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Buying a Car: Are American Cars Less Reliable?

If you talk to some car owners, you might hear that American cars are less reliable than their foreign competition. A lot of shoppers believe that Japanese and Korean cars are more reliable, for instance, and that American cars lag behind their Asian rivals when it comes to longevity and dependability. But is that really true? Are American vehicles really less reliable than rival models from other countries? We have the answer.

The History

In the past, there’s no doubt this was true: American trucks and cars were certainly less reliable than foreign competition for many years. This, combined with stronger fuel economy numbers, is one of the major reasons that Japanese cars were able to gain so much market share against formerly dominant American rivals throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. It’s also the reason that millions of car owners abandoned American cars in favor of Japanese rivals and why so many people from this generation still refer negatively to American cars today.

The Present

This era has ushered in some major changes for American automakers — and the result has been positive. Within the last 10-15 years, American brands have dramatically stepped up their games, improving dependability, reliability and overall quality. The result is that many American vehicles are now just as reliable as their foreign counterparts — and in many cases, they’re even more reliable.

For an example of what we mean, consider J.D. Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study, which looks at 3-year reliability numbers for new cars. In last year’s study, seven of the 19 segments included were topped by American cars, including large sedan (the Buick LaCrosse), large SUV (the GMC Yukon), and of course, most pickup segments. By comparison, Japanese automakers topped nine of the 19 segments in the study.

On an overall manufacturer level, J.D. Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study also illustrates the major reliability improvements made by American automakers. This year’s study placed four American brands among the top 10 automakers for reliability, sharing that space with four Japanese brands. Rounding out the top 10 were two European brands.

Our Take

If you’ve been paying attention to the automotive industry recently, you’ll know that American trucks have become just as reliable as their Japanese counterparts. Unfortunately, many drivers remember an era when this wasn’t true, so they continue to believe that American cars lag behind foreign rivals when it comes to dependability and longevity. While there are still some bad apples, we think this generally isn’t true, and we’d feel just as confident buying an American car for long-term ownership as we would feel about buying a Japanese car.

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