American cars have been the butt of the joke for a while. Every punchline revolves around a Chevy on the side of the road with a Honda doing donuts around it. As amusing as these jokes might be, they’re equally confusing. Are American cars really that unreliable, and if so — why?
Modern American cars actually aren’t unreliable. Their reputation has been ruined by decades of inferior manufacturing and cutting corners. American cars from the ‘70s and ‘80s were highly unreliable, but the modern American car can go toe-to-toe with any other vehicle on the market.
In this piece, I’ll explore the idea of American cars and their actual reliability. You might be surprised to learn that your preconceived notion is wrong.
Defining American Cars
This might seem silly, but what is an American car? It’s a brand that does the majority of its manufacturing within the USA. An almost-complete list of American car manufacturers in 2021 is:
Did you know that all of these brands fall into just three parent companies, called the “Big Three?” Stellantis North America, Ford Motor Company, and General Motors make up almost every American car that you see on the road. There are a few exceptions to this, such as brands like Hennessey.
What Goes into Reliability?
Reliability is a term that gets thrown around all the time — especially when people talk about cars. It became synonymous with “lasting a long time without breaking”.
There are a few categories you can break reliability into. In my opinion, reliability is a combination of these ideas:
Overall Build Quality
Higher-grade materials, better manufacturing processes, and improved engineering make for a more reliable vehicle. The overall build quality is going to determine how long a car lasts before something breaks.
If you want a nice example of this, look at a genuine Rolex and compare it to a Chinese knock-off Rolex.
If you haven’t seen the movie Total Recall, it’s all about cars that are unreliable and have a number of parts recalled (just kidding).
Recalls on a vehicle occur when the manufacturer finds a safety or quality defect with their products. They ask car owners to bring the car to a shop so they can fix the quality issue to avoid a big problem in the future.
For example, back when the gas pedal would stick on the Prius, Toyota put out a recall on the vehicle while the investigation was going on. It turned out that there was nothing wrong with the gas pedal (it’s actually a really interesting story), but they preferred a recall over waiting for more people to get hurt.
A car with a lot of open recalls on it is highly unreliable.
Sometimes a car just exhibits a minor inconvenience due to unreliability. This could be something like a squeaky passenger seat, brakes that make some noise, or an air conditioning knob that gets stuck sometimes.
None of these issues would lead you to a junkyard to scrap the car, but they’re all pretty annoying.
Frequency of Repairs
It’s a matter of time before you have to repair something. Anyone who’s owned a car for more than 5 years can attest to this.
The simple fact is that your car is going to need repairs at some point. The severity of the repair varies a lot, but it’s the frequency that we care about. If you’re taking your car in every week because something broke off, then that’s a big issue. You have a highly unreliable car if this is the case.
How Often Something Big Goes Wrong
On the extreme end, how often does something big go wrong? This could be a seized engine, busted transmission, or blown clutch.
Cars get really expensive when you have big problems going wrong over and over again. If you have your mechanic on speed dial for these constant big problems, your car might not be worth fixing anymore.
Who Cares About Reliability?
Everyone should care about reliability. The essence of reliability is whether or not your car gets you to work in the morning and home in the evening.
A highly reliable car turns on every time you turn the key and doesn’t stop running until you take the key out.
In an unreliable car, you’ll spend a ton of time on the side of the road, popping the hood, or shimmying underneath the car with your tools. This leads to a whole slew of inconveniences and headaches that you don’t need.
Long-term reliability is another metric that people usually look at. Sure, a car can be reliable when you drive it off the lot, but how does it look in 10 years? If you’re looking to buy a car and put a lot of miles on it, you want to spend as little time as possible broken down. This means buying a generally reliable vehicle.
The History of Reliability
The root of this issue comes from the ‘70s and ‘80s in America. Big auto tycoons put their annual bonuses ahead of the customers’ needs.
They cut corners when it came to manufacturing, design, and build quality. The result? Really crappy, unreliable vehicles (for the most part) were built and sold for decades.
At the same time, Japan, Germany, and Korea were putting together cars that refused to fall apart. Their vehicles would go 200,000 miles and still spin like a top. An American car of that era would be very lucky to hit 100,000 before the engine seized up and the transmission failed.
This is back in the day when Detroit was Motor City and did nothing but crank out car after car. The only downside is that these cars were under-engineered and over-expedited.
Consumers started catching on, and a whole generation swapped to strictly foreign cars.
Today’s Stance in Reliability
Obviously, that business model wasn’t going to work out. How do you compete against the reliable cars being made overseas if you’re just cranking out profit machines with no longevity?
After enough years of losing to the foreign car market, American companies started to change their tunes. It started in the 90s and really took shape in the past decade or so. Now, reliability is one of the biggest concerns of American companies.
Sure, they still care about profits — but they realize that the profits are a natural result of making reliable cars.
American manufacturing deserves a lot of respect. A study in 2016 found that American-made components of an American car outlasted the foreign components of the same car.
American-made cars today can’t be compared to the ones in the ‘70s. Huge strides were made and the difference is staggering.
Looking at Reliability Lists
I’m a big fan of data and lists. To present some data about reliability when it comes to American cars, let’s take a look at some lists from Consumer Reports.
The 10 Most Unreliable Cars of 2021
I stumbled across a lineup from Consumer Reports that outlines the 10 least reliable cars from the past decade. In an effort to get some insight into American reliability, let me list the cars from #10 to #1 when it comes to unreliability.
- #10: Volvo XC60 (Sweden)
- #9: Ford EcoSport (America)
- #8: Jeep Wrangler (America)
- #7: Tesla Model S (America)
- #6: Chevrolet Colorado (America)
- #5: Volvo XC90 (Sweden)
- #4: Jeep Compass (America)
- #3: Volkswagen Atlas (Germany)
- #2: Subaru Ascent (Japan)
- #1: Chevrolet Silverado 1500 (America)
Just to summarize, six of the ten cars are American-made. Two are from Sweden, one is from Japan, and one is from Germany.
But, to play devil’s advocate, this is just from a single source. Granted, this source is one of the least biased and most respected sources in the country.
If you explore around and check other peoples’ rankings of unreliable cars, you’ll always find plenty of American-made options.
Does this mean every American car is unreliable? No. Not even close.
Top 10 Reliable Cars in 2021
To further this point, let me talk about the top ten reliable cars of 2020. This is also coming from Consumer Reports. These are the result of the same survey done to find unreliable vehicles, but these are on the other end of the list.
If we see any American-made vehicles on this list, then surely that counters the idea that all American vehicles are unreliable.
- #10: Mazda CX-5 (Japan)
- #9: Audi A4 (Germany)
- #8: Audi A5 (Germany)
- #7: Hyundai Kona (Korea)
- #6: Toyota Prius Prime (Japan)
- #5: Honda HR-V (Japan)
- #4: Lexus GX (Japan)
- #3: Buick Encore (America)
- #2: Lexus NX (Japan)
- #1: Toyota Prius (Japan)
Here, we see six Japanese cars, two German cars, one Korean car, and one American car. That tells me two things: firstly, Japanese cars are better than American cars. Secondly, American cars aren’t all disasters.
Even though there’s just a single American car on the list, that’s proof that not all American cars are unreliable.
The Results of These Lists
It’s easy to misunderstand what these lists really mean. They aren’t saying that American cars are all unreliable. In fact, it doesn’t even say that most American cars are unreliable. It’s all just a numbers game.
Ford has 24 vehicles in its lineup. Ford is just one of the 11 car brands that are American-based. What does this mean? Well, it means that a vast majority of American cars fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to reliability. Not all American cars are unreliable.
Sure, the six American vehicles listed on the top 10 most unreliable vehicles list should be avoided, but all the other makes and models are perfectly fine.
How about a football analogy? The Jaguars were the worst team during the 2020 season. Does that mean that every player on their team is the worst in the league? Nope. James Robinson was the third-best running back in the league (during that season) and he was on the Jags.
The same concept exists here when we talk about American cars and reliability.
Why Are American Cars So Unreliable?
American cars aren’t unreliable. They have a troubled past and it’s hard to shake it. The American cars of the olden days were pretty terrible, so it makes sense that the modern-day consumer has a sour taste in their mouth.
The modern American car is just as good as its Japanese, German, and Korean adversaries.
American automakers can finally take a collective sigh of relief — they did it. Now, it’s just a matter of time before more folks realize this.
The good news is that American cars aren’t what they used to be. The modern American car is really reliable and the manufacturing is impressive. As a result, the stigma of unreliable vehicles should be left in the past. For more car news and guides, check out the rest of my site. Be sure to pick up these car care products that work well.