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One of the most important automobile ratings on the Consumer Reports website is its predicted reliability score. This number is rated from 1 to 5. Sound simple? There’s actually quite a bit that goes into the little number.

How does Consumer Reports decide what cars are reliable?

Two reviewers examine a blue Nissan Note.
Nissan Note | 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 obvious reasons. But you don’t have to rely on an automaker’s claims about their latest vehicle to decide what to buy.

Luckily for consumers, impartial websites look to vehicle owners to share first-hand experience. Consumer Reports compiles information by sending vehicle owners reliability surveys. These surveys gauge how well each vehicle has held up over time. Consumer Reports uses this data to predict whether buyers may experience necessary repairs or replacements.

What potential reliability issues does Consumer Reports take into account?

There are 17 overall factors that Consumer Reports takes into account when publishing scores. These areas are all covered by the survey presented to members. They 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–which only members can access. 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?

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 surface or owners 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 remember 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.

One downside of the Consumer Reports method is that a vehicle that achieves an “average” in every category could top its segment without ever being inspiring enough to sell well. One example is the Honda Ridgeline which seems to always come in last in truck sales but first in truck ratings.

The truth is that the vehicles we are most passionate about make tradeoffs to excel at one thing. Think of roadsters with little cargo room or heavy-duty trucks that handle poorly and how much their owners love them.

Another downside of Consumer Reports’ car reviews is that they are blocked by a paywall. This may be a negligible investment, considering the high cost of a new car. But in the meantime, make sure to check out MotorBiscuit’s hands-on vehicle reviews.

You can also see MotorBiscuit’s Vehicle of the Year awards winners in the video below:

Editor’s Note: The first draft of this article was written by Gabrielle DeSantis. It has been revised with the latest information available.