When Reliability Ratings Actually Don’t Matter to Car Buyers

It may rate poorly in reliability, but Tesla Model X owners wouldn’t think twice about buying another. | Tesla

There’s a large segment of the car-buying population that cares about reliability. People in that category want to know which vehicles landed the top scores from Consumer Reports, and whether the models did it year after year. Quite simply, if you’re raising a family and every dollar counts, the last thing you need is a car known for breaking down.

But reliability doesn’t matter to every consumer. Often, when you match a brand’s owner satisfaction to its reputation for reliability, you find the two overlap in unexpected ways.

Jaguar offers an example. The luxury performance brand might have below-average reliability ratings, but its reviews are strong — better than Lexus’s in most cases. Meanwhile, Jaguar owners usually say they love their cars (and why wouldn’t they).

Jaguar isn’t alone in this department. From Jeep to Tesla to Alfa Romeo, a poor reliability rating doesn’t always mean a kiss of death. In some cases, given the buying terms and Consumer Reports’ reasoning behind some ratings, there’s little reason a bad score in this department should.

Brands that break through

For 2018, no brand had a higher owner satisfaction rating than Tesla (90 out of 100). In this survey, Consumer Reports asked customers whether they would buy the same vehicle again while taking down the owner’s opinions on various aspects of the car.

Given that Tesla Model X ranked as the least reliable model of 2018, it’s clear that consumers of the premium electric vehicle brand prize other aspects of ownership. In the Model X’s case, there’s no other EV out there that combines SUV utility with high performance and an all-electric powertrain. (Jaguar, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz are all bringing a similar concept to the U.S. market in the coming years.)

For Jeep owners, the brand with the worst overall reliability scores this side of Fiat delivers on other fronts. Clearly, the Wrangler buyers who are about to push this model to its best sales year in decades — it was up 35% through June — don’t sweat Consumer Reports ratings.

Other automakers that overcome bad scores in this department feature equal emotional appeal and more flash.

The case of Alfa Romeo

Predicted reliability of the Alfa Romeo Stelvio came out poor. Do consumers actually care? | Alfa Romeo

Originally, the idea of exploring this subject came from Alfa Romeo. In a recent article, we had noted the low predicted reliability rating for the debut of the Stelvio crossover and heard some push-back from the automaker’s communications department. Alfa’s team argued: Since Consumer Reports had no hard data on Stelvio, wasn’t the rating a bit of a guess?

Of course, there was a counterargument. For starters, there have been four recalls for Stelvio and several mishaps with tests of the Giulia sedan (on which Stelvio is based). Regardless, it doesn’t seem that Consumer Reports actually factored these points into its prediction, basing the score on general Fiat-Chrysler performance. (Consumer Reports did not respond to a request for comment on the Stelvio rating.)

More importantly, it didn’t seem to us that Alfa Romeo buyers would care much about such a rating. So we asked the automaker if they had data on what consumers said they prioritized in a purchase.

“[C]ustomers tell us their top purchase reason is the vehicles’ fun-to-drive nature,” said an Alfa Romeo spokesperson. “The styling of both the Giulia and Stelvio is a close second for them. Both purchase reasons are core to Alfa Romeo’s century-plus legacy: an exhilarating driving experience coupled with gorgeous Italian design.”

In a word, they don’t sound like Consumer Reports subscribers.

The effect of leasing and price point

View of Tesla Model 3 in Chelsea, NYC show room
With Tesla Model 3 eventually hitting lower price points, reliability should matter more. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

While Tesla Model S and Model X buyers might not concern themselves with reliability in what might be a second car, you can see how the release of the Model 3 would change things. Though early models feature prices normal in the luxury segment, the goal is to move the brand’s mass-market sedan on a larger scale.

That’s probably why you saw Tesla CEO Elon Musk react quickly when Consumer Reports declined to recommend the Model 3 due to subpar braking distances. As CNBC’s Robert Ferris reported, Musk didn’t send a mean tweet — something he had done a few months earlier. Instead, he responded by correcting the issue via an over-the-air software update.

That won Model 3 the recommendation he coveted. Clearly, Musk realizes that Consumer Reports ratings will matter much more to buyers once the car’s price falls below $40,000.

Julie Blackley, the communications manager at car search engine iSeeCars, explained some of the difference in priorities for buyers in various segments. 

“Luxury vehicles are leased more often than non-luxury vehicles, and lessees don’t need to be as concerned about reliability because a vehicle isn’t likely to need significant repair during the timeframe of a typical 3-year lease,” Blackley told us.

The higher lease payments cover the typical issues in the early years. Again, it’s a small price to pay for a new Mercedes C-Class or BMW 3 Series sedan.

“Those who are leasing luxury vehicles likely aren’t as concerned [about pricing] because they aren’t as budget-conscious,” Blackley added.

As long as the car looks good on Saturday night or (in Wrangler’s case) tears through the trail on Sunday morning, reliability ratings can be damned.