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Buying a Car: Are European Cars Less Reliable?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro November 2013

If you've told friends and family you're thinking of buying a car, it's likely you've heard many recommendations on what to consider, what to stay away from and even the best local dealers. You may even hear people say that European cars aren't as reliable as their Asian or American counterparts. But is it true? We've examined reliability data to find out. 

New Cars

We first checked out J.D. Power reliability data on new cars and quickly discovered that European cars are typically not as reliable as non-European rivals.

Looking at J.D. Power's 2013 Initial Quality Study, which measures problems within the first 90 days of ownership, we discovered that European cars took the top spot in only four of 26 segments covered. And some of those class wins came in segments where very few other cars competed, such as the Porsche 911's victory in the small "midsize premium sporty car" class. 

But the Initial Quality Study only measures 90 days of ownership -- what about a longer term? Fortunately, J.D. Power also creates the Long-Term Dependability Study, which measures problems in the first three years of ownership. That means the latest study, written this year, examined 2010 models. 

In this study, Asian and American cars also did better than their European counterparts. In fact, European cars earned just one first-place victory in the 18 categories measured by J.D. Power. By comparison, American cars earned five first-place slots, while Asian cars were first in the remaining 12 different categories. 

Used Cars

So maybe European cars are lagging recently, but what about over time? Have European cars always been less reliable than brands from Asia or the U.S.? 

Unfortunately for European car fans, we found that Asian and American cars also hold reliability advantages in previous years. While some European brands -- including Porsche and, in recent years, Jaguar -- manage to score upper-level spots in J.D. Power dependability surveys, most brands rarely rank "above average." Some of the brands with consistently low scores include Land Rover, MINI and Volkswagen

But consistently low scores don't always mean consistently poor quality. Cars have become better and better over time, a car at the bottom of the list today, might be just as good as a car that was mid-pack several years ago. Still, in relative terms, cars and brands that score low today are scoring low compared to all other cars.  

Don't Buy European?

While European cars may not be the most dependable, we wouldn't suggest you avoid them. Many shoppers appreciate European cars because of their styling, their interior quality and their driving characteristics. For example, the BMW 6 and 7-Series get a score of 2 out of 5 when it comes to quality and the BMW 3-Series earns a score of 3 (out of 5) when it comes to predicted reliability. And yet BMW is typically one of the automotive brands with a high percentage of returning customers. Clearly, there's something beyond Honda Accord-like reliability that motivates these buyers.

Moreover, some European cars finished only slightly behind Asian or American rivals in J.D. Power studies. While such consistent second- and third-place finishes suggest European cars aren't quite as reliable as non-European brands, it also means they're far from terrible cars that break down all the time. 

As a result, our advice is simple: The next time you're buying a car, you don't have to avoid European cars. Just be sure to get a thorough mechanical inspection if you buy used. Or, if you buy new, be sure to perform all required maintenance to ensure your car lives a long, trouble-free life.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
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Buying a Car: Are European Cars Less Reliable? - Autotrader