, we first direct you towards the print edition of the April 2015 Annual Auto Issue. There, only a trio of Scions actually appear: the FR-S (with the dreaded full black dot, much-worse-than-average reliability of its Subaru BRZ twin), the tC (with NA – not available – reliability ratings, a curious situation given that tC sales have generally outpaced those of its sportier FR-S sibling) and the xB (with full red dot, much-better-than-average reliability). The introductory text implies that the iQ, like the tC, lacked the requisite 100 responses for a reliability rating.

For 2016, with the iQ and xB discontinued, the tC lacking enough survey replies, and the iM and iA barely starting to go on sale as we write this, the FR-S remains the only Scion-branded car with enough of a database for a CR reliability rating. As we noted in The Ground Rules section atop this article, one model is not enough, and Scion joins the ranks of Jaguar, Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Smart, and Tesla in not having enough survey responses to appear on the CR 2015 Auto Reliability Survey. A blessing in disguise, perhaps, for most of those brands’ less-than-stellar reputation for dependability, but we’re certainly looking forward to Scion’s return in 2016 with, hopefully, iA, iM and FR-S results, at a minimum.

Speaking of the latter, we’re pleased to report that it joins its near-identical Subaru BRZ sibling in improving its reliability rating to average.

The rest of the field
We’ll spare you analysis and commentary on the remainder of the survey lest this article becomes way too long, but a few observations are in order. We’ve already discussed the top 5 brands, all of which – except Audi – bear some sort of Toyota connection, however tenuous. They are followed by Kia and Buick under the “Most Reliable” heading. Below that, the plain “Reliable” heading comes into play, with Honda, at #8 overall, seeing the greatest drop for a mass-market brand. Here, the blame is borne mostly by glitches with the infotainment systems in redesigned and freshened models. Also worth reading is the Road Report – The Most & Least Reliable Cars PDF document from the December 2015 issue of Consumer Reports

Unlike its more politically correct (or wimpier?) J.D. Power counterparts, Consumer Reports isn’t afraid to name names or take prisoners when it comes to the 5 least reliable cars. The overall winner of this dubious honor? For the second year in a row, it’s the Fiat 500L. Up there on the fugly scale with the likes of the Nissan Juke and the Toyota Mirai, and scraping the bottom of the barrel in dependability, it’s one of those new cars you’re better off avoiding in favor of a decent late-model used one (Yugo, anyone?). Yet, it recently received an uptick in interest and attention when it became one of the popemobiles of choice during Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States. Perhaps the pontiff was inspired by Matthew 20:16’s proclamation that ““The first shall be last and the last shall be first”

Tesla_Motors_logo.svgTesla: a stunning fall from grace
Perhaps overshadowing everything you’ve read above, however, is Tesla’s fall from the lofty pedestal Consumer Reports placed the Model S P85D on just a couple of months ago. That “103 point score on a 100 point scale” while admitting to imperfections in interior materials and a firm, loud ride either spoke to unvarnished enthusiasm for this indisputably groundbreaking car or undermined the magazine’s carefully cultivated image of objective impartiality, depending on your perspective.

Even as the technicality of a single Model S offering kept Tesla away from CR‘s 2016 New-Car Predicted Reliability chart, the publication simply couldn’t ignore

…about 1,400 survey responses from Model S owners who chronicled an array of detailed and complicated maladies. From that data, we forecast that owning a Tesla is likely to involve a worse-than-average overall (reliability) rate.

The main problem areas are the drivetrain, power equipment, charging equipment, giant iPad- like center console, and body and sunroof squeaks, rattles, and leaks.

And, to that list, we should probably add issues with the new AutoPilot technology

In Tesla’s defense, CR noted that

…owner satisfaction is still very high: 97 percent of owners said they would definitely buy their car again. It appears that Tesla has been responsive to replacing faulty motors, differentials, brakes, and infotainment systems, all with a minimum of fuss to owners.

When asked for a comment, a Tesla spokesperson (replied): “… Model S over-the-air software updates allow Tesla to diagnose and fix most bugs without the need to come in for service. In instances when hardware needs to be fixed, we keep the customer’s convenience and satisfaction top of mind.”

Nonetheless, we concur with Consumer Reports‘ final comment that

The real problem may be down the road, when Tesla migrates its technology from the $127,000 P85D down to the $35,000 Model 3, which it says will be launched in about two years.

It’s one thing to have a quirky, problematic car that sells 20,000 units per year to wealthy people who probably own at least one backup vehicle. It’s quite another when Tesla scales up to its 2020 projection of 200,000 U.S. Model 3 buyers, who may not have the luxury of being so forgiving.

The stock market agreed, sending Tesla stock downward as much as 11%.

Featured Image atop this story sourced from Longo Toyota

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