Getting Mr. Goodcar

A car can be like a spouse -- a loyal, faithful soul-mate or a double-dealing untrustworthy scoundrel. Making the right choice can make all the difference. As many of us have experienced to our grief, there are few things more frustrating than a vehicle that has problems. Not only can such a demon vehicle keep you up at night, it can also leave you abandoned by the side of the road. Neither is something most of us want to deal with.

Which, of course, begs the question, how do you choose Mr. Goodcar? And how do you shun all those pretty, shiny machines out there that want to entice you with their first-glance beauty only to leave you broken and despondent a year or two later?

While there are no perfect answers to these twin questions, very good answers can be gleaned from an analysis of the J.D. Power and Associates 2003 Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS). The 2003 VDS examines the reliability and dependability of three-year-old vehicles based on responses from more than 55,000 original owners of 2000 model-year cars and light trucks. It covers 147 specific problem symptoms grouped into nine major vehicle systems, which gives us a very objective look at how one vehicle stacks up versus another.

So why would looking at three-year old vehicles help us buy vehicles today? Well, as Mary Barnett Gilson so aptly pointed out, "What's past is prologue." While not an exact blueprint of the future, past successes and failures in the area of dependability give us strong hints about what brands of vehicles will be dependable tomorrow and the tomorrow after that.

Since we believe in Gilson's epigram, we suggest you would be well advised to start your search for dependability with the Lexus Division of Toyota Motor Sales. Lexus led the 2003 VDS with a score of just 163 problems per 100 vehicles (163 PP/100,) 110 problems better than the industry average and 346 problems better than the car industry's back marker, Kia. Nissan's luxury brand -- Infiniti -- is second on the list, while Honda's luxury brand -- Acura -- is fifth.

To those who have followed the industry for any period of time, this is to be expected, but the other members of the elite top five in dependability aren't necessarily intuitive. Number three on the list is a division of much-maligned General Motors Corporation -- Buick. The venerable Buick brand trails Infiniti by a mere five problems per 100 vehicles, a stellar performance. The final member of the top five is Porsche, a brand that in previous decades had a reputation as high-maintenance.

That information can be helpful, but unless you're in a bucks-up buying category, knowing that Lexus and Porsche offer great dependability is about as helpful as having Cameron Diaz's telephone number. It's interesting information, but it doesn't mean you can do anything with it.

Luckily, there is dependability out there for the rest of us. Not surprisingly, Toyota leads the popularly priced vehicles in VDS, coming in at sixth place on the list with a score 201 PP/100. After domestic luxury brands Cadillac and Lincoln in the seven and eight slots is another no-surprise, Honda. Mercury, Subaru, Nissan, GMC Trucks, Chevrolet, and Saturn are the other relatively lower-priced brands that turn in above-industry-average performances.

The 2003 VDS also indicates that some skunks can change their stripes. Jaguar and Saab, which have long borne the weight of reputations as unreliable and cantankerous automobiles, placed well on the study in the 11th and 12th positions, respectively. Right behind them was BMW, which completes our look at the up-industry-average nameplates.

So if you want to find Mr. Goodcar, shopping these brands is a worthy place to start. Without too much trouble, you should be able to find a vehicle that suits your needs wearing one of these nameplates. Next week, we will look at the list from the bottom up, warning you away from the vehicles judged least reliable by their owners after three years time.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad has the most dependable spouse in the world -- and his cars aren't bad either.