/ Motoring

Reliable cars – why does Japan always get it right?

Car factory

Eight out of the top 10 reliable carmakers in the Which? Car Survey 2010 are from Japan, with the remaining two from Korea. Why is the rest of the world lagging behind?

The top 10 reliability ranking for our 2010 Car survey (compiled from over 65,000 car owners) runs in the following order: Daihatsu, Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Lexus, Suzuki, Subaru, Hyundai, Mitsubishi and Kia.

These are manufacturers that car buyers return to again and again. A reliable car makes motoring life more stress-free and more predictable, which is especially needed when your motor goes out of warranty.

However, it’s a bit of a shame that the front runner, Daihatsu, is pulling out of the UK next year. It cites weakening exchange rates as the main reason for the withdrawal. Still, there will be plenty of other carmakers willing to fill its shoes.

Japan’s reliable car brands

But why are so many of the reliable carmakers from Japan? It stems from their superior production processes and more rigorous testing regime. Also, the Japanese brands tend to be more conservative when it comes to adopting complex new technologies – though hybrid technology is a notable exception to this rule.

Japanese factories have long been spotless and very tightly controlled, with key component suppliers located just outside the factory gates. This means that they can seamlessly respond to the flexible ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing processes that’s been pioneered by the Japanese.

Many European makers are still trying to emulate this system, but they’re up against it since they’re starting from a base of older working patterns and facilities, in less favourable locations.

Of course, lots of these Japanese factories are located outside of Japan – including the UK. Tellingly, the technological difference between Land Rover’s ageing Solihull plant and Nissan’s newer Sunderland factory is vast. Maybe that’s why Land Rover props up the bottom of our brand reliability list.

What about the rest of the world?

So where are the Germans in this list? What about their so-called ‘bullet-proof’ reliability? Mercedes-Benz sits in 11th, BMW in 13th, Porsche in 18th and Volkswagen in 20th (out of a total of 34 carmakers).

There’s plenty of work for these brands to do if they want to achieve the repeat buying levels the Japanese firms enjoy.

So what does the future hold – will the Chinese be next? Where will brands like Great Wall and Shanghai Automotive sit on this list? We wouldn’t be surprised if they beat established European rivals on both price and reliability – quality may be another matter.

You have just over a week to get your Which? Car Survey 2011 responses in, and also be in with a chance of winning £5,000. Tell us what you love and hate about your car by 28 March.


When Japan first went into serious production for export, they realised that their customer base would be many thousands of miles away. Should the cars, and motorcycles, break down they would be in the hands of their local dealerships for warranty repairs. It is only sensible that they take every precaution, even if it meant more and better materials, production processes, and quality inspection, it saved money in the long run, with the added bonus of enhancing their reputations.

Brian Thomson says:
18 March 2011

I bought a three year old Honda Accord 1.8 SE automatic, first registered in 1999, in December 2002.
In 9 years the Accord has let me down twice. Faulty ignition (apparently a common fault in Hondas)and two years ago I had to call out the AA. My wife came back into the house to tell me the car would not start.
The reason it did not start was the battery was flat according to the AA technician, it turned out the battery was the original when the car was built in 1999 and had to be renewed in 2009
The Accord has a few scratches and dents, courtesy of supermarket drivers, but there is not a pick of rust on the bodywork, I would add, I do not know the condition of the car underneath, but it has passed every MOT since I bought it. I have seen some four and five year old German top brands with rust appearing round the wheel arches. Like all of your readers all I want is a car that starts first time regardless of weather conditions and gets me froim A to B. This 12 year old Honda does that for me. Just a final note on the age of this Honda, I see in some dealerships in the small print, that they are not accepting any cars more then 7 years old as trade ins.

I have a 5 year old Mazda 3 with 60,000 miles on the clock. Bought it new, it has never let me down and is still on original exhaust and brakes. Have only had to put tyres on it. Brilliant car, only let down by the alloy wheels, which are bubbling and need refurbishing.

Until two years ago – I had a Nissan Bluebird from new – did 98,000 miles in 20 years – broke down once on the road with carburettor failure – but two alternators failed, brakes needed to be renewed plus tyres. But it started first time every time. Bodywork deteriorated and it became uneconomic to repair to MOT standard – so sadly went to the breakers.

I would have bought another Nissan but had offer of Hyundai I couldn’t refuse – though I think I should have.(reliable but needs repairs often). Most expensive car to run I’ve had. Including the British ones.

Eddie Reynolds says:
20 March 2011

Built in Japan in my experience is very different from Japanese cars built in UK.
I bought a new Honda Civic in 2007 based on Honda’s reputation for reliability and first of all I must stress that the concept of the Civic is excellent for innovation, clever use of space and range of accessories was hard to match. However, Swindon is certainly not Japan when it comes to quality build or materials used. My black upholstery seats and armrest were fading after 9 months average use, the whole dash would suddenly go blank and come back in a few minutes (Dealership not interested) and the road noise was very intrusive. Squeaks and rattles from the dashboard and many other irritations. Traded it in after 9 months at a heavy loss, but glad to see the back of it.
In future, Japanese built for me and I see that the latest reliability ‘Which’ survey shows the Civic problems persist.

Japanese cars may be more reliable but their interiors look like they’ve been modelled on a 1980s VCR.

Reliable – yes. Stylish and exciting (bar few sporty exceptions such as the MX-5, S2000, 350Z and Civic Type-R), certainly not.

Sam says:
18 April 2011

I disagree with this comment entirely. Japan has a long history of producing some of the worlds most stylish and breathtaking cars of all time. The Mitsubishi Evo and Subaru Impreza have long been quite possibly the greatest saloon car on the market. Just think of the Toyota Supra and Celica and the MR2 or MR-S. There are all the Nissan Skylines (all extremely exciting from the R32 to the current R35 GTR). How about the Nissan Silvia or the Toyota Corolla AE86? Or the Mitsubishi FTO or GTO, or maybe even the excellent Honda NSX. Also the Mazda RX-7s with their Rotary engines. And these are just a few examples.

Also don’t forget that the UK only get supplied with a tiny portion of Japans performance models, and the ones we do get supplied with are often less powerful versions, for example the current JDM Civic Type R has 222bhp vs the UKs Type R which has 198bhp

Brian Thomson says:
22 March 2011

Add to my earlier comments.
I read in a motoring magazine, Honda have produced 15 and half million engine units in Japan and not had one recall.
But the recent reports in the Which magazine, highlight reliablity problems with the latest Accord, Civic and Crv models.
And they are up against some great deals, other car manfuacturers are offering, Kia 7 year warranty, Vauxhall warrantry valid for original owner and second owner.
And one final thought on the whole Honda range, they are too expensive to buy new.
Up here in Aberdeen, not everyone is employed by the major oil companies.

Dave Birmingham says:
5 April 2011

I owned a Toyota Carina from 1995 until 2008 driving 240000 miles during which it only failed to start once (flat battery) this was the original and had lasted 150000 miles.It never broke down until finally the passenger door stayed locked shut and I decided to part company. I replaced it with a Mk1 Avensis but this was nowhere near as good ( interior rattles and gearbox problems) and I replaced it after a year with a Mk3 Avensis which is superb.
Regarding the comments by “Fat Sam” I agree that Japanese cars are not always the most stylish although they are improving. It depends what you want from a car- is it to make yourself feel better, impress the neighbours or get from A to B without breaking down?

Eunice says:
13 November 2016

I owned a 1999 honda hrv manual and still now runs great, 150 000km on the dash and still looks like new and start first time. The only problem i have was when i put new gear oil which was not genuine Honda oil and i could not shift gears after driving 1 000km and the problem disappeared after honda dealer put the proper gear oil. To concur with the majority comments, the japanese interior look is not impressive but they are highly reliable which i value so much. Whats the purpose of having a stylish dashboard on an unreliable car that can break down any time??

I have a Honda accord 1.8 se automatic 2000 . The car is just brilliant it has done 95,000 mile only problem though it is high in fuel and insurance.

They are probably the best cars on the road…

mrs r had a 1984 Honda Aerodeck, which she swapped for some house-decorating work 5 years ago. When sold everything still worked, including the pop-up headlights, electric aerial, electric sunroof and it always passed its MoT with little attention. It is still on the road with the decorator. I assume quality parts, a careful workforce, automation and well-toleranced engineering – the hallmarks of the Japanese manufacturing ascendancy – were (and are) still key to their success.

Strange that many are prepared to pay for quality and durability in cars, but not in domestic appliances.

I had a 1988 Accord Aerodeck auto for many years – possibly the best car I ever owned, a good looker too and always admired by friends and colleagues. Everything still worked when I let it go after about ten years, including what must have been a dozen servo motors in the heating/demister system!
Like all these Aerodecks in the 80’s it was built in America…..