How reliable is your car? Here’s the breakdown

Wed, Feb 27, 2013, 00:00

We have all, at one time or another, been seduced by the appeal of the German car. The combination of a quietly classy image with the promise of peerless engineering standards mean that anything made with a German badge sells like the proverbial heated confectionary. Proof of that is that brands such as BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Volkswagen have all managed to defy the worst ravages of the global recession, increasing sales, developing more models and powering to the top of national sales charts.

But the image cracked a little this week, when Warranty Direct, a UK-based aftermarket warranty provider, released details of the rates of total engine failure for various brands, and it makes uncomfortable reading for many of the big German names.

Bottom of the list came dear, defunct MG Rover, whose cars (even though they haven’t been in production since 2005) suffered one total engine failure for just every 13 cars built. Given the apocryphal tales of shoddy quality from MG Rover’s old factory in Birmingham, that is perhaps not too surprising, but the surprise comes when you see the brands in second- and third-worst place; Audi and Mini, with failure rates of one in 27 and one in 40 respectively. They are followed by another defunct brand, Saab, which has Opel (represented in these UK-centric figures by Vauxhall) and Peugeot hot on its heels, followed by BMW, Renault and Volkswagen with tenth place taken, rather surprisingly, by Mitsubishi.

Whatever about Mitsubishi’s case, the fact that five of the bottom 10 brands for engine failure are German will make for some unpleasant board meetings in Munich, Ingolstadt and Wolfsburg. Of the big German names, only Mercedes can breath easy – it came third-best overall, behind only Toyota and Honda, with an engine failure rate of one for every 199 cars built.

High repair costs

Even that figure seems a touch high, though, considering that we have become used to our cars being more or less faultlessly reliable, especially when they hail from Germany. “If it used to be true that all cars built by German manufacturers were reliable, we certainly don’t see that any more. While some models fare well in our data, others prove to be unreliable with high repair costs,” Warranty Direct’s managing director, Duncan McLure Fisher, told us.

“Japanese brands now set the standard in terms of reliability. We’re not just talking about cars built in Japan or Germany – many of the most reliable Toyotas and Hondas are built in the UK – it just seems that they have consistently higher standards of quality. Whatever you buy though it is a game of averages. Even the most reliable cars break down sometimes.”

How does Honda do it? Is there some magic reliability bullet that it fires into its cars? No, says Adrian Cole from Honda Ireland. It’s more to do with Honda’s corporate history. “Honda is an engineering company that also makes cars. Whereas it manufactures in excess of four million cars globally, it also manufactures a vast array of other automotive/ technological products totalling up over 25 million units. This creates a massive knowledge base or breath of experience within its RD division that can be leveraged to promote higher levels of reliability. Relative to others, Honda spends a higher proportion of revenue on RD; 6.5 per cent against an industry average of 3-4 per cent. The culture within the RD division promotes constant re-assessment and review resulting in a lengthy product testing regime.”

German brand lagging

Late last year, Warranty Direct, in association with UK car magazine What Car, revealed the list of brands that are the most reliable, and not surprisingly that list was also topped by a Japanese car maker, Honda again, with Toyota, Lexus, Suzuki and Subaru coming close behind. Once again, the German brands didn’t do so well, with Porsche, Opel, Audi, Mercedes and BMW all coming in the bottom half of the reliability index.

Responding to the survey, a spokesperson for Audi Ireland said: “The survey is based in the UK so isn’t reflective of our own market, where less than 0.3 per cent of Audi vehicles sold have had an engine failure that we are aware of. The survey’s statement also provided insufficient detail as to what the nature of these failures might be. We continuously monitor the market for failures and have a robust reporting mechanism through our authorised network that feeds into the development of future products.”

What Car’s editor in chief, Chas Hallett, commenting on the figures, said that “reliability is so important to motorists, especially when times are tough. Japanese car makers really do deliver on reliability and Honda is exceptionally good at this.

“What will be surprising to many is the fact that several of the more desirable brands did not fare so well regarding reliability, and the cost of their repairs are high. They need to do better.”

Ageing fleet

They will especially need to do better as Irish car buyers are now holding on to their cars for longer. During the boom years, many of us changed our cars frequently, sometimes as often as every year, meaning that build quality and reliability issues often didn’t have time to come to the surface. Now though, according to motor industry watchers Cartell.ie, Irish car owners are keeping their cars for longer, and the average age of the national fleet has crept up to eight-and-a-quarter years.

Jeff Aherne, director of Cartell, says: “It’s remarkable how fast the fleet is now aging. In July 2012 we noted the average age had tipped eight years for the first time – now we are significantly older again. This is proof of the impact the recession is having on vehicle owners: people are holding their cars for longer, and when they are buying, they are buying used vehicles instead of new vehicles.”

Those owners could be setting themselves up for big bills in the future, too, depending on their choice of car. Warranty Direct told us that the most expensive average payout for a claim is €1,250 while one claim, for a replacement engine for a Range Rover Sport, cost a whopping €15,000. By contrast, the most reliable models returned an average repair claim of just €109.

“Cars have become increasingly complex, with lots of gadgetry on board, especially on executive models, where buyers expect more and more bang for their buck. Owners of these cars pay over the odds for the premium badge, but our study shows they could also be paying over the odds just to keep the car on the road,” said McLure Fisher.

“It’s a balancing act for used-car buyers. You can get cars that break down less often, but have higher repair bills, or you can buy a car that won’t cost you much when it fails, such as a Renault, but lumbers you with more than a 50 per cent chance of doing so. The one thing you do appear to be able to rely upon is buying Japanese.”

Figures From Warranty Direct

TOP 10 MANUFACTURERS

1 Honda: 0.29% – 1 in 344

2 Toyota: 0.58% – 1 in 171

3 Mercedes-Benz:

0.84% – 1 in 119

4 Volvo: 0.90% – 1 in 111

5 Jaguar: 0.98% – 1 in 103

6 Lexus: 0.99%– 1 in 101

7 Fiat: 1.17% – 1 in 85

8 Ford: 1.25% 1 in 80

9 Nissan: 1.32% 1 in 76

10 Land Rover: 1.38% 1 in 72

BOTTOM 10 MANUFACTURERS

1 MG Rover: 7.88% – 1 in 13

2 Audi: 3.71% – 1 in 27

3 MINI: 2.51% – 1 in 40

4 Saab: 2.49% – 1 in 40

5 Vauxhall: 2.46% – 1 in 41

6 Peugeot: 2.26% – 1 in 44

7 BMW: 2.20% – 1 in 45

8 Renault: 2.13% – 1 in 46

9 Volkswagen: 1.91% – 1 in 52

10 Mitsubishi: 1.70% – 1 in 59)

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