Which new technologies make vehicles unreliable?

Mark Phelan
Detroit Free Press
The Lexus GX SUV is the most reliable vehicle, according to Consumer Reports.

New vehicles and technologies got hammered in Consumer Reports 2018 study of vehicle reliability. As a result, ratings for longtime CR favorites Honda and Tesla plummeted, and every brand from the Detroit Three was mired in the lower half of the industry.

Countless buyers consider CR’s ratings when shopping for a new car, so this is great news for perennial Nos. 1 and 2 Lexus and Toyota — in that order this year, flipping from 2018.

Like fans of a losing sports team, Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler are left to say “wait till next year.”

“The early adopters of technology get penalized in terms of reliability,” CR director of automotive testing Jake Fisher said, speaking to the Automotive Press Association in Detroit. “Don’t chase the new technology. Take your time and get it right.”

More:Consumer Reports: Tesla's reliability tumbles to near the bottom in latest survey

The Ram 3500 pickup is the least reliable vehicle, according to Consumer Reports

Problems with small turbocharged engines and new automatic transmissions with more speeds joined the ever-present sore spot of infotainment controls as leading offenders.

Domestic automakers suffered from “a bunch of new vehicle introductions,” Fisher said. “New transmissions and small turbos were the big culprits.” 

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Consumer Reports' least reliable vehicles

Ram 3500

Tesla X

Cadillac ATS

Honda Clarity

Chevrolet Traverse

Kia Cadenza

Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra 2500HD

Buick Enclave

Volkswagen Atlas

Honda Odyssey

For example, problems with a new nine-speed transmission sent owners of the popular Buick Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse SUVs to dealers for repairs.

“Consumer Reports’ reliability survey matters because reliability matters to consumers,” Cox Automotive senior analyst Michelle Krebs said. “Regardless of brand, model or category of vehicle, reliability always ranks as No. 1 — by a long shot — in Kelley Blue Book’s BrandWatch, which asks consumers what is important to them in car buying.”

Toyota Motor Co. stands head and shoulders above other automakers. Its Toyota and Lexus brands have topped CR’s reliability study every year but one — and Toyota’s short-lived Scion brand won that year.

“People say Japanese cars are reliable,” Fisher said. “Well, sort of. Toyota and Lexus are reliable.”

Giving witness to the fallibility of other Japanese brands, Honda builds two of CR’s 10 least reliable vehicles, the Clarity sedan and Odyssey minivan. No other brand had more than one on the list.

Half the cars in the bottom 10 were new for 2018, supporting the link between new cars and poor reliability.

By contrast, the most reliable vehicle was the Lexus GX SUV, which debuted in 2010. Seven of the top 10 have been on sale for at least three years. Seven also come from Toyota.

Toyota’s had its share of problems, from recalls to unintended acceleration, but the company’s reputation for quality and reliability remains intact.

Fisher credits the company’s hesitancy to adopt new technologies. Toyota just began offering small, turbocharged engines, years after many competitors. It takes a leisurely approach to most technologies, he added.

“Sometimes not being first, and taking your time, pays off.”

Automakers that want to be tech leaders should increase their testing and speed up fixes — there's no excuse Cadillac's CUE infotainment controls is still sinking the brand's rating — but they may also have to accept that a price of innovation will always be lower reliability scores.

“The more features an automaker adds to surprise and delight the customer, the more chances they take,” Fisher said.

Brands' average reliability score

1. Lexus  78

2. Toyota 76

3. Mazda 69

4. Subaru 65

5. Kia 61 (tie)

6. Infiniti 61

7. Audi 60

8. BMW  58

9. Mini  57 (tie)

10. Hyundai  57 

11. Porsche  54

12. Genesis  52

13. Acura  51

14. Nissan  51 

15. Honda  50

16. Volkswagen 47 

17. Mercedes-Benz 47

18. Ford 45

19. Buick 44

20. Lincoln 43

21. Dodge 40 

22. Jeep 40 

23. Chevrolet 39

24. Chrysler 38

25. GMC 37

26. Ram 34

27. Tesla 32 

28. Cadillac 32

29. Volvo 22

Contact Mark Phelan: or 313-222-6731. Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan