/ Motoring

How important is car reliability to you?

Black and white photo of man next to broken down car

What’s your priority when it comes to buying a car? Good to drive, hugely practical, cheap to run? But where does reliability factor into your car buying decision?

A few years ago, reliability wasn’t particularly high on my requirements when it came to purchasing a new car. And this might explain a few things about my car history.

This includes two Alfa Romeos, with the latter being a diesel GT Coupe that I owned when I started at Which? in 2010. On my first day I was asked the most important question by the team: ‘what do you drive then?’ And even though I failed to tell them that my car had broken down on the way into the office on that very day (it went into ‘limp home’ mode on the A1 due to a faulty lambda sensor), the team still met the Alfa Romeo GT revelation with grimaces and ‘oohs’.

This is because the team had their own crystal ball for predicting the pain I had in store and the almost inevitable expenditure I was about to endure through owning an Alfa Romeo. And this crystal ball was, and still is, the Which? Car Survey.

My unreliable Alfa Romeo

For the last five years our survey has been the UK’s largest for car reliability, and Alfa Romeo has consistently propped up the table among the least dependable car brands.

Being a car nut for numerous years, I was fully aware of the stigma Alfa carried. However, I assumed it could only be horror stories of an affected minority, who’d bought bad cars that had slipped through the production line. But the depth of feedback provided through the survey meant the Which? Cars team was well informed to tell me that I had a high chance of facing a future of reliability woes.

And they weren’t wrong. In fact, when a minor service interval rang in at over £1,200 some four months into my Which? career, I decided it was time to part with the GT. In the year I’d owned it, I could have counted on two hands the number of days it ran without a warning light appearing on the dashboard.

It came as no surprise that my replacement car had a glowing reliability track record in the survey. I’d turned my head towards reliability and away from striking looks, outright performance and the colour of the leather interior. And my new car didn’t disappoint in a year and a half of ownership, costing me no more than £300 in servicing and minor repairs.

Which? Car Survey 2013

That’s the real value of having feedback from thousands of car owners. Any car journalist can tell you how good a car is to drive, how efficient it will be and how much shopping you can fit in the boot. But none can tell you how reliable a car will be like the 39,292 thousand car owners who responded to last year’s survey.

So, not only would I like you to fill out the Which? Car Survey (you’ll be entered into a draw to win a year of free fuel), I want to hear how important car reliability is to you. Does it top your car buying concerns or are you more interested in looks, price and mph?


For me I look at a few factors when choosing a car:

The most important ones are reliability, servicing costs and running costs (mpg, tax, insurance).
Finally I’d look at comfort and performance.

My current car I bought new for the first time. I spent ages with the Salesman, asking questions like does the car have a timing belt or a timing chain? Mine has a chain which is a plus point as replacement of that being needed is unlikely, whereas a belt needs regular replacement and is expensive.

Long service intervals are also important to me, due to my high mileage, and I don’t want to be servicing it 3 times a year.

What type of tyres does it have? If they are expensive tyres then that’s bad news.

My list just goes on and on. My priorities are all about running costs. The car is a tool to get me from A to B. I wish I didn’t need a car, but unfortunately I do, so I just want to get in it and drive it, and take it to the garage as rarely as possible!

I’ve been driving a long time, and there are certain makes of car that I won’t touch with a barge pole, based on either experience or from what I’ve heard from others. Those being italian or french cars!

Like rich835, reliability and running cost are important to me. Compared with most people I don’t do much driving and I don’t think I have ever driven over 10,000 miles in a year since I got my first car in 1979. I keep costs down by keeping cars for up to ten years, so I can afford to buy new ones despite the high depreciation. The last time I called out a breakdown service was in 1990, even though I have not paid much attention to car reliability ratings when buying cars.

I have done most of my own servicing and repairs, except that I have had work done by main dealers for vehicles under warranty. (I know it is not necessary to use a main dealer but it helped me get a new short engine for the cost of installation on a three year old car.) DIY has saved me a lot of money.

My main concern is about the proliferation of electronics in modern cars. Within three months of buying a new car I’ve started to see erratic behaviour of automatic headlights, automatic wipers and display dimming on the radio. Fortunately they work fine most of the time and none of the issues affects safety or use of the car. Industrial-grade electronics is incredibly reliable but I have not heard of a single major car manufacturer that produces models that are free from problems with electronic systems. As many people know, it can be difficult and very expensive to have a dashboard warning light problem fixed. The way forward is for manufacturers to give a lifetime guarantee on warning light systems, excluding sensors (some of which are prone to failure and can be replaced easily).

Servicing schedules are more for the convenience of motorists than keeping a vehicle in reliable condition. Many owners disregard regular servicing on older vehicles, but ask any mechanic and they will tell you that old cars need more servicing, not less.

If like me you have health problems, then the last thing you want is to break down. I have COPD and just diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, plus high blood pressure.
At 70 I cannot afford to be stranded for long.
Some of my past vehicles have been very reliable – Ladas (yes really),Mitsubishi, and now my wife and I both have Toyotas, which have never broken down in 9 years of ownership.
The worst were a Hillman Avenger from new (broke down driving it out of the garage), and a Ford.

Don’t forget to let DVLA and your insurance company know about notifiable medical conditions and keep them informed of any changes.

I have known quite a number of people who have continued to drive for years with diabetes. I’m no expert but understand that medication can lead to low blood glucose (hypo) and this can happen without warning for some diabetics, which could put themselves and others in danger.

It is worth mentioning that you have a disability if you have to contact a motoring organisation for help.

If the car isn’t reliable it won’t even get on my “go and see what it looks like” list.

Utility is my starting point – family size dictated a people carrier, which also has the advantages of being used as a family van, loads of luggage space for holidays, and a high driving position. Then evaluate the reliability and safety from the short list. Cost is a bit less important as I keep cars a long time and am then prepared to spend out on replacement bits when necessary. I’ve been lucky with two Renaults, beating the odds on their reputation – both 150 000m. The current one broke down just once with gear box failure at 100 000m – not happy but rescued by AA and not a horrendous cost to replace. Generally I forgive the car because it is versatile and not expensive to run. But what would I replace it with? Probably be looking for a 5-7 year warranty.

Nick Vaisey says:
16 December 2012

I reckon reliability is by far the most important factor in choosing a car. Fortunately I do a very small
annual mileage and so am unlikely to experience the horrors of a breakdown others seem to experience.Two Singer Chamois cars I owned in the 60s let me down badly, but otherwise I have
not had more than the occasional hiccup in recent years.My last 4 cars(Toyota Corolla, Nissan
Primera, Seat Leon and currently Seat Altea) have been exemplary. I do hear of problems with
french cars so I avoid them.Generally most other makes can be trusted not to break down.

I suffered many reliability problems for years in second hand fords and VWs.

I then changed to buy “nails”, as in, something under £1000. I went for Audi’s and for one 80 and 2 A4’s I suffered no breakdowns and no MOT failures/Service surprises.

I then treated myself to a much more expensive mini cooper s (I decided to go for driving pleasure over everything else) and regret my decision. The mini has had a full engine rebuild and new steering rack after just 45000 miles. The mini is alot of fun to drive, is really quick and has a great driving position, however it is the most uncomfortable, inpractical and downright over-priced car I have ever owned. There are many other faults with it (too much to list here) and I will be replacing it with a more comfortable/economical/reliable/practical car next year. None of this surfaced on the Which survey.

Reliability/quality may be boring, but it’s the one major factor that too many companies overlook in order to get it to the market for the date that the sales people have promised.

It is also worth noting that the internet is full of brand police ensuring that dodgy products are never bad-mouthed, Mini being a very strong case in point. Maybe that’s something that Which could look into?

Reliability is the top priority when I buy a car. Of course other important things of course are that the car is well made, looks good, is comfortable, and its good to get a decent warranty. Other considerations are the level of customer service available from the company,and the staff in the dealership.

I’ve had Peugeot, Vauxhall, Ford, Citroen and they were just cars, something to get from A to B. I had a Fiesta which had sparks fly out from the pedals, and a Ka with rusty window screws, the rust appeared within a year. I had a Chevrolet but it was so bad I didn’t even keep it for a year, it was full of faults and the dealers were useless.

I’m on my 3rd Toyota (a Yaris) and I couldn’t be happier with it,its a fantastic car, and the staff in the dealership are the best of any dealers I have been in.

Yes, I used to like a friend’s Yaris until I had the misfortune to try and fail to replace the near-side headlight bulb. Having to go to a dealer (even a good one) to have a ‘simple’ job done is plain daft.

Wavechange, I’ve never had to change a bulb on any of my cars. I must admit I’m one of those people who leaves all those sorts of jobs to the dealer. All I do myself is check the tyre pressure. There are instructions in the handbook for changing bulbs but why would I bother to do it myself when I can pop into the dealer at a time that suits me and let them do it.

I’ve got a neighbour with a MK2 Yaris and he’s fitted the blue tinted lights – he did it himself, ha ha he couldn’t go to any garage to get those bulbs fitted anyway.

Depreciation is the first thing I look at, followed closely by reliability, then comfort and refinement. Oh, and what sort of spare comes with it, but that’s another subject. I’ve had two Alfas and both were horribly unreliable, with very poor support from Alfa UK. A company I used to work for had a very flexible company car policy but banned all Italian cars, which I can fully understand. I’ll never buy another Italian car or any other Italian mechanical product (or go on a cruise with an Italian captain!).

The best way to minimise depreciation is to keep a car for a decent length of time. That will work with all makes and models. I know people that buy big expensive cars and keep them for only three or four years. They are obsessive about getting a good discount but fail to think about the overall cost of ownership, never mind damage to the environment.

It’s best to avoid cars that have a long standing reputation for unreliability, however long you plan to keep one.

How on earth does changing your car more often increase damage to the environment?!

You say you know people who only keep their cars 3-4 years – I think you’ll find that’s the majority, actually. I know people who only keep their cars one year. I realise you keep your cars almost forever, but many drivers cover a high mileage. It makes perfect sense to sell, for example, a 3-year-old 90,000-mile car to someone who’s only going to put a small extra mileage on it and can get it for a low price, then buy a replacement with a warranty and perhaps a service package. Everyone’s requirements are different.

Manufacturing cars creates environmental damage. It’s as simple as that. Whatever the majority of people do, I reckon that my suggestion of keeping cars for longer will cut down on overall cost unless you are unlucky or buy cars that require expensive servicing or repairs.

You will be pleased to know that I have traded in my ten year old car for a new one. I asked the salesman not to pester me for at least ten years.

“Manufacturing cars creates environmental damage” — yes, I think most of us would have worked that out. But it doesn’t matter whether a car has one owner or ten owners – it should still last the same length of time. So I repeat – How does changing your car more often increase damage to the environment?

My experience is that people who keep cars for longer tend to look after them better.

I don’t think we will agree on anything, so Merry Christmas.

Sorry to be argumentative, but that’s another confused and spurious point. You are probably right in saying someone planning to keep a car a long time is likely to look after it better, but that’s irrelevant when it comes to damage to the environment. If someone isn’t going to look after a car, it doesn’t make any difference which one they’re not looking after — a new one, a 3-year-old one or your 10-year-old one — the number of cars scrapped and manufactured will remain the same.

The world economies depend upon customers spending money, so continuously increasing manufacturing. If that cycle is broken we get a slump. Sorry wavechange, you are contributing to a slow down in growth. And I’m with you all the way (although I’m surprised you’ve given in at 10 years; I have G reg car – where everything still functions. I do admit to having a younger one as well – only 8 years old).

If I am contributing to a slow down in growth, that’s brilliant. I care about the environment more than the flawed world economic system. I hate waste. I’m not obsessed, so I do drive and I don’t sit in the dark. If we must spend lots of money, then buying antiques, fine art, wine, etc. would be a way of doing it less environmental damage.

NukeThemAll says:
23 December 2012

Some confusion in some of the posts here…..it matters not one jot how long any one owner keeps the car. What matters is how long the car will last before it needs to be scrapped.

In the Bad Old Days it wasn’t unusual to have cars rusting away in less than 5 years and engines/gearboxes becoming beyond economical repair after less than 50-60,000 miles: now many cars, if looked after, will manage > 200,000 miles and/or > 20 years.

A more interesting debate: when consumers choose new cars, is how best to make them aware of their car’s whole-life environmental cost (assuming that’s a factor in car choice).

I agree that buyers should be aware of whole-life environmental cost of motoring. That is long overdue.

Let’s forget the longevity/owners issue and hopefully agree that depreciation of a new car can be decreased by keeping it for longer.

What we should be debating is car reliability. I have not had any problems due to keeping cars for up to 10 years. The two serious problems I have had have had with my cars were when they were about three years old.

Sorry – this was a reply to the posting by NukeThemAll.

Wavechange, you say people who keep their cars for longer tend to look after them better. I have to disagree, I usually keep my cars until they’re almost 4 years old and they have all been very well looked after. I get my car serviced every year by the dealer,yes I’m sure I could get the work done elsewhere for cheaper, but I’m happy with the standard of work they carry out, and if it means I pay more, so be it as I’m fussy about who I let work on my car. If I get any chips on the paintwork, I order a touch up pen from the dealer and fix it straight away. I replace items such as wiper blades when needed.

No mess is allowed in my car, no muddy shoes and no eating in it either. And no mess or clutter. I clean the mats as soon as I see a few specs of dirt on them, and I often hoover the carpet under the mats. I always dust the interior of the car, and keep the seats hoovered.I use a glass cleaning cloth for the windscreen and all interior windows and mirror. I use a microfibre cloth to polish any chrome trims inside.

I use a microfibre mit to wash the car as its better than a sponge, then I dry it with a microfibre cloth. I use a sponge pad for the alloys as I would never use one of those hard bristled brushes. I wax the car too. Then all the car washing stuff comes into the house and gets washed after every use. And winter is no excuse for me not to wash the car, as its important to keep it clean due to the salty roads. I’d never go to a carwash – “if you want the job done right you have to do it yourself”.

Recently I had a set of winter tyres fitted, and I made sure to get a good brand.

So Wavechange, am I neglecting my car? Hardly.

I have to ask, if you were to become a frequent car changer, would you all of a sudden start to neglect them? I’m sure you wouldn’t.

My main point was that keeping a car for longer helps to cut down depreciation. Obviously there are differences between how people look after cars, whether they keep them a year or ten years. For the record, I occasionally point a pressure washer at my car and used a soapy sponge to clean the difficult bits. I have better things to do than keep my car polished, though I generally do more frequent servicing than is recommended. My last car looked good when I traded it in.

Perhaps we should be discussing car reliability.

Ah but you were the one who started discussing how well people cared for their cars depending on the age of the car.
I’d never use a pressure washer :0

Anyway back on topic, its usually the same manufacturers who appear near the top of the reliability surveys, and certain others who are always at the bottom.

My comment was meant to be general, and not related to individuals. I’ll retract my comment if it helps. 🙂

To the best of my knowledge the longevity of a car is not significantly affected by how clean the interior is or how shiny the paintwork is kept. If we went back to the 1960s, when I learned to drive, it was much more important to look after the bodywork. I have never understood why anyone should buy a car that has a very poor rating for reliability.

Merry Christmas to you too.

Wavechange, I’d say the ones who buy cars which have poor reliability ratings most certainly aren’t aware of reliability ratings.

I’m sure that this is a factor but there are plenty of people who would not consider any car other than the make they have had before. Interestingly I know two people who very definitely do know a great deal about cars and reliability. One buys Fiats and the other buys Renaults. 🙁