Above perhaps anything else, reliability is the one thing that most car shoppers look for when buying a used car—and with good reason. No one wants to be burdened by their new-to-them car breaking down or giving them trouble, and car buyers are especially uninterested in the financial headache that an unreliable car can become.
In this article, we’ll take a look at reliability, but we’ll be doing so with a bit of a twist: instead of looking at individual brands, we’ll be going over reliability “Olympics-style” and seeing how different countries stack up when it comes to building dependable vehicles. There are plenty of preconceptions regarding which countries are best in this regard, and we’ll be confirming—and perhaps debunking—some of those today. The competing countries are: the U.S.A., Germany, England, Italy, Sweden, Japan, and South Korea.
American cars are a bit of a mixed bag in terms of reliability, with some American manufacturers making quite reliable vehicles and others, well… doing just the opposite.
For example, Chevrolet’s 350 V8, used in many of their trucks and SUVs up to the early 2000s, was a workhorse engine that was about as bullet-proof as a truck-owner could ask for. On the other hand, we have mid-2000s Chrysler products also coming from the U.S.A. that are about as dependable as a blind seeing-eye dog.
If we’re talking about averages though, and not looking at extreme ends of the spectrum, American cars typically fall somewhere in the middle, with most being reasonably reliable, but far from standing out on either end.
America’s reliability score: 6.5/10
Alright, I know what you’re thinking already: German cars simply must fall on the low end of the reliability scale, right? Well, sort of. You may be surprised to learn that a certain German manufacturer actually used to be the world standard of reliability, and that was Mercedes-Benz.
In the 90s especially, Mercedes’ brand ethos was to simply make the best cars in the world, and that included the most reliable. Believe it or not, they actually succeeded, and built a reputation for making steadfastly reliable vehicles.
Of course, that reputation has faltered over time, and other German car makers don’t have the best reliability reputation in the eyes of modern consumers, either. BMWs, Audis, VWs, and Porsches are often regarded as brands to avoid if you’re looking for reliability, and unfortunately, this is not necessarily without good reason.
German makers tend to over-engineer a lot of simple things, and they like to experiment with new technologies. This means that their cars are great when new and under warranty, but not the best to own after they’ve accumulated some age. There are exceptions to this, and some German cars, even semi-modern ones, are actually quite reliable. On the whole, however, the general preconceptions about German reliability, though often exaggerated, are somewhat true.
Germany’s reliability score: 5/10
I was trying to think of a polite way to say this, but I’ve come up short: English cars are just dreadful to own out of warranty and are not reliable. While the newer cars coming from England have benefited from partnerships with other brands that make more reliable parts (Bentley using VW powertrains, for example), English cars in general are just not dependable machines. If you know anything about Land Rover, or Jaguar, you know what I mean.
England’s reliability score: 2/10
Italian cars serve the soul, not the bank account. They’re expensive to buy in the first place, and they don’t stop costing you after purchase, either.
Most Italian cars are supercars anyway, so Italian car buyers typically don’t expect, or require, an inexpensive ownership experience, but that doesn’t change the fact that most used Italian cars will cost an arm and a leg to own over time.
However, much of that cost will come from frequent and expensive routine service, rather than breakdowns, so as we explore what it means to be reliable, they may not actually be too bad, as far as their risk of leaving you stranded. In fact, I would go as far as to say that modern Italian cars are actually not much worse than a modern German car (Lamborghini is practically a German make anyway, ever since their partnership with VW) in terms of risk of breakdown.
Italy’s reliability score: 4/10
You might be a bit surprised to see Swedish cars being mentioned, mostly because many consumers don’t even know that Sweden has car manufacturers, but they do!
They’re down to just one now (two if you count the ultra-exclusive and rare Koenigsegg brand), and that’s Volvo, ever since Saab became defunct in 2011. However, Volvo still sells with some impressive volume today, and Saabs are still reasonably common on the road, so they deserve a mention.
Swedish reliability is a bit of a polarizing topic, with many Saab enthusiasts lauding the brand as the most reliable of them all, and others saying that buying a Saab is equivalent in financial responsibility to shredding cash for fun.
I tend to fall somewhere in the middle, and consider Saab a rather risky play. They can be reliable, but there are plenty of horror stories that will lead you to believe otherwise. Volvos are a similar, but slightly bleaker story. New Volvos are a fine choice while they’re in warranty, but their reliability does not have the strongest reputation as they age. I would give Sweden the same score as Germany, but because Germany has some standouts boosting their score, Sweden will fall just below.
Sweden’s reliability score: 4.5/10
This will come as no surprise, but generally speaking, Japan makes the most reliable cars out of any other country. You really can’t go wrong with Toyota, Honda, Lexus or Acura, and while they’re not quite as reliable as those four, Subaru, Nissan, and Mazda are good choices for reliability as well.
Toyota and Honda especially have built a reputation for being a go-to choice for consumers who want reliability, and that reputation is well-deserved, as both of these brands (and their respective luxury sister brands, Lexus and Acura) make tremendously reliable cars.
Japan’s reliability score: 9/10
South Korean Cars
Much like Japanese cars, South Korean cars are exceptionally reliable. The two players from South Korea are Kia and Hyundai, and both of these manufacturers have a well-earned reputation for making very dependable cars. They’re cheap to buy as well, and pairing that with how inexpensive they are to keep running makes South Korean cars as good a choice as Japanese ones for the folks that want the most financially friendly car ownership experience.
South Korea’s reliability score: 9/10
The final ranking
Now that all of our scores are in, let’s take a look at the final ranking:
- Japan and South Korea (tied): 9/10
- America: 6.5/10
- Germany: 5/10
- Sweden: 4.5/10
- Italy: 4/10
- England: 2/10
As you can tell by the scores, reliability across different countries varies quite wildly. However, while these scores will work out to be fairly accurate on average, there is a chance that you buy a reliable Land Rover, just as there’s a chance that you get unlucky with an unreliable Toyota. So, don’t go buying a poorly maintained Toyota just because they’re usually reliable! Proper pre-purchase inspections are always important, regardless of what country your car comes from.