For the first time in decades, American cars and trucks beat out their European counterparts for reliability, but Asian cars still take top honors in that department, the survey said.
The study also picked the best models in 10 categories, recommended the best cars for families and predicts how 2004 models will fare based on model data for past years.
The survey looked at 675,000 vehicles across model years 1996-2003.
Of vehicles surveyed, European autos have an average problem rate of 20 per 100 and American autos experience 18 problems in every 100 cars, while the average problem rate for Asian cars is only 12 per 100. Brakes, electrical systems, power equipment, and body integrity are the worst trouble areas, according to the survey. Overall, the average 2003 model has 50 percent more problems than its Japanese counterpart, the survey said.
Acura, Honda, Infiniti, Lexus, Mazda and Toyota have made the most reliable cars over the past five years, according to the study. The 2003 Lincoln was most problem-ridden car made last year, followed by the Jaguar and Hummer, while 2001's most problematic models included the Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen. The 1999 Volkswagen, Oldsmobile and Pontiac were the most troublesome of that year's vehicles.
While some cars never age gracefully, age can make a big difference in a car's function, the study said. The survey indicated that a three-year-old car has on average three times as many problems as a new car, and a five-year-old car has about 4½ times as many problems as a new car. The survey analyzed the reliability of older cars since many leases expire after three years, and the original owners of many five-year-old cars have since found new ones.
Hybrid cars are also holding up well, with the first Toyota Prius rated among the most reliable cars surveyed.
Family-friendly picks that ranked high for spaciousness included the Toyota Sienna minivan, which comes with a rear camera; the Honda Odyssey minivan, and the Honda Pilot SUV, both of which include rear backup sensors that sound when approaching an object. The best family sedans included the Volkswagen Passat, the Toyota Camry, and the Honda Accord, all featuring V-6 engines. And for teenage drivers, the 4-cylinder Honda Accord and the Subaru Forester SUV are the best choices.
To give readers the reliability lowdown for 2004 models, Consumer Reports averaged the overall reliability scores for the past three years. The company found that three years' data is a better predictor than the most recent model year, it said. The score is also weighted for certain problems areas including the engine, transmission, cooling system, and drive system.
Of 2004 small car models, the study predicted that the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Toyota Echo would be the three most reliable. The Honda S2000, Mazda MX-5 Miata and the Nissan 350Z were ranked the three most reliable 2004 roadsters. In family cars, the most reliable picks for 2004 were the Buick Regal, the Toyota Camry and the Nissan Maxima. For coupes and convertibles, the Lexus SC430, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and the Chrysler Sebring coupe ranked as the top three. For sporty cars, the Acura RSX, the Toyota Celica and the Subaru Impreza WRX made the cut. The most reliable large cars were the Toyota Avalon, the Lincoln Town Car and the Buick LeSabre. The top three luxury cars included the Lexus LS430, the Lexus GS300/GS430, and the Infiniti Q45. Most reliable upscale cars included the Infiniti I35, the Lexus IS300, and the Lexus ES330. For SUVs, the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Honda Element were ranked the most reliable small models, and the Toyota Land Cruiser, Toyota Highlander and Infiniti FX were ranked the best mid- and large-sized models. In minivans, the winners were the Toyota Sienna, the Mazda MPV, and the Honda Odyssey. For pickup trucks, compact models deemed most reliable include the Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier and Dodge Dakota (2WD). In full-sized models, the Toyota Tundra, Chevrolet Silverado 1500 (2WD) and GMC Sierra 1500 (2WD) were the three winners. Finally, in wagons and hatchbacks, the three most reliable were the Pontiac Vibe, the Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Toyota Matrix.