Nothing teaches us the value of a reliable car like a recession. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Americans are keeping their cars longer than ever before. Even when we sell them, the cars keep going without us -- the average car now goes through more than two owners in a 13-year lifespan.
But not all cars are equally reliable. In a time when every dime counts, car shoppers need to know what brands they can depend on to last -- and to save them money -- over the long haul.
To rate vehicle reliability, we use data produced in two separate studies conducted every year by J.D. Power and Associates. The Dependability Study counts the number of repairs needed for 100 vehicles during the first three years of ownership. The Initial Quality Study collects similar data from the first 90 days of ownership.
Analyzing the results of the two, there are clear winners and losers. Whether you're shopping foreign or domestic, luxury or affordable, here are the dependable cars in your price range -- and the nameplates you might want to stay away from.
7 Brands to Buy
Toyota and Lexus
Only two brands sit in the top five in both initial quality and long-term reliability, and both are built by Toyota. Toyota and its Lexus luxury subsidiary both make the grade. The subcompact Yaris is the only Toyota product to receive a below-average score in either study.
Ford's upscale Mercury division is the only domestic brand to place in the top ten in both studies. With reliable entries like the midsize Milan and large Sable sedans, Mercury builds for dependability and interior style.
In a development sure to stun those who haven't been car shopping in a while, the only European nameplate to place in the top ten in both the initial quality and vehicle dependability studies is Jaguar. The old conventional wisdom -- if you want to drive a Jag, you'll have to buy two so you can drive one while the other is in the shop -- will be foreign to younger car shoppers before long. The famous British marque, now owned by India's Tata Motors, tied for first place in the 2009 edition of the Vehicle Dependability Study.
It's getting harder for the traditional giants of the luxury car market to consider Nissan's luxury division a cute upstart. The G37 sport sedan now challenges the BMW 3-Series on raw athleticism, while the sharp FX outranks the Mercedes-Benz M-Class in U.S. News' Upscale Midsize SUV rankings. And unlike Mercedes or BMW, Infiniti places in the top ten in J.D. Power's rankings for both dependability and quality.
As General Motors retools, it has made plans to eliminate some storied automotive brands and to invest deeper in Cadillac. After all, the brand makes some of GM's best cars, like the sharp CTS sedan. It has plans for more attractive models -- for example, the 2010 SRX, which some reviewers say is a better choice than the popular Lexus RX. And Cadillac's reliability is sound, placing in the top ten in both J.D. Power studies.
Honda also places in the top ten in both studies, and pulls off an impressive feat. Apart from its Odyssey minivan, every single Honda vehicle scores above average in initial quality.
4 Brands to Avoid
Given Toyota's reliability reputation, it's surprising to see that the company's youth-oriented Scion brand places in the bottom ten in both J.D. Power's initial quality and long-term dependability studies. Toyota can do much better -- its Corolla compact sedan is offered for a Scion-like price, but with a much better record.
The classic British SUV brand makes some attractive products; but before you fall for one, note that Land Rover is the only true luxury brand to place in the bottom ten in both long-term dependability and initial quality. India's Tata motors bought the marque last year, however, and may manage to improve Land Rover's record. Tata has already had some success with Jaguar, the other brand it sells in the United States.
Jeep may be an American icon, but the brand has some work to do on its reputation. It placed in the bottom ten for dependability and placed dead last in initial quality. With parent Chrysler under bankruptcy protection, Jeep will soon reorganize under new leadership -- and may have a chance to improve.
Saab places in the bottom ten in both studies. The company has sought bankruptcy protection in Swedish court, and hopes to reorganize and return with a stronger lineup. A redesigned 9-5 midsize car should lead the way late in 2010.