A Tesla Model X at a charging station in Beijing, China.
Meghan Reeder | CNBC
Lexus was rated the most reliable automaker in Consumer Reports’ 2021 Auto Reliability Report, followed by Mazda and Toyota, while Jeep, Tesla and Lincoln were at the bottom of the list.
The report, which was released Thursday, focuses on what went wrong with owners’ cars in the last 12 months, and uses that data to predict how reliable the forthcoming models from major automakers will be.
Consumer Reports surveyed owners of more than 300,000 vehicles from model years 2000 to 2021, and used that data to make predictions about 269 different 2022 model year vehicles. The report encompasses 28 automakers and 144 models with an established history.
Battery-powered electric vehicles comprised a bigger segment of the list this year than ever before, and their reliability ratings varied widely, while gas-electric hybrids were among the most reliable vehicles overall.
Consumer Reports rated 11 fully electric models from eight brands, including five fully electric SUVs, according to Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports.
“The whole market is going towards a full EV fleet. We’re very interested to see what this means in terms of reliability,” Fisher said.
Overall, Toyota’s luxury Lexus brand reclaimed its top spot in the reliability survey after Mazda overtook it a year ago, marking the first time in 15 years that a Toyota brand had not been No. 1.
Mazda ranked second in this year’s survey, followed by the main Toyota brand.
Domestic brands such as Chrysler, Chevrolet and Ford had average reliability, while others such as Ram, GMC and Jeep were below average. Ford’s luxury Lincoln brand ranked last at 28th, behind Tesla.
Reliability ratings for EVs varied widely.
The Tesla Model X and Audi E-tron ranked dead last in this segment for reliability, while the Kia Niro EV ranked “well above average reliability.” The Nissan Leaf and newer Ford Mustang Mach-E scored “above average reliability.”
High-end electric SUVs were among the least reliable vehicles in the survey overall.
“There’s no reason fully electric cars can’t be as reliable or even more reliable than traditional vehicles with internal combustion engines,” Fisher said. “It’s how they implement the technology.”
Electric drivetrains weren’t the problem. Instead, Fisher blamed unnecessary high-tech bells and whistles.
“For EV introductions, there is a tendency to just add so much tech that is not necessary,” Fisher said.
The reliability rankings stand in stark contrast with Consumer Reports’ satisfaction survey, where Tesla topped the 2020 list, followed by Lincoln. Tesla’s success with customers has put pressure on other automakers to surprise and delight consumers with features from the entertaining to the serious, Fisher suggested. Elon Musk’s electric car company pioneered over-the-air software updates that can give owners’ cars new navigation features such as “waypoints” or deliver a recall fix without a dealership visit.
But introducing more software, hardware and features adds complexity, and that can hurt reliability, Fisher said.
Tesla’s low standing primarily stemmed from issues with the company’s Model S, X and Y vehicles from 2019 through 2021 model years. The Tesla Model 3, which Consumer Reports continues to recommend, showed average reliability.
Commonly reported issues from Model Y owners included defective sensors that had to be replaced, problems with heat pumps, air conditioning, body panels that didn’t line up and water leaks in the trunk due to missing seals, according to Fisher. Owners also reported a variety of electrical and hardware issues with the higher-priced, and less-popular, Model S sedan and Model X falcon-wing SUV.
Older models typically fare better in reliability, as companies tend to make tweaks and redesigns to solve known problems, while sticking with the same parts and suppliers.
But Tesla deviates from this approach, Fisher explained. “At almost random times during the year Tesla will switch major components, suppliers or sensors and other units. The more you change, the greater the chances you’re going to have some problems.”
While electric vehicles showed middling reliability, hybrid and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which blend electric vehicle components and traditional internal combustion engines, were among the most reliable models.
“What stood out is that the most reliable was actually compact hybrids and plug-in hybrids,” Fisher said. “This may be counterintuitive. They are probably the most complex when it comes to the powertrain.”
Popular hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight have been on the market for several years and manufacturers have identified and solved previous reliability issues.