How Car Reliability Reports Can Be Misleading

Picking a reliable car can be tricky sometimes. Many of us rely on car reliability data from outlets such as Consumer Reports and J.D. Power. However, sometimes these two organizations often have completely different reliability scores for the same car. So, who can we trust when it comes to car buying?

How Consumer Reports gets its reliability information

Consumer Reports is an extremely helpful resource, especially when researching a specific car. CR retrieves its car reliability information based on its auto questionnaire survey that is shared annually with its members. The information CR receives from its members is based on their experiences with 420,000 vehicles from 2000 to 2019. Sometimes CR’s math gets well, creative. 

A typical model has about 200 to 300 samples for each model year. When we have small sample sizes for models, we may use brand history and the reliability of similar models that may share major components in calculating our predictions. 

Consumer Reports

Some consumers don’t value CR’s reliability scores because they are known to pull the reliability scores from a comparative car if they don’t have enough actual data from their members. CR also admits that since 2015, they have only administered their auto survey online which has shrunk the number of responses that they get. However, CR says that by making its survey online-only, it allows the organization to ask more thorough questions.  What’s more important is that CR is transparent on how they obtain their data.

J.D. Power’s methodology  

Compared to CR, J.D.Power’s pool of data is even smaller. The J.D. Power “dependability” ratings come from a survey that is sent to over 80,000 confirmed 3-year-old vehicle owners annually. This dependability rating is based on the number of issues the owners experience within the first year of purchasing their vehicle. The fewer problems on a vehicle, the higher the dependability score

J.D. Power’s car ratings focus on categories including, driving experience, dealership experience, and resale value. CR on the other hand determines a car’s overall reliability based on 17 potential trouble spots. J.D. Power’s main categories are important, but they don’t focus as much on a car’s engine or maintenance costs. Sometimes J.D. Power even takes dependability points away from a vehicle based on its infotainment system

What to consider when buying your next car 

A customer and dealership employee with masks discuss a car in a showroom.
An employee and a client at a Nissan car dealership | Sergei KarpukhinTASS/Getty Images

When Reliability Ratings Actually Don’t Matter to Car Buyers

Like we mentioned earlier, predicted car reliability scores can be very helpful as you are shopping between models. But you can afford to be skeptical about them as you are doing your research. You don’t have to pass up on a car because a critic didn’t like its infotainment system or because its Bluetooth connectivity doesn’t work the way someone thinks it should.

Our recommendation is to use reliability scores as a guide, not as an end-all-be-all. Focus on a car’s engine and transmission components, as well as the cost of regular maintenance. It also helps to cross-reference your vehicle of choice with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for recall issues.