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Buying a Car: Are Japanese Cars More Reliable?

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.


Doug Demuro
Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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  1. I’ve owned American and Japanese made cars and let me tell you that Toyota is definitely reliable! My 2001 Toyota Avalon has outlasted my 2001 ford fusion. I’ve had more issues with the Fusion than the Avalon. The Avalon is still running great I can’t say so about the Fusion.  Both have been maintained by the book.  Kia in terms of reliability is fair but I find their interiors to be cheaply made and I don’t like how they drive most Kia’s unless you’re talking about their new sports car don’t have much power and are slow to take off you have to really floor it in order to get moving.  Ford makes some pretty reliable trucks and vans.  Overall I’d stick with the Japanese made over the American or Korean brands. 

  2. I have had two Honda civics back to back. Those two cars have provided me most trouble free motoring by a massive margin than any other cars I have had over the years 

  3. I just scraped my 2003 Honda accord, burned 2qt of oil per 300 miles for years. Replaced chain at 120k, transmission failures galore and radio blew up at 150k. Never got any help from Honda and will never buy another. I am going back to American

    • yes, then you will burn 2qt of oil per 100 miles for years. Replace chain at 60k, transmission failures galore and radio blew up at 50k. Then you are going back to Japanese.

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