For several years, studies have shown that, on the whole, today's cars are built pretty well. And yet, quality ratings keep dropping. How is that possible?
The answer: technology. More specifically: infotainment systems, those frequently clunky dashboard contraptions that aim to mimic the navigation, music, and other apps found on our smartphones.
Consumer Reports' 2014 Annual Auto Reliability Survey proves once again that automakers should get out of the infotainment business. And that goes double for most U.S. brands.
To reach those conclusions, Consumer Reports surveyed its subscribers, asking them whether they've experienced trouble in 17 potential problem spots over the previous 12 months. The 2014 study gathered data on roughly 1.1 million vehicles, spanning 28 brands and 248 individual models.
While the magazine identified a few recurring mechanical problems -- like fuel pumps and cooling systems on some BMW vehicles -- the vast majority of consumer complaints involved infotainment systems. In previous years, those systems have suffered from sluggish, unresponsive touch screens or Bluetooth technology that failed to pair the systems with drivers' phones. Those are still big problems, but so are multi-use controllers that don't perform as they should.
Once again, Consumer Reports ranked Lexus as the most reliable brand, with the CT 200h performing better than any other model in the company's lineup. Lexus was followed by its mass-market sibling, Toyota, where the pint-sized Prius C scored high marks. Mazda, Honda, and Audi rounded out the top five, with the Mazda Mazda6, Honda Civic Coupe, and Audi Allroad all cited for excellent reliability. Honda deserves an extra pat on the back for climbing four spots this year compared to the 2013 survey.
Buick came in at #6, up an impressive six spots from last year. With the Verano hailed as the brand's most-reliable model, Buick was the only U.S. marque to earn above-average scores.
At the other end of the chart, it's almost nothing but Chrysler. Fiat was rated the least-reliable of all 28 brands in its debut on the Consumer Reports survey, with the 500L earning lower marks than the various 500 variants. Jeep fared a tad better at #27 (no thanks to the four-cylinder Cherokee). Ram and Dodge scored incrementally higher at #26 and #25, respectively, with diesel versions of the Ram 2500 and 3500 and the 1.4-liter turbo Dodge Dart ranked lowest in those families.
Somewhat shockingly, Mercedes-Benz earned a dismal rank of #24, tumbling 11 spots from last year. Among the models in that big, big family, the worst performers were the new CLA sedan and the S-Class, which underwent a redesign this year.
Tesla fans might notice that their favorite brand isn't included in the rankings above. Consumer Reports says that's because, to be included, a brand has to produce at least two models, and Tesla has only the Model S. The magazine confirms, however, that the sedan's reliability scores were in the average range.
Some car fans loathe Consumer Reports because of its alleged bias against Detroit automakers. In this case, however, it's hard to argue that companies like Ford, with its deeply despised MyFord Touch system, deserve higher rankings. The technology simply isn't up to snuff.
That said, even Consumer Reports notes that Asian and European brands have problems to fix. In fact, Infiniti suffered the most dramatic rankings-change this year, thanks to its terrible InTouch infotainment system. Nissan's luxury brand slipped 14 points from last year, largely because of that.
Overcoming these kinds of problems won't be easy. That's because infotainment is, in many ways, completely new territory for automakers. Sure, they're great when it comes to efficient engines and aerodynamics, but user interfaces? Not so much. We've suggested more than once that they should let companies like Apple and Google handle their technology. Maybe one day, they'll listen.
For additional details, check out the scorecard above. Consumer Reports will publish a complete rundown of the 2014 Annual Auto Reliability Survey this Thursday, October 30.