Reliability is important to any vehicle purchase, but it’s particularly valuable to a used-vehicle buyer purchasing a car or truck that comes with limited remaining warranty coverage or none at all.
Any tool that can improve your chances of finding a reliable vehicle is a good one, and one of the most powerful tools at your disposal is the Internet connection you’re using to read this article.
There are a number of on-line sources for reliability ratings – Consumer Reports, JD Power, and TrueDelta.com, to name a few. All of them are useful, but each has its limitations: no rating system will tell the whole tale.
Putting in a little legwork to do your own online research based on what those ratings tell you is key to finding a car that won’t break your heart—or the bank.
Put on your Google goggles
The Internet is your friend. It’s an intimidatingly large pool of information—a lot of which is crap—but it’s a very powerful resource when you know how to use it well.
“Many car shoppers aren’t aware of the breadth of information available on the Internet,” says Michael Karesh, owner of TrueDelta.com, a vehicle reliability rating web site. “They can get reliability statistics from sites like (mine) and Consumer Reports, and while TrueDelta also offers some information on specific problems, for this, forums are probably the best source.”
For example, Consumer Reports’ suggests that the 2003 and 2004 Honda Accord with the optional V6 engine is known for transmission trouble. A few owners posting at TrueDelta.com go into some details about transmission failures that required rebuilds or replacements, but you won’t find much more than that without doing some digging of your own.
Cars generate a lot of conversation in online forums, and as Karesh suggests, these can be a rich resource.
Do a web search for “Honda Accord forum,” and one of the top results is a site called DriveAccord.net, where you’ll find this thread, full of details about Accord owners’ experiences with bad transmissions, in the Problems and Solutions section.
That discussion will tell you that the fatal flaw in the Accord’s transmission is a bearing that tends to overheat, potentially causing it to seize and destroy the gearbox. More digging would reveal the details of the fix Honda developed (this problem was somewhat unique in that it was addressed through a safety recall), that this fix was incorporated into the transmission’s design in later cars, and that it didn’t always work.
The power of Wikipedia
Wikipedia.org, the online encyclopedia, despite its early (but by now, largely undeserved) reputation for iffy accuracy, is a rich resource for car information, some of which is handy for a reliability-obsessed used car shopper.
Consumer Reports’ data shows a high rate of “engine cooling” problems in the 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine shared by a number of Toyota models (Camry and RAV4, mainly), starting around 2005. TrueDelta.com shows many complaints about leaky water pumps, and it would be easy enough to assume you’ve found the sole source of those complaints, and move on.
Wikipedia will reveal, to varying degrees, depending on the vehicle, some of the commonalities between seemingly disparate vehicle models, and could highlight an alternate path to the information you want. Its pages on the Camry and RAV4 would tell you the engine in question is code-named 2AZ-FE.
A web search for “2AZ-FE cooling problems” returns a number of hits, mostly forum discussions about head gasket problems and coolant leaks, but also a few mentions of a problem with the cylinder head bolts. Narrow your search down to “2AZ-FE head bolts,” and you’ll find this thread at ToyotaNation.com, which contains owner experiences, as well as speculation and debate about the true cause of the problem.
Manufacturers, take note
Karesh thinks vehicle manufacturers should also pay close attention to online discussions about their vehicles’ reliability.
“Due to the Internet, horror stories (about vehicle reliability, and how manufacturers respond to consumer complaints) reach far more people than they used to,” he says.
“Manufacturers should put more emphasis on truly providing customer care. They still don’t, but they should. It’s the right thing to do.”
He thinks many manufacturers don’t take online complaints seriously, because they fear setting what could be an expensive precedent: if they publicly take a legitimate complaint seriously, they could become “overwhelmed by the flood that would likely follow if they seemed receptive.”
He makes a case for why auto manufacturers should pay to fix common failures, even if the vehicle’s warranty has expired.
“Don’t make customers wonder whether you’re going to pick up the tab,” he says. “Provide them with confidence that, if something goes wrong owing to inadequate engineering, the company will take care of it. The current model is too arbitrary.”
The more you know
One of the most notable things Karesh has taken away from his experience running TrueDelta.com is that even the least-reliable modern car is, statistically-speaking, pretty dependable.
“With the least reliable out-of-warranty cars, at least one car in five will be problem-free,” he says. “And with the most reliable models, nine out of ten will require no repairs at all in a year. That explains why, for every car that does poorly in a reliability survey, there are always plenty of owners who doubt the results, because their car
has been perfect.”
All of this reinforces the importance of shopping for used cars that come with detailed service records. Beyond proving that the car was properly maintained, repair invoices will show whether a previous owner had repairs done to address any common problems, like bad head bolts in a 2007 Camry, or if a 2003 Honda Accord is on its original transmission
and could be a ticking time bomb.
“Knowledgeable car shoppers use the Internet to learn far more about used cars they are considering than was possible in the past,” says Karesh. “It’s a useful way to discover how reliable a car they’re considering is likely to be, and what problems it is likely to have.”