Question: The 2010 Consumer Reports' April "Annual Auto Issue" gives 04 Legacy's 4 cylinder engines the worst possible rating. I still had my mechanic look at a 04 Legacy I considered purchasing and he found the "legendary head gasket problem". Reviewing CR again, I'm baffled by how the lousy engine rating in 2004 Legacy is immediately followed by the best possible ratings for the 05 Legacy engine. Is it possible that such a rating could go from worst to best in just one year? Should I risk buying an 04?
To explain my first "Yes", I need to explain a critical aspect of CR's reliability report section that many people miss. Yes, you can check the overall reliability of 16 potential reliability "trouble-spots" for a given year, make and model vehicle.
However, the span of time that this 2010 edition's reliability rating section offers (6 year old 2004 vehicles, 5 year old 2005 vehicles, 4 year old 2006 vehicles, 3 year old 2007 vehicles, 2 year old 2008 vehicles, and 1 year old 2009 vehicles) provides use with a wide-angle view of the reliability of any one given make/model car at any age, and watch the statistis from year to year to see how well it ages over a six year period.
Newer cars typically have fewer reliability issues than 4, 5 and 6 years old cars. This is why CRs reliability chart threw you a curve, indicating such an unbelievable improvement between the 6 year old 04 Legacy engine's reliability and the next year 05 engine. Just as those owners of 04 Legacys testified to a troublesome experience with their engines, the survey of people who actually own 5 year old models, with 5 years of real-life wear and tear, demonstrate a much improved product, not only when compared to the prior year's model, but to every other 5 year old vehicle surveyed by all of survey participants who own 2005 / 5 year old vehicles.
There are a total of 16 different categories or "trouble-spots" that CR's reliability rating rates over six years on a very long list of cars for sale in the USA. Just as the 2004 Legacy 4 cylinder engine's reliability (for "Major" and for "Minor" engine problems) is compared to the reliability of all other 6 year old vehicle, you can go to any vehicle listed on those "Reliability" pages, look at a given year and see how trouble-free or trouble-prone a certain "troule-spot" was for that make and model, at that specific model year, and know it is compared to every identical year car, truck and van. Comparing one model year Nissan to the previous model year is what we do, but the that year's rating is not being compared to either the previous or next model year; It is always compared to every other vehicle listed by Consumer Reports by focusing exclusively on comparing a specific year.
Therefore every automaker's line-up is compared to a statistical base-line, so that we can see how that one specific year model's reliability in any of the 16 categories, compares to every other vehicle rated for that one year.
When I counsel someone about the reliability of a given make/model, I give them a picture as to how one make/model at a given age, compares to every other vehicle that is roughly the same age, and then show them that even as that model ages, history demonstrates what reliability strengths are revealed, and what reliability weaknesses are revealed on the same vehicle as it ages over a 6 year span
Its also important to keep in perspection that not only is each 2009 car, truck and van being compared to every other one year old 2009 models, and the 6 year old 2004 model ranked in this edition is rated against every other 6 year old vehicle CR survey repondents rated, but you have the ability to scan across all of the 12 categories, accessing the relaive reliability of that year's engine for "major" engine problems, "minor" engine problems, as well as the reliability of the many other items including the transmission, drive-train, electrical components and other critical and less critical "trouble-spots".
So, I answer "Yes" to your question as to whether it is possible to go from the lowest ratings to the highest ratings in a single model year.
I also suggest that you keep in mind that the overall reliability of the 04 engine and 04 owners very poor reliability rating of that year's engine stands alone, and not in comparision to the 6 year old 2004 Legacy engine. So when one has a miserable rating, it is compared to all other identical year vehicles, from the ones with the most reliable engines to the others that rate low in terms of engine reliability.
Then when you see the vast improved rating that Subaru engineers instituted in 2005, you don't make the mistake of thinking that CR is comparing one year Legacy to the next year Legacy. What was testified by actual owners of that 2005 5 year old vehicle is not compared to the 6 year 2004, but to all vehicles that were new in 2004 and now are also 6 years old, as well as all vehicles that were new in 2005, but now are 5 years old.
I think that the CR Annual Auto Issues ability to present vehicles compared to other vehicles by age, presents a wonderful dynamic as you scan across different "trouble-spots" of different vehicles. This makes all the more impressive the fact that the Legacy's 05 engine ranks so high, because it is in the same stratosphere as the best vehicle produced by Acura/Honda, Lexus/Toyota and Infiniti/Nissan. It should all the more impress loyal Subaru owners who have waited a long time for a consistently reliable 4 cylinder engine the Legacy and other models using the same engine. Such impressive reliability is a long time coming, and deserves more admiration given what was the case in 04 and older 4 cylinder Legacy models.
Therefore, from worst to best is just one year is a fact, not a fluke.
In my follow-up article I'll explain why I say "Yes" to your question, as to if you should consider buying a more affordable 04 or older model. I would recommend doing so, even when certain older Legacys are troubled by the legendary leaking head gasket problem. Why would I recommend such a car with such a mediocre engine? I'll tell you in my next article.
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Doug Ehrlich is the owner of Auto Buyer's Pro, the first licensed Buyer's Agent in the country, who has spent the last 24 years assisting over 20,000 individuals make good decisions and then negotiating better car deals for clients than they could likely do on their own, working exclusively for the buyer as a Buyer's Agent.