The Worst of the Worst

Each year thousands of American buy cars noted for their lack of reliability and their failure to provide trouble-free service. Why do they do it? And, more to the point, how can you avoid being one of them?

Avoiding a lemon isn't as easy as it sounds. Each year top brands with stellar reputations for quality and reliability buy back from their disgruntled owners individual vehicles that for some unknown reason are beset with gremlins that make them unfixable. And each year thousands of consumers buy vehicles from bottom-of-the-barrel manufacturers and somehow have a hearts-and-flowers experience with car models that are giving other owners fits. So what are you to do beside sticking a four-leaf clover in your pocket and crossing your fingers and toes when you go to buy a car?

One thing you can do is the same thing that professional gamblers do: you can play the odds. Now, as you well know, professional gamblers don't win all the time. When luck is running against them they can take the proverbial bath just like the rest of us chumps, but by knowing the game and positioning the odds in their favor, they can come out ahead more often than not.

In the business of buying a car, knowing the game comes from doing research. And when it comes to gauging overall reliability, a great place to start is a perusal of the J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Index Study, which comes out every year. The 2003 Vehicle Dependability Study, which was recently released, was 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 for models that are three years old. Is it be a perfect reflection of what is available in the market right now? No, it isn't. But it will give you a good indication of which brands offer strong dependability and which brands, on average, don't.

Before we start naming names, a bit of perspective is in order. These days, the dependability and reliability of all vehicles is, in layman's terms, "pretty good." Unlike in years past when some models were absolutely notorious for stranding their owners on the dirty gravel of a roadside, even the relative dregs of today's industry are decently reliable. But that being said, in this age of incredible choice in automotive offerings, why settle for okay when other choices can be so much better?

According to J.D. Power and Associates, the brands that are at the bottom are (from the bottom up) Kia with a VDI problem incidence of 509 problems per 100 vehicles, Land Rover at 441 problems per 100 vehicles (PP/100), the now-vanished Daewoo at 421 PP/100, Suzuki at 403 PP/100 and Volkswagen at 391 PP/100. No doubt the inclusion of some of these brands on this not-so-enviable list surprised some of you. Maybe you would have guessed that the two Korean brands would be toward the bottom, but would you have guessed that expensive European import Land Rover would be right there wedged between them? And would you have guessed that a Japanese brand (Suzuki) and a European brand with deep American roots (VW) would be down in the depths as well?

There are other non-intuitive results on the list. Would you guess, for example, that Volvo would trail the now-defunct Plymouth brand in reliability? Or that highly vaunted Mercedes-Benz would fall behind brands like Dodge, Ford, and Pontiac in dependability? But those are results reported in the latest survey.

The lesson here is that doing research is better than going with your gut. Often a brand's reputation differs from its current reality. So if you are going car shopping this fall, choose wisely and well. The information is out there. It is up to you to act on it.

Cleveland-based auto writer Luigi Fraschini prefers that you not become a sadder-but-wiser car buyer.