Thinking about your next car? If you're happy with your old one, chances are, you won't be migrating to another brand. But even if you are satisfied with your old brand, so many factors can tempt a consumer to try some other brand. It could well be the styling, the dealership's big discount and what friends or car enthusiast magazines say. Buying and owning the new brand is only a first step. There is always a risk that the new car or the new brand won't deliver the reliability of the previous brand. Close to getting a new car and tearing it apart to investigate the quality of materials and assembly will need several engineers from several branches of engineering. That's not possible for an individual. Still, everyone would hate this most painful of thoughts ever to disappoint a new car owner: "I should have stuck to my old car/brand."
How sure are you?
There is no 100% reliable crystal ball as how a car or brand will perform in reliability but some amount of discerning research will narrow done a checklist of risk factors that one can diminish. Start with consumer satisfaction surveys. The best known is J.D. Power and Associates' marketing research which has been conducting consumer surveys since 1968. J.D. Power ratings are based on the survey responses of randomly selected and/or specifically targeted consumers. J.D. Power relies on consumer reporting for study results as well as in-house vehicle testing for opinion based reviews in Blogs.
Read the fine print and the categories
J.D. Power conducts multiple annual surveys of the automotive industry in the U.S. as well as in other countries. The Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS) is a measure of problems experienced after three years of ownership, while the Initial Quality Study (IQS) is a measure of problems experienced within the first 90 days of ownership. Other surveys include the APEAL survey, reflecting consumer's attitudes towards a vehicle's attributes, dealership service surveys, and customer purchasing experience surveys. Similar versions of the Vehicle Dependability and Initial Quality Studies are performed internationally, and usually released with the country's name, followed by the same title, e.g. China Initial Quality Study.
Media as critic, partner or rabble rouser?
Authoritative auto enthusiast magazines, not beholden to advertisements for survival or press junkets, also do self-financed independent testing and ownership experiences as a service to their readers. ADAC Motorwelt, the German automobile club's magazine prints technical reliability research on all the cars that its 17 million members can buy, though this magazine is only printed in German. J.D. Power's UK Car Customer Satisfaction Index reviews all cars that have reached two years of age in partnership with UK automotive publication What Car? The USA has the trusted Consumer Reports.
Exceptions and excuses
Of course one can argue that local road and driving conditions vary from region to region, inasmuch as standard specification of models sold vary from country to country. Locally, the recourse of many a new car buyer or brand changer will depend on his/her network of friends who are into cars. The various experiences of these owners will largely be subjective and unscientific as owners tend to emotionally highlight a glaring failure or relatively excessive expense or incident of the maligned car without the benefit of other positives. On the other extreme, be wary of the glowing endorsements of brand loyalists and fans as their loyalty to their brand or car model will cloud their opinion of newer technologies from rival brands and claim that breakdowns and unreliability are a fact of life.
Demolition job, schadenfreude or misunderstanding?
Also there's a lot of muck being thrown around by people seeking to sully the reputation of established names in vehicle reliability. Although Toyota did admit to some quality related problems for some models a few years ago, it did not mean all Toyota's built or sold elsewhere for the past few years or the coming years are going to have bad quality. Recently, Ford USA's reliability rating dropped a bit, but it turned out to be a cellphone interface problems that some not-so tech savvy customers had in dealing with the new SYNC platform. Ford vehicle reliability was not even in question.
Older in experience
As a general rule, most brands that have been making cars for more than 30 years are usually brands one can trust. All the Japanese and German brands available locally have solid reputations for reliability. Twenty years ago, one could not comfortably say that of Korean brands, but today Korean brands have narrowed the price difference between the Japanese because their quality and reliability has indeed caught up. Having said that, there are some brands that have been known for unreliability for a good part of their history and many of these car makers have either closed or ponied up by joining larger car companies that can support them to make more reliable cars.
Upstart and laughing stock
Though China is the world's largest car maker and car market, the relative youth of its car consumers result in only passable quality. China's car makers were never really geared to get into exports, at least not this early stage, but demand for their inexpensive cars have forced many of them to export with little or no export sales back-up. But the Chinese car makers know how important reliability is and they are not standing still. Historically, the best example is the first Japanese car exports in the mid-sixties. Although Japan was already making cars for domestic consumption since the early 50's, they didn't dare venture to export to the US, the most demanding export market of its time, until they were 120% sure of their car's reliability.
Elapsed time is proof of happy purchase?
One of the most successful marketing programs to enhance perceptions of quality was Hyundai USA's 10-year 100,000 mile warranty. The public perception was that if Hyundai was willing to guarantee such, then the product must be good. And if a product does conk out during the warranty period, the fact that the car maker doesn't weasel out of warranty replacements is a good feather in their cap for vehicle reliability, fostering brand loyalty.
Locally, Isuzu has been known to honor warranty claims to some Isuzu Trooper injection pumps even if the vehicles were way past 10 years or 50,000km. An owner of a 2-year old Volvo once experienced engine problems with his car and Volvo promptly replaced it with a brand new car making the owner a Volvo loyalist who echoed, hand on heart "Volvo for life.", the Volvo ad tag. In summary, the best guide when 2nd guessing the future reliability of your new car purchase is to trust the brand name.