Are cars getting less dependable? A recent study says the answer may be yes, but numbers never tell the whole story. While it's true that the J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study shows the first overall industry drop in dependability since 1998, there may be a simple explanation.

David Sargent, vice president of global automotive for the company, says that the major reason for the reversal of fortune is related to increased complaints about 4-cylinder engines and their transmissions. Specifically, Sargent cites "engine hesitation, rough transmission shifts and lack of power" as the chief complaints voiced by consumers.

To put the annual Vehicle Dependability Study into perspective, it is important to remember that it represents a snapshot in time that occurs just three years into a vehicle's lifespan. This year, more than 41,000 original owners of 2011 model year vehicles replied to the survey, recounting the problems that they've experienced during the previous year of ownership.

Analyzing the Results

The trends that occurred during 2011 may partially explain the survey results. During that year, consumers who had learned tough financial lessons from the recent Great Recession were choosing more fuel-efficient vehicles at the same time that automakers were starting to introduce more fuel-efficient powertrain technologies.

According to R.L. Polk & Company data, 50 percent of all-new vehicles sold were equipped with a 4-cylinder engine by March of 2011, compared to a pre-recession market-penetration level of 32 percent in January of 2007. So the numbers from the Vehicle Dependability Study might be partially reflective of consumers who, for example, swapped a Camry with a V6 engine for a Camry with a 4-cylinder engine during this time period, resulting in them not being happy with the power of their new car.

Additionally, automakers were seeking new ways to boost fuel economy in 2011, as they still are today. One solution to the miles per gallon riddle was automated manual gearboxes, which began proliferating in 2011. These gearboxes work and feel like a regular automatic transmission to the driver, but they actually operate just like a manual transmission. Automated manual gearboxes don't creep forward when the driver takes his or her foot off the brake pedal, so when they change gears, the driver may perceive what feels like hesitation. This also may have contributed to the complaints from the study.

Another possible factor in the study's findings: Consumers were buying more hybrid vehicles in 2011. By March of that year, hybrid sales hit a record before the earthquake and tsunami that clobbered Japan ultimately restricted sales for the year. Hybrids have automatic stop/start systems that turn the engine off when a vehicle is idling in traffic or at an intersection and that restart the engine when the brake pedal is released. Often, engine restarting feels rough to the driver and could have impacted the lower dependability ratings.

The Vehicle Dependability Study also found increased complaints about infotainment and climate control systems. Once again, consumer behavior may have predicted this result. In 2011, more people bought smartphones than they did personal computers, and more new vehicles were equipped with Bluetooth than ever before. Additionally, touch-sensitive displays combining the radio, navigation system, climate controls, trip-computer functions and vehicle settings were becoming more prevalent during this time, to a mixed degree of success. 

Ultimately, the Vehicle Dependability Study tells consumers two things:

1. Be sure to take a thorough test drive before deciding on the car that you buy. Engines are becoming more efficient, and much of that efficiency is thanks to new technology. Be sure it works for you before signing on the dotted line.

2. Make sure your salesperson or dealership does a good job of explaining how these new powertrain and in-vehicle technologies work. Don't feel pressured into paying extra for a certain feature that you can't or won't use.

Dependability Award Winners

If you want to buy a dependable used vehicle, get a Lexus. Toyota's luxury division built half of the 12 top-ranked models in the latest Vehicle Dependability Study. If you can't afford a Lexus, buy a 2011 Honda CR-V -- the only vehicle without an upscale badge to crack the top 10. Notably, the two most trouble-free vehicles in the study were the Cadillac DTS and the Lexus LS, tied at the top of the list.

Separately, the market research firm issued a total of 21 segment awards in association with the 2014 Vehicle Dependability Study. The winners are listed below, in alphabetical order, followed by their J.D. Power-defined categories:

Acura RDX -- Compact Premium CUV

Buick Lucerne -- Large Car

Cadillac DTS (tie) -- Large Premium Car

Cadillac Escalade -- Large Premium CUV

Chevrolet Camaro -- Midsize Sporty Car

Chevrolet Volt -- Compact Car

GMC Sierra 1500 -- Large Light-Duty Pickup

GMC Sierra Heavy Duty -- Large Heavy-Duty Pickup

GMC Yukon -- Large CUV

Honda CR-V -- Compact CUV

Honda Crosstour -- Midsize CUV

Honda Element -- Sub-Compact CUV

Honda Fit -- Sub-Compact Car

Honda Ridgeline -- Midsize Pickup

Lexus ES -- Compact Premium Car

Lexus GS -- Midsize Premium Car

Lexus LS (tie) -- Large Premium Car

Lexus RX -- Midsize Premium CUV

MINI Cooper -- Compact Sporty Car

Scion xB -- Compact MPV

Toyota Camry -- Midsize Car

Toyota Sienna -- Minivan

author photo

Christian Wardlaw is passionate about the cars, trucks, and SUVs people actually buy, not the models about which they fantasize. An industry veteran and former editor-in-chief of Edmunds.com, this father of 4 loves to inform and entertain everyday car buyers.

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