Fans of EVs say reliability is part of their charm: no combustion engine, fewer moving parts, no muffler or catalytic converter, less wear and tear on the brakes. Now there’s proof from the most recent JD Power Vehicle Dependability Study: The Nissan Leaf (main photo) ranks as the most reliable car in its class and two other EVs, the BMW i3 and the Chevrolet Bolt EV, are in the top three in their categories, or three EVs out of 23 cars highlighted by Power as most dependable.
The 2020 study of reliability among three-year-old (2017) cars anointed Genesis as the most reliable brand and the Lexus ES as the single most reliable vehicle with the average ES having one problem every two years. Buick is the most dependable mainstream brand while Chrysler and Land Rover are least dependable. Toyota and GM had the most segment awards while Cadillac has the biggest one-year improvement. Tech features showed the most improvement but they (or their users) are still the most problematic areas.
Power cautions that score differences of a few points may not be statistically significant.
Of All Power Surveys, VDS Is the Most Important
JD Power runs a lot of surveys and this is the most important one because reliability at three years is useful and meaningful. In comparison, the Initial Quality Study (IQS) doesn’t find much wrong with cars mechanically 90 days in, so owners instead now get a chance to gripe about brake dust or volume knobs which is not, in our opinion, as meaningful as a repair that would require a tow back to the dealership.
VDS measures at three years because that gives problems a chance to build up, and that’s also the typical lease term, so VDS gives you an idea of how an automaker is doing over time if you’re buying new and is helpful for people looking for the best three-year-old cars. What you find is how the best individual models are doing. Power reports all car brands above and below average because when they tried years ago to report only above-average scores, USA Today or Automotive News got hold of the full report sold to automakers within a day. It’s harder to get drill-down information on individual model reliability from VDS. For that, you need Consumer Reports.
Less Drilldown Than You Want?
Some segments aren’t reported because of small sample sizes or the inability to get “at least three models with 80% of market sales or four models with 67% of the market sales in any given award segment.” For details, check out the Power VDS release. Meanwhile, you won’t as a potential car-buyer find model breakouts for these categories: city car, compact premium sporty car, compact multi-purpose vehicle, large premium car, large premium SUV. Not enough responses, the company says.
Tesla is not reported for a different reason: Power asks for owner/lessee contact information from the automakers, and Tesla doesn’t provide it.
Tech Features Are Better, Still Problematic
In-vehicle tech, one of the features that goes into the overall problems-per-100-cars rating, showed the most improvement from 2019 to 2020 among the eight breakout categories (and 177 specific problem areas) that make up the overall score. Yet it’s still the most problematic category. According to Power VP Dave Sargent:
“Many owners complain about these systems early in the ownership experience and, three years later, they’re still frustrated with them. We’re seeing improvement, but automakers still have a long way to go to before they can declare victory in this area. … the rapid introduction of technology is putting increased pressure on dependability, so it would not be surprising to see problem levels plateau, or even increase, over the next few years.”
Overall, the 2020 industry average of 134 problems per 100 cars is the lowest (best) over VDS’ 31 years. VDS the past two years has improved by 2 points this year, 6 points last year. Cars on average rate 7 points better than SUVs.
Recognition for EVs
For the first time, a battery-electric vehicle is a segment award-winner, the Nissan Leaf, which finished ahead of the Chevrolet Cruze and Toyota Corolla. The Chevrolet Bolt EV was top-three in the small car category along with the Honda Fit and Chevrolet Sonic, and the BMW i3 was runner-up to the BMW 2 Series in the small premium car category. The i3 is primarily an EV but can also be had with a helper engine (gasoline) to extend its range.
Something for Most Makers to Celebrate
Depending on how you slice and dice the data, lots of automakers are happy. Consider especially the automakers who were up the most, among those rated above average:
#12 Cadillac, improved by 35 PP100 (that is, problems per 100 fell to 131 from 166)
#11 Mazda, improved by 29 PP100
#7 Lincoln, improved by 28 PP100
#10 Ford, improved by 20 PP100
#3 Buick, improved by 15 PP100
#6 Volkswagen, improved by 15 PP100
Toyota had the most segment awards (top rating) with six including Lexus, and GM had five among Buick, Chevy, and GMC. GM brands don’t win a lot of comparative reviews but all their cars are more than good enough, and if you combine reliability with great lease or financing deals, sometimes just-okay is okay.
Being top-three gets you a medal at the Olympics and it’s a badge of distinction even if JD Power doesn’t license awards for first-runner-up or most-congenial. GM (Buick, Chevrolet, GMC) had 14 top-three finishes. Toyota-Lexus had eight top-three finishes.
But not everyone is full of smiles. Four automakers had twice as many problems reported as Genesis with 89 PP100: Volvo 185, Jaguar 186, Chrysler 214, Land Rover 220. Three of the four are luxury brands. A decade ago, premium-brand automakers could argue a premium car is more complex, so maybe it will spend more time at the dealership being serviced. But now among the top 10, positions 1-2-3-7-8 are premium brands, and with Porsche holding a top-five position the past few years, it’s hard for another German automaker to say that theirs needs more attention than Genesis or Lexus.
The corporate group with the most issues is Fiat Chrysler Automobile, or FCA. Of 32 brands in Power’s VDS, the FCA group holds positions 19-25-26-27-31. Ram trucks are doing reasonably well on sales, and the Chrysler Pacifica has lots of fans with more to come now that’s bringing back all-wheel-drive.
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