Steer clear of newly-designed vehicles, most hybrids

Reliability heavily depends on how long a car has been in production. Consumer Reports senior auto test engineer Jake Fisher explains why. With respect to hybrids, he's says all but the Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion are not worth the money.

In Part II of my interview with Consumer Reports senior auto test engineer Jake Fisher, we discuss the reliability of American vehicles and the economics of hybrids.

In yesterday's post, reviewed CR's top picks for car companies and to no one's surprise, they are Honda, Subaru, Toyota (despite announcing yesterday it's suspending sales for eight models) and the fast rising Hyundai.

SmartPlanet: My '97 Silverado just needed an entirely new brake system because the original had rusted out. Would this have happened with a Toyota or Honda?

Fisher: Our reliability data only goes back 10 years, but among the most reliable vehicles in our survey is the Toyota Tacoma. It’s been outstanding year after year to the point where a 10-year-old Tacoma has actually had fewer problems than some other 2007-08 models.

SP: Toyota and Honda have stressed quality for more than 30 years. How do GM and Ford catch up even they had consistently emphasized quality over the past 10 years?

Fisher: Toyota has a huge lead. American companies are trying to catch a moving target. All of our reliability ratings are based on the average. Every year that average gets better. You may have made huge strides in reliability and can still be below average. Auto makers will often tell us how much better they are, but everyone else is better too.

SP: At GM, Buick has stood out as reliable. Why?

Fisher: Some of the models that have been very good are the ones that not have changed much. At one point, the Buick Regal (made in North America from 1973 to 2004, reintroduced in China in 2008) was one of our most reliable models, but that was in its last year of production. GM had been producing the same vehicle forever and had gotten the bugs out.

That’s really part of the story with Ford. Ford has not undergone a major redesign of its major models in a while. They are perfecting instead of redesigning.

Take the Ford Focus introduced in 2000. Ford is still producing the same model in 2010 except for some styling changes. When it came out in 2000, it was the best performing small car we had tested to date, but it was very unreliable. It outscored Civic, Corolla and everyone else, but we could not recommend it because it was unreliable. Now, it’s one of the most reliable, more so than Civic or Corolla at this point.

Toyota doesn’t make many major redesigns. Rather than redesign, it works on reliability.

SP: Who today is suffering from redesign-itis?

Fisher: It kind of comes in spurts. GM has gone through a lot growing pains because it has major new models coming out…the new Malibu, Lacrosse and Lambda platforms, Chevy Traverse and Cruze.  Their whole model line is very fresh. That makes it harder for them. We have a lot of data that shows the longer a model has been around, the more reliable is is [over the long term].

SP: What do you advise as a result?

Fisher: As each redesign comes out, don’t buy it. It looks new and interesting and all, but it’s probably the least reliable in that generation.

SP: Would you give the same advice for the Chevy Volt hybrid that's due out this year?

Fisher: The Volt has a lot of new technology, but doesn’t hold water in terms of the value argument (it's price has been rumored to be around $40,000). Electrics don’t make sense economically and won’t for the near future.

SP: What about hybrids in general?

Fisher: The Prius is the value hybrid no matter how you look at: owner costs, what you get, how it performs and reliability. Ford has done well with hybrids. We liked the Fusion Hybrid a lot as one which make sense. [Most] other hybrids don’t make sense economically. You’re not going to make the money back and save a lot of fuel. [For example,] the Lexus GS Hybrids don’t make much sense.

Hybrids are like diesels. The VW 2 litre diesel is very nice, fuel efficient and does not cost a lot of money. But other diesels on the market cost a lot of money and don’t have a payback.

SP: My '97 Chevy Silverado seems to be rusting away underneath. How reliable have they been? It's your top ranked full size pickup now.

Fisher: Average to above average. We don’t see much rust in newer vehicles. Exhuast systems that used to rust: we just don’t see that anymore in modern vehicles because of modern materials.  Your model was redesigned right after [the one you have].

Q: Then it should be incredibly reliable, right? The engine is a rock.

Fisher: That’s one of things that has stuck around. If you’re producing the engine and the heavy stuff forever, you work out the bugs. It should be reliable, but you will not benefit from better materials.

Missed Part I of the interview? Read it here .

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