Japanese cars reliability - true or myth?

Do you know what grinds my gear?..

I own two vehicles - '02 Hyundai Elantra and '01 Audi A6. The Hyundai was brand new and the Audi was about 4 years old when I bought them. I have never had a problem with the Hyundai because I don’t drive like a Nascar driver on the street and I take care of it like any owner shoud. I had to fix an oil leak in the Audi, but it was a price that came with buying a used car…

Now, just few days ago, I changed the spark plugs in the Audi and I had this “mechanic” guy helping me. I worked on the passenger side and he worked on the driver side. After all was done, he was saying how easy to fix and reliable Japanese vehicles were compared to, say, European vehicles! I’ve had other guys talking about the same thing - about how reliable Japanese cars are, before this just makes me angry. These guys have never owned anything BUT Japanese vehicles, for one thing, and from what I hear from several experts, this whole Japanese cars being more realiable than any others ls more of hype than anything else. Yes, I will agree with how easy it is to fix Japanese cars because of my personal experience, but that’s as far as I would go.

Am I just being overly protective and proud of my non-Japanese vehicle ownership experience, or what?

Oh…this could really open a can of worms.

I HAVE owned American Made cars and trucks. And now I own an American Made Toyota 4Runner. From my personal experience it’s NOT A HYPE. But you have to look at your purchase for your needs. If you only keep your vehicles 5 years and no more then 150k miles then MOST vehicles made by Ford/GM or chryco will be fine. Where I see the difference is when you keep them for 10 years and 200-300k miles.
I’ve yet to see any car made by the Big-3 that have been any where close to the reliability of my wifes American Made Accords. Her 87 and 96 Accords were very reliable. On her 96 we put less then $100 in beyond normal maintenance (oil changes, tune-ups, tires, shocks…etc) in the 10 years and 240k miles. Her 87 Accord went OVER 300k miles and the biggest expense beyond normal maintenance were the rear ball joints ($200 and about an hour of my time). We sold it to a neighbor who put another 50k on it…and they sold it who last I knew broke the 400k mile mark. The last Big-3 vehicle I owned was my 84 GMC S-15. It started to fall apart around 90k. Every 2-3 months after it reached 90k I started to replace parts…(alternator, starter, carburator (actually rebuilt it). Not reliable at all.

The realistic answer is if you take care of the vehicle in both maintenance and driving normally they all last quite a bit of time and likely few problems.

As far as frequency of repair there are things like consumer reports that show most Japanese better but you have to take that with a serious grain of salt. The ones with better than average reliability may only have 0-2 cars out of 10 with problems in an area while those with below average reliability may have 0-5 out 10 cars with problems in specific area. What it does not take into account is the 5 other vehicles in the case of rated “poor reliability”.

What I am trying to say and even consumer reports shows and others studies is that the gap between Domestic, European, and Japanese has narrowed in the last 10 years. Forget the 1980’s. Buy what you like and take care it and it will likely take care of you. Also you see people post I got well over 200k miles without serious repair, but also ask the style of driving (non city) and the miles put on vehicle/year and you will quickly realize these #'s are not as impressive. I was able to get over 200k on Civic with some issues and sold perfectly running but also drove nearly pure highway and 30k/year.

My daughter bought a 2001 Honda Civic new in the spring of 2001. She has been good about maintaining it. I was surprised at some of the trouble she has had with it. An upper ball joint cracked and created a dangerous condition that the Honda dealer failed to diagnose. A mechanic we found through this web site properly diagnosed the funny sound from the front that my daughter insisted was there. Then with about 110,000 miles the exhaust manifold cracked, and the part needed to replace it included a new catalytic converter, as it comes as one continuous part. I can not remember what else major went wrong, but I think there was one more thing in addition to the above.

Your friends’ remarks were once true. We still can consider most Japanese cars to be quite reliable and long-lasting. But the other companies have caught up with them. The Buick division of GM, for example, is at or near the top of the list in turning out trouble-free cars. That list includes the most reputable Japanese makes.

Let your friends boast and brag, as they must. Whatever makes them happy. They tend to forget the many visits to the shop that they have had to make, just like everyone else. You know your own cars are reliable and that’s really all that matters.

The ones with better than average reliability may only have 0-2 cars out of 10 with problems in an area while those with below average reliability may have 0-5 out 10 cars with problems in specific area.

That’s a more then 100% INCREASE in cars that will have problems. The bad thing about CR is that they don’t really go beyond 5 years. I think that’s where MOST of the Big-3 fall down.

My wife’s old 96 Civic was sold in 2005 and had a pleathora of problems past 150k miles at year 7. These problems included heat that never would work well at idle, low knock in engine occasionally on highway, clutch master cylinder, brake master cylinder and broken power mirrors(electrical problem). It also would only muster 29MPG and my wife did not drive it hard.

Its fluids were maintained properly like 5k oil changes and radiator fluid changes etc. I just was not impressed with the 1996 or my 1995.

I would definitely not consider the easy-to-fix claim true. It might be relative to an Audi, but definitely not compared to most domestics. It’s mostly an issue of clearance, since the Japanese cars tend to cram a lot more stuff in a much smaller space. There’s repairs on my Accord that I just can’t wrap my head around how someone with only one elbow and wrist per arm can do!

As for reliability and quality, I think there definitely was a time when Japanese cars had a clear edge, but I think that today that edge is less clear. The majority of Japanese cars sold in the states are a handful of models that have excellent reputations that their companies zealously guard by only employing components that have been extensively tested on other models and/or in other markets. There’s equivalents in the domestic lines, such as most of the Buick line and the old Tauruses, which are every bit as reliable as most Japanese cars. Part of it is that by the time most Japanese cars reach the US, they’ve been sold in the home market for a couple of years and most of the bugs have been worked out, whereas with the domestics WE have to do that process. I think this is part of why some of the Japanese SUV’s, which are specifically designed for the US market, have not quite lived up to their reputations.

And of course, as Mike mentions, the line between domestic and imports has become very blurred as of late, so generalizations are harder to make these days.

Frankly it is very difficult to say. I have yet to see any “good” information. How would you rate car A that had one problem costing $500.00 with no safety issue, car B with a $50 problem with a possible safety issue, car C with 8 $5.00 issues non safety related. Etc. Which one has the best reliability??? Now add that few people with a car D that had one $5.00 issues are even going to bother reporting it.

Now how about comparing my 1970 VW with a 1970 Chevy Impala. I may have had nothing go wrong, but the Impala lost the A/C twice in the first two years. Heck my VW did not even have an A/C to fail.


Not sure he ever said it was!

My opinion is that Japanese automakers’ reputation for reliability is based on history, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of today’s new cars. Back in the 1980s, Japanese cars were noticeably better. They lasted longer, used less fuel, and were cheaper to repair. That earned companies like Honda and Toyota reputations that survive in many minds. Reputations and history are funny things. They prejudice us, but at the same time, we would be stupid to ignore what we have learned from experience. The end result is that based on industry-wide repair statistics over the last 10 (or 20) years, your friend is right. Should you let that influence your pride in your non-Japanese car and take offense? I don’t think so. How does the quote go? “Past performance is not an indication of future results.” After all reliability is not always the most important factor when choosing a car. In many ways, your 2001 Audi is better than a 2001 Honda Accord.

I’ve owned two GMs. And a Honda. And a Mazda. And a number of Toyotas incuding a Scion. And a Ford and a VW, but those were used cars back in '69 and '71.

My kids have owned BMWs, Scion (my son) Hondas (my daughter).

I also read Consumer Reports.

Yup, in my experience, in the experience of my kids, and as reflected in CR data, Toyotas and Hondas really are much more reliable than others.

Don’t let that influence you. You have two cars you like that are both being good to you, just enjoy them.

Two cars I used to own:

'76 Chevy Nova: Frequent problems, When it was 6 years old it stranded me on the highway 100’s of miles from home with a busted upper radiator hose. Next year it did the same thing when a tranny oil seal gave way and soaked the alternator belt. The year after that it was stolen and I picked up a…

'75 Honda Civic 4 speed: never died on the road, once drove it from Wash. DC to Seattle and back without a hitch, sold it to my brother who didn’t maintain it and just kept it gassed up with pocket change and let it gradually decay into dust.

Both of these cars came from an era where cars of all brands were at their worst. I was pretty fastidious with upkeep of both vehicles.

One way to rate reliability is to look at the Consumers Reports ratings. Another is to look at the Edmunds True Cost to Own. Edmunds (TCO repairs) data shows that the traditional Japanese cars do have very good reliability. But many other cars have comparable reliability, or are only slightly worse. I think that there has been a lot of compression. The Asian cars have been excellent for quite a while, and now other manufacturers are catching up.

My 1998 Buick Regal is an example. I paid $3000 less than a comparably equipped Accord at the time; the balance was my insurance against premature failures. I had one warranty repair (urn signal stalk) and no other repairs besides wear and tear. I made out big time on that deal. How times have changed. I paid $2000 less for my 2005 Accord than a comparable Buick LaCrosse. Same insurance fund, and I expect the same results.

Moving target

Don’t forget to factor in about $500 for a periodic rubber cam belt and possibly a water pump for many Japanese cars. Very few old line US brands have this required maintenance expense as they use gear, silent chain or roller chain cam drives. By the way, isn’t Hundai a Korean brand?

What is best is all in who’s perspective it is. Not all asian cars are great quality. Sure, Honda, Toyota and maybe Subaru rate better than domestics but not Mitsubishi, Hyundai & Kia (asian, not japanese). I do not know where Mazda falls. And even expensive european cars rank lower than domestics.

Take Consumer Reports with a grain of salt as someone has already stated. Their info comes from readers/subscribers that fill out surveys and send them in. These are the same people that may carry a bias towards asian cars and even with problems in thier vehicles they may rate them great because they love thier car, without any ill intent planned. The latest issue of CR does not recommend any Mercedes models but still is rated higher than domestics with recommended vehicles.

2 or 3 years ago studies revealed that Toyota recalled more vehicles than it sold in that model year (wait…wait, don’t jump on me. I like Toyota). What Toy. does is fix the problem before it becomes a problem.

Just to keep things in perspective please remember that all dealerships, no matter what make, have a service department that is busy. Foreign car techs. are not Maytag repairmen with nothing to do.

And for the record, I owned a 98 Taurus with 288,000 miles on it when I let it go. Original engine ( never opened) original trans. 1 alternator, 1 starter and a few sets of brakes and tires.

Okay, one thing you should know is, this is based upon fact that, European vehicles are (traditionally) unrealiable. As far as best to worst, when it comes to realibility goes, it’s been Japanese (best), American, European. Now, I base my information off of a proven source that I’m sure you’ve heard of, called Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports, which is a product of Consumers Union, sends out yearly automobile surveys that people fill out and mail in or take online. They base all their information on reliabity, on the results of these surveys. So, they are not just basing it of “their one car” or “their one unit”! It’s a pretty solid way of doing it and I highly reccomend, before buying any car, in buying their most recent “Consumer Reports Buyers Guide”! Or, better yet, subscribe to their website and get a magazine archive of 6 years, exclusive web stories and more, for only like $19.00 a year! Not too shabby, if you ask me! Or, if you want information on a specific model or even more information than the magazine or buyers guide provides, they have a used car service that will send you extremely detailed information, about any model of car and the history of the model! Not a bad deal! I don’t know how much that service costs but I know, for the confidence of owning a reliable vehicle, it’s definitely worth it!

Lastly, I will point out one fact. I used the magazine, a little over a year ago, to steer my father towards buying a Mazda MX-5 (Miata) over a Pontiac Solstice. This year, after the Solstice has been out for awhile, he is extremely that much more satisfied! Reason being, this years Car Buying issue (April of every year) shows that, predicted reliability of the Solstice is 234% worse than the average vehicle, when it comes to reliability! Their reliabilty of the MX-5, although based upon these circles that are filled with either black (worse) or red (better), there are 5 possible dots and it’s equilvelant to a 4 out of 5. The Solstice, obviosuly, scored a 1 out of 5. I should have mentioned, 1 being worst, 5 being best. So, obviously, the MX-5 did much better! Now, this is only a “prediction”, but it’s based upon factual information and is pretty reliable, as long as he didn’t get a lemon! So, we’ll see, but he’s got around 30K miles on it and has had no problems, thus far! Now, he did just wreck it, but I’m going off topic so I’ll shut up! Anyways, good luck!

Lastly, I remind you of this. Cars like the Hyundai Sonata and others, are made in America. Cars like the Ford Fusion? They’re made in Mexico. It’s a smart move to not trust the brand to tell you where the car is made. Rather, check the specific vehicle! Good luck and have a great day/night!

The reliability thing didn’t start yesterday. In 1976. The underside of a Toyota was ten yeard ahead of any car built over here. The exhaust system had little hooks that fit into O-rings, You never had to replace an exhaust hanger. The Toyota Corolla was a small car that was built like a big car. Steering box, timing chain and a rocker cover gasket that could be changed in twenty minutes and wouldn’t leak. The Chevy small block engines were no fun at all. You could botch the installation badly if you weren’t careful. The Corolla had torsion bars and the suspension could be greased easily. Those little bombs ran up to 200,000 miles with almost no maintenance. The exhausts after the converter were crap if you bought the cheap ones. I changed mine every Spring for $60 and it took a half hour in the yard. Plus, it started every day when the temperature was minus 30 or worse and it never got stuck in snow. Those days have changed a little. Toyota isn’t that far ahead now. As far as your luck with cars goes, not every car is going to fall apart on you. Some people had Chevettes that got over 250,000 miles on them. Your gears weren’t ground in the early 1960’s. Don’t worry, we all show our age when we ask questions. I learned not to discuss Jimmy Carter with an 18 year old; ten years ago.