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VW's "average" reliability - what does that mean?

I’m replacing my 1997 Subaru Legacy Outback (about 170,000 miles), and trying to decide between a new Outback (~25 mpg, very reliable) and a VW Jetta TDI wagon (35+ mpg). Consumer Reports ranks the Jetta’s reliability as only “average.” In day-to-day life, what does “average reliability” translate to? Is the Jetta likely to leave me stranded on the side of the road, or will it have to be taken into the shop once a month? I would love to have a very fuel efficient vehicle, but my current Subaru has been a great and really trouble-free vehicle. (I need a wagon, by the way - it’s got to hold 2 people, an 85-lb dog, and some luggage.)

Another important question - how long does it take for the VW’s nasty “new car” chemical smell to fade? I’m afraid that I’m allergic to it.

Anyone have an opinion about the Jetta?

Over 5 years, the VW’s average about 66% with some kind of a problem (large or small), Honda and Toyota about 33%. But that’s nothing like ‘leave you stranded’ or ‘taken into the shop once a month’. If you really want mpgs, the TDI’s a good choice, just recognize it’ll need a bit more care. If you can’t handle the smell, though, don’t buy it.

p.s.-I owned VWs for 14 years. I switched in '95.

I have a neighbor who had and loved two VW diesel products. He raved about both. The “average” reliability was balanced by the excellent performance of the car over all and well worth the investment he felt. Would he buy a gas VW product ? No ! I’m a diesel fan, but only for heavy use in trucks and tractors. We are a gas motor economy and for most, I feel the best buys are still gas, with the VW being the lone exception. Why step away from a good thing ? You’ll miss the handling too. Make sure the economy/performance benefits of the Jetta are worth the chance. They wouldn’t be for me.

Going from a Subaru to a VW you may be disappointed regarding reliability. Stick with Subaru or look at CRV or RAV-4s.


The supply picture for diesel fuel is very uncertain…Keep an eye on the gasoline-diesel price spread. It’s about to open up, making diesels less attractive.

What does “average” mean?

Pretty much anything rated average or better in Consumer Reports is very, very good. They arguably have more statistical error in their measurements than you’ll see in the difference between an excellent rating and an average rating.

You see it all the time. They’ll do things like rate a Mazda 6 lower for powertrain reliability than a Ford Fusion with the exact same powertrain (note: the 2010 Fusion uses a different transmission, but the 2009 and earlier Fusion uses the same transmission as the current Mazda 6, and the current 6 and the current Fusion share an engine).

Not bloody likely.

You’ll find things to worry about far more than this sort of difference in reliability.

Of course you’re comparing the average VW to the average Honda/Toyota…

That isn’t the same thing as comparing a vehicle rated “average” to one rated “better than average” or “much better than average”

An average 5 year old vehicle has a 1% major problem rate with their engines or transmissions, and a 2% minor problem rate with those components. Even at 10 years old, an average vehicle has just a 3% major problem rate with those components.

Well, the average VW is typically rated ‘average’, and the average Honda/Toyota is rated somewhere between ‘better than average’ and ‘much better than average’, so I don’t get your point.


If you buy an “average” Jetta, you’ll be on a first name basis with your local VW mechanic.

Stick with the Subaru.

CR is an aid but I wouldn’t put much credence into anything they publish. The info they provide is based on surveys of people who subscribe to their service and much is unknown; both to the people who read their surveys and even CR themselves.

If someone responds to a survey with a complaint about an ABC car or whatever that doesn’t mean the complaint is justified. It’s simply unknown and without a thorough analysis of that complaint it’s anybody’s guess as to whether it’s valid or not. Some types of car owners will respond, or even gripe, more than others.

The Lincoln Mark VIII is generally rated Excellent but the Lincoln Town Car is often rated below average. How so? Essentially the same engine, same transmission, brakes and a multitude of of other parts all manufactured and assembled by the same company yet the Mark is a good car and the Town Car not so good. So stamp some different sheet metal out and the car goes in the tank?
Point being that one has to consider the average type of person driving that car and CR does not do this; along with a number of other things.

Speaking as an ex-Subaru and VW tech I can tell you that Subarus were in the shop for more issues NOT related to normal maintenance or wear and tear items (brakes, shocks, etc.) than VWs were.
I’m not saying that VWs are superior or that Subarus are inferior; only that it’s a wash and that CR can be misleading. CR has done their job well; they’ve convinced many people to pony up for a subcription and have convinced many they’re the final word on what is or is not ok.

Judging by what I’ve heard with newer VW’s, I suspect in their case “average” reliability means that half of them rated “excellent” and the other half rated “terrible”.

Actually, the average VW is rated below average… that’s the point… the Jetta is one of their more reliable models.


I should clarify this statement - it should read “the average Volkswagen was (not is) rated below average”

Volkswagens are now rated average. 5 years ago, Volkswagens as a whole were rated well below average. That is why, when examining 5 year old vehicles you see a significant difference in need for repair, but a Volkswagen rated average 5 years ago would still likely have no significant difference in need for repair to a Honda/Toyota of that age.

CR’s highest reliability ratings mean 1% or less reported complaints, average is 3%. Not a big difference. This is on their survey results for compiling used car ratings.
If you are talking about their “Predicited Reliability” for new cars-- good luck. Enve CR doesn’t have a crystal ball. Regardless, lower reliability doesn’t necessarily translate to a single “breakdown” or even to significantly higher repair costs.

So Car and Driver et al. are more reliable when their tests and opinions are followed by advertisements of the same ? Please visit, or speak to someone who has visited their test facilities and talked with their people before you summarily dismiss them as another shill. They are officially non profit and have no share holders to please. Their “shtick” is their integrity…and they NEVER pretend to be the final word; just a very worthwhile resource.

Neither Legacy or Jetta will be in the shop every month. However, when in the shop, a VW repair will likeley be much more than a similar Legacy repair.

However, the Jetta needs to be maintained by the book, and then some. In automatics, the fluid should be chaged every 30,000 miles, regardless of what the manual says. Likewise the 10,000 mile oil change intervals can be deadly unless you do only modest speed highway driving.

Getting used to the arrogance of many VW service departments would tax my patience as well.

So, it is possible to own a VW Jetta and have very little breakdown problems, if you do all the above. But don’t expect the overall life expectancey of a Mexican built Jetta to be the same as a Legacy Outback.

He isn’t saying to ignore CR, he’s simply saying to consider that they aren’t perfect.

I understand that some people believe that because they take no advertising dollars, they might be considered more trustworthy. However, they still do have a stake in the game - while they aren’t looking to sell ads, they ARE looking to sell magazines. That’s where they get their money to continue operating. As such, they want you to believe that their ratings are the best (or only?) source of info out there and that you need their data to make an informed decision, and as such you’ll buy their magazine.

That’s why the auto reliability rating methods have changed time and again over the years. The average car keeps getting better and better. Even CR has admitted that what used to be rated much better than average just a few short years ago would now be rated average. If they didn’t change their ratings methods, almost all cars would be getting solid red dots now. But they change them to keep the ratings looking relevant… then they hide the actual failure rates. After all, would someone really trust you as a source of useful info if you told them the average car had a 1% rate of major engine problems and the best car had a 0.5% rate of major engine problems, but your survey method had an error of +/- 1.5%? Not many would, so by obfuscating the results, they appear more relevant and sell more magazines.

To me, they aren’t really any better in this respect than JD Power, who does accept $ for the rights to use their ratings in ads. People have slammed them, saying that they’re only giving Ford and GM higher ratings in exchange for payoffs, and that their ratings are “bought”… in which case Toyota has clearly paid the highest amount for many, many years of high ratings for Lexus. Their ratings match CR’s pretty closely, but at least they show you how little a difference they’re actually measuring (VERY small).

Well said,

Warranty Direct used to publish actual warranty claims rates for vehicles in the US… it was shocking how little difference there was. There are clear trends, though, from their UK data, which is still available:

  1. Fords break down more often than Toyotas or Hondas
  2. Toyotas and Hondas spend more days in the shop than Fords
  3. Fords average lower total repair costs than Toyotas or Hondas

so if you look just at frequency of repair, Ford looks worst of the three. If you look at your cost, they look best. So if you want to save some $$$ and can deal with more frequent (but shorter) trips to the mechanic, Ford was the way to go. If you don’t care about a little more cost but want to minimize trips to the mechanic (even if they are longer), you’re better off with Toyota or Honda

The same can be said for the Dodge Magnum, Charger, and Chrysler 300. Same vehicle, same engine, brakes, et. al, but the Magnum gets a lower rating than the Charger, which gets a lower rating than the 300

I agree 100% with those who point out the model-specific inconsistencies in the CR reliability data. What I do is look at the overall picture, by brand. Take either the April car issue or go on their web site and view “Used Cars A-Z”. Check out each brand. Some are largely black (Chrysler, Jeep, most of GM), some are largely red (Toyota, Honda, Inifinti, Acura, Lexus, Subaru, etc.), and some are mixed (Ford, Nissan, etc). VW and Audi fall in the ‘largely black’ group, so I take that as an indicator. No absolute guarantee, but a pretty strong indicator.

Thanks to everyone who replied. Overall, enough people have warned me away from VW (“VWs have gremlins - lots of weird stuff goes wrong with them.”) that I’m probably going to stick with the Subaru Outback. I am also very concerned about the smell, since I have annoying chemical sensitivities (I can’t even set foot in an Ikea). Tom and Ray mentioned on last week’s show that the plastic in german car dashboards tends to outgas something that can cause headaches, and I believe them after sitting in the Jetta for just a few minutes. I likely will take one wistful test-drive in a Ford Fusion hybrid, but then cringe again at the tiny trunk and run to the Subaru dealer.