No Fixed Abode: All The Unreliable Ways In Which We Talk About Reliability

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

How did you celebrate Warren Brown Day? What? You didn’t know about Warren Brown Day? Well, my friend, allow me to fill you in. If you are a subject of the Washington, DC metro area, then June 15th was officially Warren Brown Day for you. The day celebrates Warren Brown’s contributions to automotive journalism. This came as a great surprise to me; as far as I knew, Mr. Brown’s primary contribution to automotive journalism was finding a way to get around the Washington Post‘s policy on accepting luxury travel.

It occurred to me that maybe the city was honoring a different Warren Brown, so I went back and checked the original article in American Journalism Review to make sure that I had the right guy. Once I started re-reading it, however, I quickly forgot all about Mr. Brown and his Italian vacation, because the most important story Frank Greves tells in his overview of automotive journalism has nothing whatsoever to do with the perks of the business.

I’ll excerpt the whole paragraph here, because it’s worth reading in its entirety. And I will boldface the most important part just in case it helps.

[Dan] Neil fell into a deeper hole when, while swooning over the $112,700 Audi A8, he declared: “At this moment, Germany is to car building what Renaissance Florence was to painting.” Actually, at that moment, Audi, BMW and Volkswagen ranked in the bottom half among automakers for dependability after three years, according to a respected J.D. Power and Associates survey. Neil’s defense rests on the qualifier “at this moment,” reviewers having reached consensus that a new model’s future reliability can never be predicted ― even if the maker has for decades turned out lots of models that barely outlived their warranties.

I was immediately reminded of the long email argument I had a few years ago regarding the Porsche Boxster and its infamous IMS failures. In the course of preparing an article for an outlet that was not TTAC, I suggested that buyers be aware of the situation when shopping for a used Porsche. I was immediately castigated by another editor who launched into a long rant about how the IMS problem had never been “proven” and how it would be “unfair to Porsche” if I mentioned it. My response was sharp; his follow-up was shrill; we agreed to disagree. You can imagine my relief when that particular fellow and I parted ways a few years ago, but the fact was that he wasn’t alone in feeling that way about new-car (or, in this case, used-car) reliability.

There is a general feeling in the journalism game that mentioning reliability in a new-car review is somehow beyond the Pale, the same way that a woman’s friends tend to clam up about her “romantic” past once it looks like she’s landed a potential husband. This is particularly true for brands which are known to have aggressive public-relations policies and/or substantial journalist-related budgets. To my knowledge, pre-2016 TTAC was the only outlet that would not “correct” submitted drafts if they dwelled on the potential problems of a whiz-bang new technology. One example of this would be Volkswagen DSG. Did any of the rave reviews for the MkV GTI include even a whiff of caution regarding the idea of dual-clutch technology being implemented by a company that couldn’t seem to master the power window regulator?

There are, of course, examples of cases where the see-no-evil policy of auto journos turned out just fine. The current Chevrolet Cruze shouldn’t be judged based on anecdotal evidence pertaining to the Chevrolet Citation. Yet I have to wonder if every review of a new German car shouldn’t come with a warning that a significant percentage of the various telematic/entertainment systems fitted to those vehicles have had problems ranging from slow response to random blank screens. Every high-buck German car I’ve ever owned required periodic and random “reboots” to clear black screens, frozen text, and other unusual behavior. By contrast, my Accord has gone 49,000 miles without any misbehavior on the part of the “i-MID” system. Which is good, because reliability is about all i-MID has going for it.

I think it’s fair to say that auto journos should make an effort to acquaint buyers with at least a cursory overview of a vehicle’s likely reliability once in service. The problem, however — and this is where the more intelligent of the junketeers latch on like a furious Chesapeake crab — is that all the really good reliability data is safely in the hands of the people who have no incentive to share it.

I’m referring, of course, to the manufacturers and the dealers, who have comprehensive records of warranty failures, service events, and customer complaints. There’s a limit to that data, of course, because the older a car gets the less likely it is to go to a dealer for service. I don’t think that Mercedes-Benz is in possession of enough information to make accurate predictions about the future reliability of a 1981 240D with 800,000 miles on the clock and a tank full of biodiesel. I do think they know plenty about how troublesome the W220 S430 was in its first few years.

Only the dealers and the manufacturers truly know how reliable their products are (or aren’t). Everybody else is relying on pretty miserable information. Consumer Reports relies on a curious combination of self-selection and personality type. Despite having purchased two dozen new cars since 1995, I’ve never heard from CR — and I bet that’s true for a lot of people. The JD Power results basically consist of people who can be guilted into filling out a form because there’s a dollar bill in the envelope with that form. The various online startups are even worse in my opinion. Many of them are so hungry for data they tend to be a little fast and loose with the integrity of data. I also wouldn’t trust any “reliability guru” who actively solicits press trips and free loaner cars from the manufacturers.

What other options do you have? You can visit the various single-marque forums, although these tend to attract a certain sort of participant. You can try the general-purpose or non-marque-based places like “Bob Is The Oil Guy”, although again you will be dealing with a very specific type of person who tends to have specific problems. You can buddy up to a mechanic, although mechanics tend to take a dim view of the cars on which they work every day. I used to know several Benz wrenches back in the 1980s who thought the Benz W126 was a total piece of junk because the cars had a few specific problems that tended to result in frequent service visits when they were new.

Alternately, you could rely on the unconscious pattern-matching abilities that evolution (or intelligent design) managed to engineer into your brain. Ask yourself which old cars you still see on the street. Ask yourself whether those cars are in good condition; if they are not in good condition, ask yourself if you could live with the problems you see. As an example, when I was a kid on the East Coast and in Ohio I could see that “Hilux”-era Toyota trucks tended to rust into Swiss metal fairly rapidly. But I never saw one stranded by the side of the road.

When I let my brain work on the data available to my eyes, I come to some pretty simple conclusions. Japanese-branded cars last longer than non-Japanese-branded cars, but full-sized American-brand trucks seems to outlast their Japanese-branded competitors. Hondas rust, Nissans smoke, Toyotas lose their paint shine pretty quickly. There is no such thing as a durable air suspension. The bigger and more complicated a German car is, the sooner it seems to disappear from the roads. Manual transmissions last longer than automatic transmissions. Four-cylinder engines outlast V6es; the more cams and valves a V-8 has, the more trouble it is.

These are just the impressions to come to me unbidden. They might not all be right, but they are enough to point me in a direction where my research and investigation might bear specific fruit. Should I buy that new super-trick transmission? Should I get the high-end in-dash system? Which is the right engine to get, the right interior material to choose? Is it worth saving two grand up front if it costs me 50,000 miles on the other end of the car’s life?

Obsessing about these questions won’t get you a free trip to Italy or the keys to Washington D.C., but it will pay off in real terms down the road. Open your eyes; trust yourself. As Anita Baker once said, don’t let the decision be made by someone who doesn’t know you. Then take a breath and go for it. Happy Warren Brown Day, everybody.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • George B George B on Jun 29, 2017

    The difficult part of automotive reliability is that some owners take much better care of their car than others. I'd probably avoid any car sold with zero down financing to a less than affluent demographic. The flip side of this is that some owners like their cars enough to spend large amounts of money on repairs. Is a pickup truck with 300k miles on the odometer especially reliable if the engine and transmission each had to be rebuilt to achieve that result? Owners who expect a Toyota to be reliable are more likely to pay for an expensive repair than if they expect the rest of the car to fall apart. That's a little unfair to the Chevrolet that gets converted to rebar and Chinese washing machines for the same major failure.

  • Dieseldub Dieseldub on Jun 30, 2017

    Wait, what's this? A Baruth article with less blown out of proportion vitriol and some common sense? I'm... shocked? Pleasantly surprised? I'm honestly not sure how to feel. But for once, the article largely struck a chord with me. As a technician by trade, I do have to agree that many of us are bad to talk to about reliability because all we see are problems. That is our world. We don't, however, have the actual failure rate data. We see a few cars that come in with the same problem(s) and we label them as junk, and often times unfairly. As someone who is a little bit of a VAG fanboy, I do have to admit that they are definitely not at the top of the reliability heap. There are a lot of very clever things they have engineered over the years, and for the price point, they make some of the nicest interiors and nicest to drive vehicles out there. But, enjoying those aspects of the car generally does demand you put up with an inherent amount of additional reliability issues you would not encounter with Japanese car brands. I got a chuckle over the DSG comment in relation to VAG's inability to make reliable power window regulators. Although, to be fair, while VAG had huge issues in the early 2000s with this, the updated parts they came out with to fix them later have in fact proven to be very reliable. I'm having a hard time recalling when the last time was I had to fix a mk4 VW window regulator, and I have numerous customers with exceptionally high mileage versions of those cars. Know what does go out more frequently and requires just as much disassembly of the door? Door lock modules. Lock motors flake out, the microswitch that tells the system if the door is opened or closed flakes out... Far more common failures than window regulators as these things age. DSG issues are likely blown a little out of proportion as well. Vast majority of customers seem to have no issues with them until they get to about the 150k mile mark, when the dual mass flywheel starts to give you issues. Sure, when I worked at the dealer, I replaced a few mechatronics units and clutch packs for the occasional issue, but in the grand scheme of things, the actual failure rate of those items is fairly low. I daily drive a 2006 Jetta with about 275k miles on it now and a DSG... It still functions fantastically. Previous owner said the flywheel and he thinks the clutch packs were replaced around 150k miles. The replacement parts have gone significantly longer than the originals at this point. But that's just it, even consumer reports are only telling you about issues experienced on new cars, and many of those issues tend to be fairly minor ones when the car is new and won't tell you that your camshaft is going to wear out by 150k miles and dig a hole into a couple lifters (using my 2006 Jetta TDI as an example here again... heh). Here's where it gets a little tricky. Automakers cannot re-engineer failed components to be better if they don't receive adequate data. In order for them to receive that data, cars must come to the dealer for diagnosis and the dealer must share with the manufacturer the failures that they have encountered. But, as cars age and get out of warranty, people no longer want to bring them to the dealer for service because of the expense. So, realistically, automakers often times don't get adequate data themselves on failure rates as vehicles rack up the miles and age. I suppose another issue is that the industry has agreed upon a specific mileage number that they consider to be a vehicle's useful lifetime. That number is 150,000 miles. That's right about when more and more gas engines start to see catalytic converter issues, where anything with a "lifetime fill fluid" starts to have issues if you in fact never have changed its fluid, it's right about where the average dual mass flywheel begins to create problems, also right about when the average variable geometry turbo also starts to have boost control issues. The more sophisticated the car, the more potential failure points you're going to have as it ages. So, you're spot on with your basic assessments. Manual trans cars last longer. Japanese cars will be less trouble in the long run. Fewer wearable moving parts the better. That isn't to say you can't get a German car to high miles, it just might take more money to get it there. So, I guess that's the big question. Are better driving dynamics and interiors enough of a trade off to put up with higher maintenance costs? For me, yes. But I also don't pay anyone to work on my cars... I can fix anything and everything on my VWs, thankyouverymuch. For your average consumer, that is not the case, though. I'm a rare outlier and I'm OK with that.

    • Arthur Dailey Arthur Dailey on Jul 01, 2017

      @dieseldub: thanks very much for that well thought out and objective posting.

  • Ajla It's weird how surveys come to conclusions like this when about 100% of the responses then mock the results as ridiculous.
  • Jkross22 It very much depends on the dealer. Just bought a replacement for the CX9. A local dealer gave a $500 discount on a CPO car while another one gave a few thousand dollar discount but was out of the area and we had to drive 5 hours to get. The local dealer still seems to think it's 2022 and cars appreciate when sitting on the lot. I wish them luck.
  • Ajla "and the $34K price doesn't seem too steep." Respectfully disagree. This would be okay at $29K. $34k clangs into way too much.
  • FreedMike i puUut pUniZhR sTikKr oNn mY KoMMpAs aNd nOW i hEeR Eegle SkReem. (And no one knows it's made in Mexico.)
  • SCE to AUX What a farce.Besides, "patriotism" has been redefined a hundred different ways in the last 20+ years. Disagree with one of them, and you're a traitor.And for starters, Jeep is a Stellantis brand with its HQ in the Netherlands. If this persistent myth about patriotism is ever cracked, the brand is doomed.