Meanwhile, Lexus and Toyota topped the predicted new-vehicle reliability ranking for the sixth year in a row. Mazda jumped nine spots to finish third -- making it the most improved brand this year -- while Subaru, Kia, Infiniti, Audi, BMW, Mini and Hyundai rounded out the top 10.
The struggle for the domestic brands is tied to a slew of newer products with largely untested technologies, Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports' director of auto testing, said at an Automotive Press Association event in Detroit on Wednesday.
Often, when new models are released, so too are several enhancements that have not been ironed out. “The more the automakers put in that surprises and delights, and all that excitement, the more chances they’re taking in terms of reliability,” he said. Tesla, for example, made air suspension and all-wheel drive standard on the 2017 Model S, and the resulting trouble reported by owners has caused Consumer Reports to no longer recommend the electric sedan.
The nonprofit also highlighted the trend of automakers turbocharging smaller engines to give vehicles both pep and fuel economy -- with mixed results. Lexus has the most reliable turbo powertrain, followed by Honda and Porsche, while Hyundai and Mini have the most problematic ones, Consumer Reports said.
While automakers are adding more turbos, they're also increasingly pairing them with complicated transmissions that have upward of eight, nine and 10 gears. “And some of the domestics have been late to that party,” Fisher said. As their learning curve progresses, and there is more experience with regard to these powertrains, Fisher said the domestics should begin climbing back up the rankings.
Cadillac “is anomalous to this narrative” in that it still has some older products, Fisher said. However, he added, “Cadillac is just a lot of stuff. There’s more equipment on these vehicles. There’s a lot of stuff that can go wrong.” He stressed that reliability’s apparent link to vehicle complexity is not related to factors such as on-road performance or interior quality. “The CT6 is a phenomenal vehicle,” he said, adding that it’s toe-to-toe with German competitors in this regard.
As for some of the German brands, despite largely offering some of the latest turbocharging, transmission and infotainment tech, Audi, BMW and Mini were able to crack the top 10. “Part of the reason is their history,” Fisher said, noting that BMW launched its iDrive system in 2001, and it was a “reliability nightmare” at the time. Those brands also have more experience with small-displacement turbocharged engines, he said.
Volvo wound up at the bottom because of its newer, revamped vehicles, such as XC90, which seemed to get a blank check for added enhancements. “When you change that many things, all together, it’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to reliability,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lexus and Toyota have been able to dominate the rankings because the brands have held on to tried-and-true features, and have otherwise been slow to introduce dramatically new tech. The two brands do, however, lean forward with safety features, Fisher said, noting forward-collision alert and stability control. But Toyota has otherwise been hesitant to roll out features such as Apple CarPlay.
“Sometimes not being the first, and sometimes taking your time, is paying off,” he said.