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Foreign car or domestic? Reputation isn't the only factor

Mechanics, consumers and car analysts all tick off the same names when asked for the most reliable cars: Honda and Toyota.

But, they add, not all imports are so impressive.

Some models from luxury brands such as Mercedes and Audi are turning in below-average reliability numbers, according to new data from J.D. Power and Associates, the independent research firm. And complaints are popping up in car magazines from luxury buyers who feel disappointed.

Meanwhile, some budget imports continue to turn in beautiful performances year after year.

"The Japanese Big Three have been at the top of the dependability charts since 1990," says Joe Ivers, partner and executive director of quality and customer satisfaction at J.D. Power and Associates in Detroit.

"Toyota, Honda and Nissan tend to do very well, and there's very little difference from one to the next," Ivers says. "In the luxury category, Lexus is the best with 163 repair incidents per 100 cars, and Infiniti is next with 174 per 100."

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But upper-end Buicks and Cadillacs perform well, too, and American cars overall have improved, Ivers says.

Consumer data tends to back up the theory that Japanese cars are the favorites. Edmunds.com tracks the "best cars" according to consumers and the site's editors. Consumers, selecting the best cars in a variety of categories, chose an import in 28 of 29 categories, from budget to luxury. Only the Chevy Corvette won its class.

What local mechanics say
Whether you're crouching under the car or sitting in an office chair in Detroit analyzing tens of thousands of car histories for a research giant, the quality assessment is more or less the same.

"The Japanese are leading the way," says Mitchell Seligson, a mechanic with 16 years of experience and the owner of Masterfix, in Orangeburg, N.Y. "They revolutionized everything during the 1980s, and everyone's trying to catch up. What I tell people is that in overall quality, Honda and Toyota are what I call the gold standard -- and that includes Lexus and Acura."

Beyond that, the picture gets a little muddier. American cars can be very good, but not as consistently.

"Once you get out of there, it's hard to generalize," Seligson says. "Sometimes you have a model that was good and then they have a design change and there are problems. An example of that is the Ford Taurus. The early models had problems but seemed to work them through."

Consumers should remember that reputation doesn't mean this year's model will be the same, he cautions.

Not all imports are created equal
Speaking of reputations, the European car your neighbor buys to impress everyone else may not be such a smooth ride anymore.

A new study from JD Power shows that some glamorous European cars, long considered quality winners and jealousy-inducers, are actually below average in dependability.

"We take the pulse of customers when their cars are 3 years old," which is a change from the old system of looking at 5-year-old cars, Ivers says, "and we've noticed in the past few years that some manufacturers have fallen behind. Mercedes, and the same is true for Audi."

Those luxury cars are averaging 318 incidents per 100 vehicles, over the past year.

The Land Rover is showing 441 problems per 100 vehicles, including oil leakage and other severe problems, and Volkswagen is also in the lower portion of the field.

That wasn't always the case.

"In 1990, when we looked at the 1985 models, Mercedes led the industry, and was even better than Toyota," Ivers says.

Now, the Mercedes buyer has changed, and she's often younger and more jittery, says Ivers.

"We're seeing more problems in the entry-level L class, and we know they have high expectations," he says.

So it's not clear if the complaints are because of poor-quality cars or nervous owners.

"You might think that the customers who pay the most have the highest expectations, but the people who buy highest-end cars are not stretching themselves to buy that car," Ivers says.

"But a young person who is reaching for an L class, that person is hard to please."

European carmakers trying to capture the entry-level luxury buyer have the challenge of finding ways to cut costs while still giving a feeling of luxury.

Europeans tend to innovate technologically. These new features can cause problems, triggering a rash of complaints, Ivers says.

Some European brands continue to perform very well, Ivers says. He lists Porsche, BMW and Saab as leaders.

"Customers have fewer problems with BMW than with Mercedes," he says.

Estimating your costs
The sticker price is not the only thing to consider when choosing between foreign and domestic. Replacement parts and maintenance can make a difference in your annual cost.

Edmunds.com projects all ownership costs including repairs, and gives you an estimate of maintenance costs.

Local mechanics emphasize that costs can surprise you no matter how much you research.

Import hassle -- beyond the charts
"Certain import makes can be a real pain when it comes to the dealer experience," says Karl Bauer, editor-in-chief of Edmunds.com.

"This is purely anecdotal information. However, for as long as I've been in the industry -- 10 years -- I've been hearing about how difficult Honda dealers can be when it comes to getting service."

That's not something the charts tell you, he says.

"We experienced some attitude with our BMW, Mazda and Honda long-term cars during their stint in our test fleet," Bauer says. "However, we also had bad Lincoln experiences, and the most consistently bad dealer brand we've dealt with is Chrysler-Dodge.

"Some import dealers are also known for their excellent customer service, such as Lexus and Infiniti, so this is by no means a universal issue," Bauer says. "But it is one that's often overlooked by the pure mathematical analysis."

Every car's better today
All cars last longer than they used to, says Shawn Harris of Overdrive Motors in Iowa City, who's been a mechanic for 15 years.

"You used to be able to get 125,000 miles out of an engine 20 years ago," he says. "Now, if you take care of your engine, the engine should last 200,000 to 230,000 miles."

That's true whether your car cost $15,000 or $50,000, and whether it's American or not, he says. If you go into the top-of-the-line luxury cars, like a Rolls-Royce, you can get 500,000 miles out of your engine.

"Every car has its problems," Harris says. "Foreign cars have a weaker body than American cars, so the body will rust out. After a foreign car rusts out, you're better off replacing it."

He ticks off a list of individual car issues. Like people, he says, every car make and model has its weakness.

In the $15,000 range, Harris likes the Chevy Lumina, the Olds Delta 88 and the Olds Supreme, or a Toyota Camry, which he says is "probably the best-built Toyota."

In the $25,000 range, he sees lots of good choices, with Honda at the top. If you take care of a Honda engine, you can get 300,000 miles out of it, he says.

Reputation isn't everything
The real lemons don't last, analysts say, which means that any panned car that's still out there may be better than your neighbor says.

Ivers says cars can make a turnaround, giving open-minded consumers a potentially better deal. Jaguar is a much better car than people realize, he says. And Nissan has made tremendous improvements.

"Eventually the reputation catches up," says Ivers. But "Jaguar is doing great right now, and I'm quite certain people don't consider it as seriously" because of its previous problems.

Exceptions to the rule
"You'll always find a problem child who's doing great," says Seligson of Masterfix. "I have a customer with a Kia and 130,000 miles, and it's doing great."

As for the old saw that you get what you pay for, that's not always the case mechanically, he says, pointing to the Toyota Corolla and its more-expensive cousin, the Avalon..

"This is really a case where the Corolla does not have less quality than the Avalon," Seligson says. "The buyer gets what they pay for with the Avalon by getting a larger, more-luxurious car."

There's always something indefinable about cars, mechanics explain, which make charts seem a little insufficient.

Seligson says Consumer Reports offers a wealth of excellent information from its extensive testing of new cars, and he recommends it highly. But for a sense of the "personality" of the car, and whether owners generally enjoy driving it, he suggests reading enthusiast magazines like Car and Driver or Motor Trend.

Consider insurance and replacement costs
You'll pay a little more to insure a foreign car, says Mike Gould of Advanced Insurance Services in Iowa City. If your car tops the list of frequently stolen vehicles, that gets factored in, as does the replacement cost for parts if your car is a rare import and you live in an isolated area. Generally, Gould says a Honda generally will cost about 10-percent more to insure than an American car with a similar price tag.

Expensive imports will often be more expensive to insure, Gould says. Expensive cars will have pricey parts and insurers take that into account.

"Generally, Mercedes, BMW or Jaguar parts will cost more," Seligson says. "But it's not a hard-and-fast rule."

-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003

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