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Same automakers build plums, lemons

By Claes Bell, CFA · Bankrate.com
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Posted: 8 am ET

Consumer Reports released its latest auto reliability ratings this week, and the results were, as always, really interesting. The top 5 most reliable automakers were Scion, Porsche, Acura, Honda and Infiniti, all of which scored at least 20 percent higher than the industry average. The bottom six, all of which had reliability at least 20 percent worse than the industry average, were somewhat surprising, given the heavy presence of luxury makes: BMW, Dodge, Mini, Audi, Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz.

The Audi A6 scored the worst in Consumer Reports' reliability study, despite the fact its A4 had above-average reliability

The Audi A6 scored the worst in Consumer Reports' reliability study, despite the fact its A4 cousin had above-average reliability

I think some people assume that just because they pay a lot of money for a car it will be somehow objectively better in all aspects than a less expensive model, but as Consumer Reports points out, the least-reliable vehicle types were luxury SUVs and luxury cars.

Looking at the data, the other thing that struck me was the huge amount of variation within many automakers' product lineups. It's tempting to think quality is, for better or worse, uniform across a brand, but many automakers in the Consumer Reports study were downright schizophrenic.

Volkswagen had one model, the Golf, which was more than 40 percent better than average in terms of reliability. On the other hand, its Routan SUV was more than 80 percent worse than average. Other Jekyl and Hyde Award finalists were Mercedes-Benz, Chevrolet, Lexus, BMW and Audi, all of whom had models that varied wildly from good or mediocre to atrocious.

While it may seem strange the same company can have such huge variations in quality, it shouldn't. In some ways, it's no different than the variation in quality between different locations of the same restaurant or retailer. Sure, the parent company tries their best to make sure there's a consistent experience, and some companies do that better than others, but even the tightest-run franchise restaurants have some locations that don't quite measure up.

What that means for car buyers is resisting thoughts of, "It's a Brand X, therefore, it must be good." Great automakers build bad cars all the time -- it's just the nature of a global business that designs cars, engineers them, builds parts for them and assembles them in every corner of the world.

Instead of relying on your feelings about a brand, look at reliability figures for each model you're considering and pay careful attention to fit and finish when you test drive. In the end, it may be comforting to trust in a brand, but it's seldom wise.

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