Reliability: Is small beautiful?

Posted on September 2nd, 2011 by Rob Marshall

As part of my role within GEM is assisting members with various problems with their motorcars, I am always fascinated by the various reliability surveys that are published each year. Although the results of them are not entirely identical, superficially, they appear to reinforce the status-quo that, if you want reliability, buy Japanese; if you want unreliability, buy French. Yet, when examined in more detail, a few surprises are revealed. In Warranty Direct’s Reliability index, the majority of vehicles that rest on the bottom ten are from German manufacturers.

Yet, I admit that I am not an enthusiast of the previous-generation Renault Laguna II (2001-2007) and Megane II (2002-2008), especially after spending many hours counselling various GEM members, who are facing their umpteenth breakdown or repair bill. Even Renault has realised that those models have damaged its repute and is now trying to promote that its latest models have seen a huge up-shift in quality levels. Only time will tell, if Renault has succeeded. Yet, while it is easy to give the French carmaker a drubbing for its appalling record, it is easy to forget that the diminutive Clio II (1998-2007) has faired considerably better than the company’s larger models.

In my opinion, motor car reliability peeked in the late 1990s. Since then, ever-increasing consumer expectations, more stringent legislation and everlengthening service intervals have seen cars become more complicated, particularly with their electronics. Larger and more prestigious models are loaded with increasing amounts of gadgets than ever before but, surely, one would expect the ‘premium’ brands to get reliability sussed? According to the published reliability surveys, it is not the case and a surprising number of prestige manufacturers, including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Land Rover and Audi, have models that are teetering towards the bottom of the scale. This is backed up by my experience at GEM Motoring Assist, where owners of prestige models have become extremely disappointed in their cars for needing costly repairs, especially as the vehicle would have been purchased on a perceived repute for reliability and strength. Oh, the power of marketing!

Even so, Warranty Direct’s Reliability index does hint that smaller and simpler cars are more reliable and cheaper to repair than larger and more opulent examples. However, it could be argued that smaller city cars tend to cover less mileage at lower speeds, compared to larger vehicles and this may contribute some way towards skewing the results. However, while customers seem to expect reliability as de rigueur and display bitter disappointment, when their expectations are not met, the same appears to be true for manufacturers.

A few months ago, while enjoying a drink with a representative from Honda UK, one of the world’s smaller independent carmakers, I expressed my disappointment that the company had not shouted more about its high standing in reliability surveys. The response was that Honda takes its high reliability record for granted but my response was that many people were being disappointed by the reliability of other manufacturers’ products. Yet, last month, the company issued a press release that championed its latest celebrations of spending six years at top of What Car?/Warranty Direct survey, being the Most Reliable Brand in the Which? car survey and being the highest-placed volume car producer in the JD Power survey. All this goes to highlight, if Honda continues to produce reliable models consistently, why cannot everybody else?

Reliability surveys are revealing that those cars that one would think are supremely reliable are not so.