If you're interested in buying a car, reliability is probably on your mind. And if that's the case, you're probably seeking out Japanese vehicles, which are generally thought to be more reliable than cars from other countries. But is that really true? To find out, we examined three different J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Studies -- from 2008, 2010 and 2013. The studies look back three years to see which cars have the fewest issues.

Compact Cars

If you're looking for a compact car, should your default choice be a Japanese brand? J.D. Power's data suggests so.

This year's study, for example, named three winners among compact cars: the Toyota Prius, the Ford Focus and the Mazda3. Only the Focus is American-made, while the Mazda3 and Prius are both Japanese. The result is similar in the 2010 study, where the Japanese-made Toyota Prius once again topped the compact charts, this time just ahead of the Japanese Toyota Corolla. The American-made Pontiac Vibe finished third. The 2008 study had a similar result. In other words, according to J.D. Power, Japanese compact cars tend to be a cut above their non-Japanese rivals. 

Midsize Sedans 

For many people, the default choice for a midsize sedan is a Japanese car like the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord -- largely due to perceptions of dependability and quality. But are they really the best? In this case, the J.D. Power data suggests otherwise.

This year's study, which looks at 2010 models, says the most reliable midsize car is actually the Korean-built Hyundai Sonata. In second place is the American-brand Ford Fusion, while the U.S.-built Buick LaCrosse comes in third. The 2010 study, which examines 2007 models, offers a similar conclusion: The Buick LaCrosse tops the midsize list, with the American-made Mercury Milan finishing second. The Japanese Honda Accord is in third place. The 2008 study yields roughly the same results.

Crossovers and SUVs

Reliability results are strongly in favor of Japanese brands if you're interested in a crossover or SUV. In this year's J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study, for instance, Japanese brands took home two of the three top spots among the most popular SUV segments. The Japanese-brand Toyota RAV4 and Honda Crosstour won for best compact SUV and midsize SUV respectively, while the American-made Chevrolet Tahoe topped the large SUV category.

In the 2008 and 2010 studies, Japanese brands dominated SUV categories. Honda and Toyota models earned the top spots in nearly every category, suggesting that Japanese SUVs offer the best in reliability and dependability.

New Cars

And what if you're searching for a new car instead of a used model? To find out, we checked this year's J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, which examines problems within the first three months of ownership.

Interestingly, non-Japanese brands seem to do better here. The study was topped by German automaker Porsche, with American brand GMC and Japanese brand Lexus close behind. By segment, American automaker Chevrolet received the most awards with five total. Japanese brands Mazda and Honda tied Porsche and Korean automaker Kia for second place with two awards apiece.

We're not sure if this data suggests that non-Japanese brands are getting better, or if it instead means that Japanese cars hold up longer. But one thing is for certain: Studies typically show that Japanese cars tend to be more reliable than American or European models. That isn't always the case, but it's true often enough that we'd suggest strongly considering a Japanese vehicle if your top concern when buying a car is reliability -- and especially if you're considering a used vehicle.

author photo

Doug DeMuro has a wide range of automotive industry experience, from work at a Ferrari dealership to a manager for Porsche North America. A lifelong car enthusiast, Doug's eclectic vehicle purchases include a Porsche 911 Turbo, an E63 AMG wagon, an old Range Rover and a Mercedes Benz G-wagen.

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