Buick noses into Consumer Reports leadership circle

Lexus and Toyota are still the top brands if you want a reliable car, but here’s the surprise: Buick is right behind at No. 3, the first time a U.S. carmaker’s brand has reached that coveted spot in the Consumer Reports (CR) Annual Brand Reliability Survey since it was started in 2001.

“Buick’s achievement is commendable and sure to be a wake-up call to other manufacturers,” said Jake Fisher, CR’s director of automotive testing.

But he threw in a few caveats. Buick was able to “leapfrog” other General Motors (GM) brands because of its limited vehicle lineup. “Buick has none of the pickups and truck-based SUVs that have negatively impacted Cadillac and Chevrolet,” said Fisher.

Having a  “mature” car line is also a good thing in the CR survey, because -- in terms of reliability -- all the kinks have been worked out, and dealership mechanics are familiar with how to fix it.

In fact, CR’s survey recommended waiting a year or two before buying a new or redesigned model just to make sure. It cited MyFord Touch infotainment system as an example of new equipment with significant problems.

In terms of maturity, of course, it’s hard to beat Buick. The car line has been around since David Dunbar Buick incorporated the company in 1903 in Detroit, helping that city become the world capital of carmaking. Buick became part of General Motors in 1908.

As cars become more complicated, CR has more to analyze about what can go wrong and send owners to the repair shop.

“Increased complexity equals increased problems,” said the survey. CR said it now does a “deep dive” into 17 trouble areas. They can be nuisances, such as squeaky brakes and broken interior trim, to major problems like out-of-warranty transmission repairs or trouble with all-wheel-drive systems.

A look at the 10 most reliable vehicles -- as opposed to brands -- showed a clear advantage for more expensive models, such as the Infiniti Q70. But a big surprise was how high the Chevy Cruze ranked given that it was once plagued by ignition key problems. The Cruze was No. 8 in this category.

As for negative news, Honda’s popular Civic model, which CR rated as North American Car of the Year for 2016, proved to have “much worse than average” reliability due to problems with its power equipment and infotainment systems. Honda is usually among the top performers for reliability in many of CR’s survey years, but it has been “hurt by new introductions” of models and has slipped to No. 10.

Despite this, Asian cars continued to score among the top half of the 29 brands tested, as they traditionally do in CR surveys. They accounted for seven of the top 10 spots, with Lexus and Toyota hugging Nos. 1 and 2. Toyota (TM) was edged out because of issues with its redesigned Tacoma pickup truck. Korean car brands Kia and Hyundai surged, while Japan’s Subaru fell out of the top 10 due to problems CR found with its Legacy and Outback models.

CR now ranks new brands, such as the Tesla (T), but it didn’t fare well. It came in 25th, with its Model X headed back to the repair shop because of its malfunctioning “falcon-wing” doors and water leaks.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.