Used Cars: J.D. Power Ranks the Most Reliable Models

Last Updated Mar 17, 2011 1:42 PM EDT

When it comes to buying a used car, reliability matters. Three-year old used cars have again gained in reliability vs. preceding generations, according to the just-released J.D. Power and Associates 2011 Vehicle Dependability Study. Looking at 2008 models, the survey found the lowest rate of problems since the study began in 1990.

Also in a first, Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln brand led all nameplates for fewest reported problems among 43,700 original owners of three-year old cars. Lexus, Jaguar, Porsche and Toyota rounded out the top five. Overall, domestic brands have been closing in on imports in this ranking but still trail. General Motors' Buick (seventh) and Cadillac (ninth) made the top 10 in the rankings. Ford ranked 12th, just above the industry average.

Complaints now tend to focus on electronic features involving audio, entertainment and navigation and new safety systems, the Power researchers found. "Automakers as a whole have made significant improvements in reducing traditional problems, particularly with vehicle interiors, engines and transmissions and steering and braking," says David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power. (Good to know -- if something has to quit on you, better the CD player than the brakes.)

Among individual models, the 2008 Porsche 911 had the fewest reported problems. Power listed the top three models in 20 categories. Toyota, recently problem-ridden with recalls and now factories damaged by the earthquake, still showcased its record of reliability with winners in seven individual segments for its Toyota and Lexus brands. Ford Motor won four categories with Ford and Lincoln models and General Motors and Honda three apiece.

Let's have a look at some of Power's category winners that seem to me like good buys as used cars. Prices from are for used cars sold by dealers -- usually source of cars in the best condition. Buying from private sellers, you will get lower prices but be less certain about the car's condition.

Here's a closer look at four 2008 models:

Toyota Prius Winner among what Power classifies as compact cars, Prius reliability seems to refute early worries among some consumers that gas-electric hybrids would be prone to trouble. (The warranty on the battery is good for 100,000 miles). Then as now, it was the highest-mileage car on the road (48 mpg city, 45 highway for 2008). The three-year-old Prius standard model (at right) is selling for an estimated $14,850 -- some $6,800 or 31% less than the 2011 model, which could be in short supply thanks to the Japanese earthquake.
Ford Mustang Winner in the midsize sporty class, the three-year old Mustang has power, handling and style, and has been on reviewers' short lists since the 2005 redesign. If you're interested in a Mustang, you are probably more interested in power than gas mileage. The GT deluxe model with a 4.6-liter V-8 (15 mpg city, 23 highway) is selling at an average $17,450. That's $11,700 or 40% below the again redesigned 2011 equivalent.

Toyota Sienna Winner among minivans, the Sienna is a roomy, comfortable and well-built people hauler for families. Reviewers say it has a smooth, powerful V-6 (17 mpg city, 23 highway) and plenty of convenience features. The base model is selling for about $16,400, some $8,200, or 33%, less than the redesigned 2011 equivalent model.

Lincoln MKZ This sedan from the overall top nameplate in the Power survey won the entry-level luxury class. Reviewers describe it as having competent handling, a good steering feel and a comfortable, spacious interior. Look for an MKZ equipped with the Ford Motor Sync system that lets you give voice commands for making phone calls and playing music. This was one of the first vehicles to get Sync, now widespread in the Lincoln and Ford lines. The single version of this 2008 MKZ is selling for about $18,570. That's $16,000, or 46%, less than the new version. In addition, it is $5,000 less than the 2008 Lexus ES 350, which finished second in the category.

Mustang photo from Flickr user rhtwjr
Toyota photos courtesy of the manufacturer

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.