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How to pick a reliable car

There are plenty of published car ratings, but they tell you different things.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

When you turn to a published new car reliability rating, who do you trust? Consumer Reports? J.D. Power? The companies that sell warranties? All have key insights into lemon-avoidance. Here are some thoughts on how to reconcile them:

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An aftermarket-warranty company might publish some ratings of reliable cars and, in theory, they would be the most accurate: Who has more at stake in getting it right than a company that doesn't partake in a car's initial sale revenue, but does have to pay when that car is a dud? However, warranty companies aren't in the business of publishing reliability rankings, and none of them have the prestige of the best known companies that do.

Consumer Reports calls its ranking "reliability" and it's based on a survey of readers who report non-collision problems experienced over the previous 12 months. CR says that rounds up some 500,000 personal vehicles across 18 model years which yields a lot of data for its venerable rankings. However, it still predicts the reliability of new cars that are not yet or are barely in its database.

jdp-best

J.D. Power's 2018 ranking of the best cars by make shows a wide mix of expensive, cheap, imported and domestic cars. The rules of thumb aren't simple anymore.

J.D. Power

J.D.  Power positions its equivalent report as "dependability" and it also polls a large pool of real-world car owners, but with a lens aimed at problems reported after three years of ownership. They also have an "initial quality" rating that ranks cars based on problems, perceived or real, in the first 90 days of ownership.

As you merge these important but disparate sources of advice, bear in mind these three parameters:

Make of car: Some brands are more in the "good car" business than others. Few carmakers are utterly devoid of duds, but you can spot winning brands pretty easily.

jdp-worst

The bottom ranks of J.D. Power ratings have plenty of best-selling and Japanese brands, both running counter to common perception of who makes a solid car.

J.D. Power

Year of car: You can't just assume that because a car was great a few years ago, it still is. Automakers revise and re-engineer cars constantly and adjacent model years can be starkly different if one major component differs in a negative way.

Class of car: Generally speaking, you're asking for more trouble with a high-end car. They tend to have more tech, cutting-edge tech and low-volume tech, all in the same place. That can be a formula for repeat visits to the dealer as you beta test the latest engineering. It may all be under warranty, but your time isn't.