Your car was running just fine yesterday. Yet today it greeted you with a bright orange check-engine light—and what you dread as an expensive repair in your near future.
It's quite a common scenario. But as CarMD found in an annual assessment of repairs and issues related to check-engine lights—the bearers of bad news from sophisticated onboard diagnostic systems—the vehicle you choose there’s quite a range in the incidence of these issues and in the cost of the repair that follows.
Honda buoyed to first place by Civic, Odyssey
This year Honda edged out Hyundai to have the lowest number of check-engine repair incidents and affiliated costs. Honda was most improved among major automakers, jumping from fifth place last year to the top, thanks to major improvement in Honda Odyssey minivan reliability and the 2012 Civic, which was the most reliable compact car.
2011 Honda Odyssey EX
Among other brands, Toyota placed third overall, while GM and Ford placed fourth and fifth, respectively.
Mazda ranked as the brand with the lowest average repair cost, at $302.92, and while Toyota has the most expensive average cost, at $486.93, CarMD notes that this number is offset by both a higher frequency of catalytic converter replacement and rather expensive hybrid battery replacement.
Honda, Ford, Kia, Mazda, and BMW all had improved Vehicle Health Index ratings for 2014, although half of the brands in the top ten showed a drop in reliability this past year.
Catalytic converters, oxygen sensors, and ignition coils
Every model, whether it’s one of the most reliable or one of the least, has its specific weak points; but among those, this year’s survey revealed some true standouts. For instance, catalytic converter replacement accounted for more than 19 percent of repairs to Subaru models—perhaps a testament to the brand’s otherwise-stellar reputation for reliability—while Lincolns had an especially high rate of ignition-coil replacement. CarMD points out that the most common repair is oxygen sensor replacement, which accounted for more than 7.5 percent of check-engine-related repairs this past year.
CarMD notes that there are older affordable used cars that are relatively trouble free; the 2005 Buick Century, for instance, made the top 100 list of most reliable individual models.
The most expensive issues related to the check-engine light involved engine or transmission replacement—both over $5,000, on average.
But not all issues related to the check-engine light are expensive—and some aren’t even repairs. For instance, the most common Dodge issue (in 13 percent of cases) is a loose fuel cap—an issue that usually costs nothing.
And of course, the results of this survey bring one spin on reliability; as they don't include mechanical failures that wouldn't set off the check-engine light, or other issues with the infotainment system or interface, for example.
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Camry, Civic, Sonata lead the pack
On an exact year-and-model basis, the most reliable models were the 2012 Toyota Camry, 2012 Honda Civic, 2012 Hyundai Sonata, 2011 Toyota Camry, and 2013 Hyundai Sonata. The 2011 Honda Odyssey, 2012 Kia Soul, 2012 Kia Optima, 2010 Toyota Prius, and 2010 Toyota Corolla rounded out the top ten.
The survey is based on 40,400 verified repairs, from CarMD’s database of about 88 million vehicles, from the 2004 through 2014 model years—all repairs that rook place from October 1 through September 30, 2014. It’s then normalized with vehicle population data from R.L. Polk.