What Do Consumer Reports’ Car Reliability Ratings Mean?

One of the most important ratings on the Consumer Reports website is the predicted reliability score. This number is rated from 1 to 5, and while that may seem simple, there is quite a bit that goes into this small number. However, although the website is reputable and well-trusted by many buyers it may not be as obvious as to where the information is collected from to establish these rankings. These rankings, which can make a significant difference on a car’s overall score, can determine if it is deemed “recommended” by Consumer Reports.

Where does Consumer Reports obtain data to decide what cars are reliable, and what cars aren’t?

Buyers expect new cars to have higher reliability ratings, but that isn't always the case
Buyers may expect new cars, like the Nissan Note, to have higher reliability ratings, but that isn’t always the case | Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images, LightRocket, Getty Images

No automotive manufacturer wants to come out and say they’ve produced a car that isn’t reliable — for, well, obvious reasons. Luckily for consumers, more impartial websites that look to vehicle owners, like Consumer Reports, which gives us first-hand experiences from actual owners just like us, rather than biased organizations. The website obtains its information and data from actual owners, asking them a series of questions in their reliability surveys. These surveys are designs to gauge how well each vehicle has held up over time and decide what the odds are that an owner may experience necessary repairs or replacements.

What potential reliability issues does Consumer Reports take into account?

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There are 17 overall factors that Consumer Reports takes into account when publishing scores. These areas are covered by the survey presented to members and are based on any issues they have personally experienced with their vehicle within the past 12 months, giving us a general overview of first-hand experiences. These 17 categories cover the basics to the more complex.

  1. Engine, Major
  2. Engine, Minor
  3. Engine cooling
  4. Transmission, Major
  5. Transmission, Minor
  6. Drive system
  7. Fuel system / Emissions
  8. Electrical System
  9. Climate system
  10. Suspension / Steering
  11. Brakes
  12. Exhaust
  13. Paint / Trim
  14. Body integrity
  15. Body hardware
  16. Power equipment and accessories
  17. In-car electronics

You can read about what each trouble area entails in extensive details on the Consumer Reports website directly, but any glaring problems are typically reported on each car’s individual profile page. There is also information on any active recalls that may apply to each vehicle, giving buyers a complete scope of what they can expect from the vehicle’s reliability.

Does Consumer Reports adjust reliability ratings as time passes?

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Any issues a car may have as time passes and the car begins to age — either over years or mileage — are taken into account by the Consumer Reports reliability ratings. Predicted reliability can be estimated based on several factors, such as the brand’s history with reliability as well as that of each specific model. This value can change over time as new problems begin to surface or owners begin to report inconsistent issues.

“We will make a prediction for a brand-new or redesigned model, or a model with insufficient data, based on the manufacturer’s track record, history of the previous generation, or similar models that shared the same components. Of course, this is only a prediction, and these scores are not a guarantee of the reliability of any individual car.”

Consumer Reports

As Consumer Reports mentions above, it’s essential to keep in mind that these ratings are taken as an overall average of what owners have experienced. While the website aims to give buyers the best predictions possible, every car may be maintained differently, and, in different conditions, may degrade differently over time.

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