Consumer Reports: Luxury autos can be less reliable

By Jerry Hirsch
Los Angeles Times

If you are in the market for an expensive German luxury car, think again, Consumer Reports warns in its annual ranking of auto reliability Tuesday.

“The larger (European) manufacturers, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, are among the worst automakers overall,” Consumer Reports said.
It turns out that expense and luxury don’t always equate to reliability, said Jake Fisher, senior automotive engineer with Consumer Reports. Often, there is an inverse relationship.

Big luxury cars come with “a lot of power equipment, electronic gizmos and complexity,” Fisher said, “and that means more chances for something to go wrong.”

In particular, Audi and BMW have introduced new high-performance engines that combine power and fuel efficiency, but the technology has been daunting, he noted. On Tuesday, BMW announced it would recall about 130,000 of its model-years 2007 to 2010 135i, 335i and 535i sedans, coupes and other vehicles equipped with its twin-turbo inline six-cylinder engines because they may experience a failure of the high-pressure fuel pump and suffer from reduced performance.

“At the other end is the Toyota Yaris, which was Toyota’s most reliable vehicle and is the Japanese automaker’s cheapest vehicle. There’s not much to go wrong with the car, but we don’t recommend it because it performs poorly. Performance and reliability don’t necessarily go hand in hand,” Fisher said.

Five of BMW’s 11 models scored below average. Six of Mercedes-Benz’s 13 models were below average. Nearly three-quarters of the Audi models Consumer Reports analyzed were below average. The A6 with the new supercharged 3.0-liter V6 was tied with the Jaguar XF for the worst reliability.

Of the major European luxury nameplates, only Porsche and Volvo did well in the magazine’s ratings, with all of their vehicles having average reliability or better. The rankings are based on surveys of owners or lease holders of 1.3 million vehicles conducted earlier this year.

While European luxury brands were moving down the reliability scale, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., the two biggest U.S. auto companies, continued to improve their standings.

The magazine, known for its influential auto recommendations, said that of the major domestic auto companies, only Chrysler Group, which suffers from aging models and quality issues, seemed unable to improve its vehicles.

The gains by Ford and GM are real but will take time for car buyers to accept, said Rebecca Lindland, a senior analyst with IHS Automotive.

“It takes years and years for the sins of the past to go away,” Lindland said.

Ford remains the most reliable American automaker, according to the magazine. The Ford Fusion Hybrid was the top-ranked family sedan. Overall, 90 percent of Ford’s models, including its Lincoln brand, have at least average reliability.

GM performance was helped by the closure of its Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer divisions as part of its bankruptcy reorganization last year. The brands were noteworthy for producing “troublesome cars,” the magazine said. The report also noted that many of GM’s latest cars, such as the Buick LaCrosse and the Cadillac SRX, are getting good reliability marks during their first year of production.

Chevrolet turned in its best showing in years, with 83 percent of its models earning average reliability scores or better.

That compares with Chrysler, where Consumer Reports recommended only one vehicle, the four-wheel-drive Dodge Ram 1500.

Despite a series of recalls in recent months, Toyota Motor Co. and American Honda Motor Co. and other Asian companies continue to dominate the reliability ratings. All of the models from Acura, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Scion and Toyota earned average reliability scores or better. Fisher believes that they do a better job engineering electronics and accessories, which are responsible for many of the malfunctions in modern cars. With the exception of the lower-rated European brands, most vehicles these days come with a reliable engine and transmission, the major mechanical components of a vehicle.

“If people had any idea about the absolute complexity of these products, they would be stunned that they start every morning,” Lindland said.