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Car reliability

How do you know if your shiny new car will provide years of happy motoring or spend more time at your local garage than on the road? You can start with our latest car reliability survey, covering 10,350 cars owned by our members.

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And the winners are...

Nissan Leaf

It’s perhaps no surprise this all-electric car, launched in 2011, tops our reliability survey. After all, with no combustion engine or gearbox, it doesn’t have the 2 most complicated, and problematic, parts of a car. No Leaf owners reported serious faults with their cars and just 4% reported major reliability issues. 90% said they had no issues. Leaf owners are an exceptionally happy bunch – 97% of them said they were “very satisfied”. Their satisfaction is all about the Leaf, though – while 90% would recommend it to friends or family, a less-than-average 75% of Leaf owners would recommend Nissan in general.

Mitsubishi ASX

This type of small SUV (or “crossover”) has become a common sight in our towns and cities. They are often 2WD models based on one of the brand’s small cars. However, the ASX – launched in 2010 – bucks the trend as a unique model in Mitsubishi’s line-up. No owners in our survey reported serious faults and just 8% reported major reliability issues. 80% of owners said they had no issues. The ASX doesn’t set its owners’ emotions alight though. No one was dissatisfied, but 83% rating it as “very satisfying” overall was an average result. Owners were happiest with driving performance, safety, practicality, interior and value. However, satisfaction with comfort was below average.

Suzuki SX4 and S Cross

Another small SUV crossover at the top of our survey is the SX4, launched in 2006, with the second (and current) generation S Cross released in 2013. In pre-2009 cars, 4% of owners reported serious faults, while no owners of newer models reported a serious fault. Major faults increased with age, from 1% in the latest S Cross (2014-17), to 8% in post-2009 SX4s and 33% in pre-2009 cars. All of those fault percentages are below average for the respective ages. The SX4 is based on the Suzuki Swift, so it’s no surprise this small car also comes out well. Compared to SX4 and S Cross owners, Swift drivers were less satisfied with the comfort, safety features and practicality of the Swift, though they rated fuel economy much better. And there, in a nutshell, is the difference between choosing a hatchback and a small crossover.

Reliability ≠ satisfaction

It makes sense a reliable car is likely to be a satisfying car: owners who aren’t frustrated by relentless rattles and squeaks or don’t experience the pain of waiting on the roadside for a tow truck are obviously more likely to sing the praises of their car. However, some unreliable autos have owners who love them to bits.

Across the 23 brands we analysed, 82% of owners said they were very satisfied with their car. However, a third of cars had major reliability faults, which means a lot of owners are very satisfied with their car, despite it being unreliable.

Brands with more very satisfied owners also tended to have better reliability, and brands with fewer satisfied owners often had worse reliability. But that wasn’t true for every brand.

Three of the 5 brands that rated highest for owner satisfaction – Land Rover, Citroen and Mercedes Benz – were in the bottom half of our reliability table. While 17% of Land Rover owners reported serious faults and more than half told us about a major fault, just 12% were less than very satisfied with their car and no one reported being dissatisfied.

Clearly, there’s more to satisfaction than consistently getting from A to B with no drama. Our data show that for brands with relatively high satisfaction and low reliability, significantly more owners than average were highly satisfied with comfort, driving performance, safety, practicality and the interior. These brands have something exceptional that triggers positive emotions.

At the model level, the Toyota Land Cruiser is fourth from bottom of the SUV reliability table, but has the most satisfied owners. These owners rate its comfort, practicality and interior exceptionally highly.

The Nissan Qashqai is the opposite. It rates in the top 5 SUVs for reliability, but the bottom third for satisfaction. The only aspect where it has more satisfied owners than average is value for money. Fewer owners than average rate its driving performance.

A car is a curious thing. Some see it as nothing more than a means to get to work and back, so it has to be good value and reliable. But some owners need their car to pull a boat, or have room for the whole family and all their vacation gear. Satisfaction comes from a car with the practicality and comfort they desire while tolerating some minor reliability issues. Then there’s the owner looking for a car that’s an extension of their self-worth. They might only be satisfied by a certain brand, exceptional driving performance and a good dose of style.

Buying used - import or NZ-new?

Why are there so many used Japanese imports here? In Japan, every car goes through the “shaken” test after 3 years (and every 2 years thereafter). It’s similar to our WoF, but much tougher, requiring cars to remain close to “as new” condition. While the inspection itself is inexpensive, the work to achieve a pass isn’t, especially as a car gets older. The result? Plenty of owners prefer to trade in a perfectly good car and buy new. Many of those used cars end up at car dealers here.

If you go for a used import, should you expect its reliability to differ from a car sold new in New Zealand? Our survey shows no difference between the reliability of a used car originally sold new in New Zealand and one imported as a used car. There’s also no difference in owner satisfaction.

Ministry of Transport data shows the average used import is more than 9 years old at the time of import, so it’s no surprise used imports in our data tend to be older cars. However, their age is offset by relatively lower mileage – on average, a Japanese car will cover just over 9000km each year, compared with 11,500km here.

If you buy a used import, it isn’t likely you’ll get any service history documentation. As the first Kiwi owner, you’ll have no way of telling if the cam belt has been replaced when due, or if the oil has been changed regularly.

Our advice is to assume the car hasn’t been looked after, and budget for a full service at the time of purchase. We’d like to see car dealers servicing all imported used cars before sale and guaranteeing major maintenance that was due, such as gearbox services and cam belt changes, has been completed.

Should you buy new?

With faultless paintwork, delivery covers still on the seats and just a handful of kilometres on the odometer, a new car is tempting. If you buy brand new, you can expect trouble-free motoring, right?

There’s no guarantee your new car won’t run into trouble and, while statistically it’s unlikely, it isn’t as rare an occurrence as we’d like. In our survey, just 2% of owners of new cars under 4 years old reported a serious fault, but 13% have suffered a major reliability issue.

Overall, cars bought from new are less likely to see a serious (5 versus 12%) or major fault (21 versus 43%) than cars bought used.

That’s undoubtedly because they are generally newer cars and haven’t travelled so many kilometres. Owners who’ve had their car from new are more satisfied, too: 86 versus 79% scored their car 8 or more on a 0-10 scale.

You can improve your chances of avoiding a lemon by choosing the brand wisely, but there will always be rotten apples. Should you run into trouble, your new car will be covered by warranty for at least the first 3 years, longer for some brands. And there will always be the Consumer Guarantees Act to protect you, the Motor Vehicle Disputes Tribunal to assess your complaint, and, for Consumer members, our Consumer Advice Line in your corner.

About our survey

Reliability

We wanted to know about reliability problems that happened in the past year. Serious faults would potentially cause a breakdown, take a car out of service and be more expensive to repair than other problem areas. These include engine rebuilds or replacement, engine cooling, transmission rebuilds or major repairs, and drive system failures. Major faults could still cause breakdowns and result in significant repair costs and time off the road. We included engine problems, transmission problems, fuel system and emissions, electrical system, climate system, suspension and steering, brakes, exhaust and paint. We also asked about minor faults. While less critical to roadworthiness, they may still need repair or affect owner satisfaction. They cover body integrity (noise and leaks), body hardware (power or manual), power equipment and accessories, and in-car electronics.

We only analyse makes or models that have received more than 30 samples. When we calculate reliability, we account for vehicles with higher- or lower-than-average mileage, as cars with higher mileage are more likely to have problems.

Satisfaction

We asked owners how satisfied they were with their car and if they’d recommend this make and model to family and friends. Answers were rated on a 0-10 scale, where we consider a rating of 8-10 as “very satisfied” or “very likely to recommend”.

We also asked about satisfaction with different aspects: fuel economy, comfort, driving performance, safety features, size and practicality, interior styling and equipment and value for money.




By Paul Smith
Head of Testing



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