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The most reliable three-year-old vehicles have fewer problems than many newer vehicles, according to Consumer Reports reliability data. And those reliable older models tend to be Hondas and Toyotas. If they’re well-maintained, they still have a long, useful life ahead.
If you’re buying used, a reliable three-year-old model might be a good value because the steepest part of the depreciation curve is past, and many newer safety features can often be found on these vehicles.
Used car quality often depends on how a vehicle has been treated by its previous owner. Still, some models will stand up better over time than others.
Overall, the most reliable vehicles come from Asian nameplates. Though domestic cars are getting better, they still trail the Japanese models. European models are also improving, but the older ones tend to be among the most problematic.
The reliability history we use comes from data gathered in our Annual Auto Survey, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.
The subscribers who responded to our survey told us about problems they’d experienced in the preceding 12 months in any of 17 trouble spots, including transmission and body hardware problems. That information, gathered from information on more than 1.4 million vehicles, paints a picture of what goes wrong with vehicles from 1999 through 2008. ConsumerReports.org respondents were able to report in greater detail for each trouble spot.
Here are more trends that stand out:
- Problem rates for cars have decreased across the board, so newer used cars should hold up better than their predecessors as they age.
- Among five-year-old and newer cars, Ford, Hyundai and Nissan are about tied in reliability.
- European cars, long the least reliable overall, are pulling even with the domestics on newer models.
For any given trouble spot, the cars with high problem rates are not always the oldest: The 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line hybrid had the worst electrical problems of any model in our survey. About 25 percent of its owners reported a problem, usually with the batteries.
By contrast, the Toyota Prius and Highlander, Honda Civic and Ford Escape hybrids are notably trouble-free.
Some models are just downright problematic. About a third of 2001 all-wheel-drive Chrysler minivans and Volkswagen’s 2000 Passat V6 AWDs and 2004 Touaregs had multiple problems, and at least one trouble spot for which they were the worst models in the survey.
The Chrysler minivans had the highest percent of problems reported for body hardware. Common problems were with the sliding doors, hatch, locks and latches. The Passat suffered from fuel-system problems, most notably the check-engine light, sensors and emission controls. The Touareg had the most problems with power equipment, which included the tire-pressure monitor, warning lights, keyless entry and exterior or interior lights.
Some vehicles have multiple problem areas, and others have one problem that stands out. For example, about 17 percent of 2001 Acura CLs needed to have the transmission rebuilt or replaced, but the model had few other reported problems.
How Vehicles Age
Across all 10 years in the survey, problems with the check-engine light, windows and squeaks and rattles are reported most often.
Common troubles among almost-new to three-year-old models include body integrity (squeaks and rattles), body hardware and power equipment. On average, three-year-old (2006) models had about 43 problems per 100 vehicles. The most reliable three-year-olds, the Lexus SC and Toyota’s Highlander and Prius, had about 13 problems. The worst, the Land Rover Range Rover, had 140 problems.
Brake problems become evident at five years. The average five-year-old (2004) model had about 62 problems per 100 vehicles. The most reliable five-year-old, the Toyota Echo, had only about 13 problems per 100, the same as a typical model just under a year old. The worst five-year-old, the Land Rover Discovery, had 150 problems per 100 vehicles.
Ten-year-old (1999) models averaged 124 problems per 100 vehicles. The best, such as the four-cylinder Toyota Tacoma pickup and Lexus LS, had about 49 problems per 100, still fewer problems than the most unreliable 2008 model, the Chrysler Sebring Convertible, which had 59 problems per 100 vehicles.