Market research firm J.D. Power asked some 34,000 Americans how they liked their 2012-model-year car or truck after three years of ownership. The results were carefully tabulated in the firm’s 2015 Vehicle Dependability Study, which ranked 31 automotive brands according to the number of reported problems. It’s a sign of the times when Bluetooth connectivity and voice recognition issues topped the list of complaints. For better or for worse, consumers have come to expect our cars to be extensions of our phones and tablets.
J.D. Power also cataloged more traditional faults, including wind noise (an almost universal irritant), along with squeaks, clunks and brake noise, followed by engine and transmission issues – nearly 30 per cent of powertrain problems are attributed to poor-shifting automatic transmissions. Most of the 10 brands that accumulated at the bottom of the rankings are dogged by persistent problems that relegate them to the basement year after year. J.D. Power expresses dependability as the number of reported problems per 100 vehicles (PP100); the higher the score the lower the reliability. We name names in descending order.
165 PP100 – Volkswagen and its affiliated brands, including Audi, Bentley, Porsche and Skoda, may be vying for world domination (it’s currently the second largest automaker behind Toyota), but in North America it’s still working to address some longstanding reliability issues. Over the past decade, Volkswagen vehicles have fared poorly in the J.D. Power dependability studies, often ranking among the bottom three or four brands – but its stock in trade is slowly rising.
In this year’s study, Volkswagen moved up two positions and came within 20 points of the industry average. New for 2012 was the next-generation Passat, Volkswagen’s midsize sedan that received a rethink to better compete with the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Sourced from a new plant in Tennessee, the Passat used VW’s 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder as the base engine and offered the coveted TDI turbodiesel as an option – two of the automaker’s best engines.
173 PP100 – Fiat-owned Chrysler has been making incremental improvements in its dependability scores in the recent past, although it seems to have stalled in its present position. Not much changed for Chrysler’s flagship brand in 2012 beyond the introduction of a new eight-speed automatic transmission designed by German cog-maker ZF, found in its popular 300 luxury sedan (V-8 models retained the five-speed autobox). Unfortunately, the brand has been challenged by a number of drivability issues that have disappointed owners.
Chrysler’s notorious totally integrated power modules (TIPM) can trigger electrical faults that turn the engine off while driving, leaving the driver to coast to a stop. Entire wiring harnesses have been replaced in addition to the modules; failed alternators have also been reported. Other mechanical weaknesses include hesitating transmissions, poor-performing air conditioners, worn wheel bearings and defective paint.
174 PP100 – Now owned by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group of China, Volvo Cars has been marshalling its resources to keep up with the ever-advancing technology that fills our automobiles these days. Sometimes, the high-tech gear presents teething problems, and a small company like Volvo makes missteps – despite its cherished reputation for building durable vehicles that go the distance.
The sleek S60 sedan is not your uncle Olaf’s Volvo, and its navigation system has earned raspberries from some users who are accustomed to better systems found in Japanese and American cars. It appears that the 2012 Volvos probed in this year’s study have largely exhibited tech issues, rather than crippling drivetrain faults. However, the adaptive cruise control was singled out by owners as being troublesome to the point of being hazardous as it can reportedly apply the brakes at low speed without warning.
188 PP100 – Ford is often held up as the textbook example of an automobile company that’s had difficulty incorporating smart driver interface technology that works well and meets expectations. The Sync and MyFord Touch systems, developed with Microsoft, have not been intuitive enough for many owners. Widening application of these interfaces in Ford’s 2012 lineup likely contributed to the automaker’s precipitous slide in J.D. Power’s dependability rankings. Ford slumped from just below the industry average in 2014 to well below average this year.
The one major product intro in 2012 was the all-new Focus compact, which experienced some teething problems of its own with a truculent six-speed dual-clutch automated transmission that some owners found to be rough-shifting to the point of distraction. The same finicky autobox disappointed some owners of the tiny Ford Fiesta, as well. Some transmissions were replaced outright under warranty.
188 PP100 – With its stunning designs, ambitious engineering and competitively priced models, South Korea’s Hyundai is no longer considered the default discount brand in Canada. Yet all is not well with the automaker. While Hyundai had resided among the top-10 marques in recent J.D. Power dependability studies, its ranking plunged in the last three years to well below the industry average. Hyundai’s optimistic fuel ratings may be partly to blame; the automaker (along with subsidiary Kia) was forced to revise its consumption numbers upwards and reimburse owners.
Not meeting buyers’ expectations is a big part of what J.D. Power captures in its studies. However, there are troubling issues on the mechanical side, too. The popular Sonata sedan – built in Alabama – has exhibited electrical and suspension alignment issues, as well as engine failure that may be attributed to sludge formation at high mileage.
192 PP100 – Chrysler and Dodge share the same platforms, engines and transmissions, so it follows that the two should garner similar scores in J.D. Power’s studies. Dodge has a larger model lineup, however, including the nostalgic Challenger and Charger models that work on the same Chrysler 300 rear-drive chassis. The Charger was thoroughly redesigned for 2011, earning the new Pentastar 3.6-L V6 as its base motor – and the same documented headaches.
Chief among these is a 160-amp alternator that has been recalled because it may suddenly fail and result in stalling or, in extreme cases, catch on fire. In addition, owners have complained online about no-start conditions and other electrical issues, poor air conditioners, lit Check Engine lights and other mechanical setbacks. For these reasons, Dodge has been a long-term tenant near the bottom of the J.D. Power dependability rankings.
193 PP100 – Young or old, there’s no question buyers are drawn to the Mini Cooper’s interminable cuteness, grin-inducing drive, funhouse interior and BMW breeding. But the ownership experience reportedly can go south quickly due to such setbacks as rapidly worn clutches, electrical glitches, oil leaks, weak air conditioners, short-lived timing belts, bad turbos and carbon build-up choking the engine.
At least product engineers had the foresight to replace the CVT transmission in the first-generation Mini with a durable conventional six-speed automatic. Mini is one of those brands that has not really elevated itself out of the basement of the dependability standings. In its quest to revive the Mini marque, BMW may have inadvertently reproduced the English-car ownership experience a little too accurately.
197 PP100 – America’s most cherished war veteran soldiers on with a bevy of updates to keep the open-air Wrangler and its more sophisticated brethren selling well today. But old habits apparently die hard and even loyal Jeep fans have had to contend with ongoing maladies such as leaking transfer cases, faulty transmissions, poor electrics and the telltale “death wobble.” Jeepheads chalk it up to the brand’s petulant, beloved character.
Unfortunately, the expensive Jeep Grand Cherokee shouldn’t exhibit the same sorts of hiccups, yet owners talk about bizarre TIPM faults that include running the fuel pump after the engine stops, wearing out batteries and alternators. The air suspension system breaks regularly, the steering shaft may require replacement, the back-up camera works intermittently, and radiators and water pumps may die prematurely. If all of these issues can be shrugged off with a simple “It’s a Jeep thing,” then that’s one persuasive marketing campaign.
258 PP100 – Owners adore Land Rover’s supreme sense of invincibility, practicality and stability at speed and off the beaten path. Those who enjoy lording it over us serfs on the road know only a Landie will do. Now under the stewardship of India’s Tata Motors, Land Rover has enjoyed a resurgence with its fresh designs and careful attention to detail on the assembly line. Dependability, too, has earned some close scrutiny. Consider that the all-new-for-2012 Evoque used an off-the-shelf 240-hp 2.0-L direct-injected turbo four- cylinder engine sourced from Ford.
And yet, despite the astronomical cost of entry, Landies continue to present reliability issues early in the ownership experience. Drivers talk about electronic snafus that appear with frustrating regularity. Engines may overheat, while other reported maladies include oil and fluid leaks, worn bushings, faulty air suspension pumps, bad alternators and batteries, and flimsy trim.
273 PP100 – Those of us of a certain vintage will remember when Fiat marketed its wares here in Canada up until the early 1980s. Rampant rust and excessive warranty claims hounded the Italian carmaker until it retreated to the motherland. Now it’s back with its retro-styled 500 that’s been a hit with city dwellers. But Fiat may not have learned anything in the intervening 30 years about North Americans’ intolerance for poorly built automobiles.
The Internet is filled with complaints about flimsy pressure plates and paper-thin clutches. Are manual gearboxes something new to Fiat? Other mechanical lapses include oil leaks, cracked cylinder heads, electrical gremlins, prematurely worn suspension bits, broken radios and more. This is the first time Fiat has appeared in an American J.D. Power dependability study. With a tally of 273 problems per 100 vehicles, debuting at the bottom of the rankings makes for a memorable, if cheerless, entrance.
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