Vehicles More Dependable than Ever, 2021 J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study Shows

Jack R. Nerad | Feb 18, 2021

Vehicles are more dependable than they have ever been, according to the just-released J.D. Power 2021 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS). But in-car technology that includes infotainment systems continue to be a thorn in the side of car owners, the study also found. 

With the overall level of problems cited by owners declining 10% from a year ago, vehicle dependability is at an all-time high, but the experts at J.D. Power point out that even three years into their vehicle ownership many consumers still have issues with systems like infotainment. 

"The study results validate what we have known for some time," said Dave Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power. "Automakers are making increasingly dependable vehicles, but there are still some problem areas that need to be addressed and some warning signs on the horizon."

Porsche 911 Regains Top Spot - Find the best car deals!

In the results for individual car models, the Porsche 911 recaptured its spot as the highest-ranked model in the 2021 study. It is the second time in three years that the 911 has been named Most Dependable Model. Last year it lost its crown to the Lexus ES.

Porsche 911 Red At Speed

The Lexus ES, Lexus GX, Toyota Avalon, Toyota Sienna, and Toyota Tundra led the individual segments in which they compete in vehicle dependability, giving Toyota Motor Corporation a study-leading five segment awards. 

The Buick Envision, Chevrolet Camaro, Chevrolet Silverado HD, and Chevrolet Tahoe topped their respective segments, making General Motors Company the winner of four segment awards. 

Hyundai Motor Group also received four segment awards for the Genesis G80, Kia Optima, Kia Sorento, and Kia Sportage models.

Highest-Ranked Brands - Find the best car deals!

Among brands, Lexus ranked highest in overall vehicle dependability, the ninth time in 10 years that Lexus has topped the list of all brands. In the 2020 study, the Hyundai-owned Genesis brand out-did all comers. 

2018 Lexus ES Front Quarter View

This year owners of Lexus vehicles reported just 81 problems per 100 vehicles (PP100), besting the runner-up, Porsche, by 5 PP100. Kia (97 PP100) ranked third, Toyota (98 PP100) fourth, and Buick (100 PP100) and Cadillac (100 PP100) tied for the fifth spot.

Kia was the highest-ranked among all mass-market brands, the first time it has achieved that distinction. The Korean brand was also the most-improved of the above-average finishers in this year's results with a reduction of 35 problems per 100 vehicles (PP100) from 2020. Other brands ranking above the industry average that showed the greatest improvement in PP100 were Acura, Cadillac, and Hyundai (all by 31 PP100), and Mitsubishi (by 30 PP100.)

The 2021 VDS marked the first time that J.D. Power profiled Tesla in the study, and it received a score of 176 PP100. Tesla was not officially ranked among other brands in the study because, unlike other automakers, it doesn't give J.D. Power permission to survey its owners in 15 states where that permission is required. The study's authors say Tesla's score, which would put it fourth from the bottom in the rankings, was calculated based on a robust sample of surveys from owners in the other 35 states.

Product Reliability Gets Better - Find the best car deals!

Reliability and dependability improved across all eight potential problem categories. Exterior (3.7 PP100) and driving experience (2.2 PP100) showed the greatest improvements. While audio/communication/entertainment/navigation (ACEN) also demonstrated what J.D. Power deemed "marginal improvement," it remained the category with the most reported problems. 

"From early in the ownership experience, many owners complain about these systems being problematic," Sargent said. "It's a recurring theme. With smartphone apps increasingly giving owners an alternative, some will give up on the vehicle's built-in systems that caused that initial frustration. That's problematic for automakers, as a lot of the vehicle's value is tied up in these systems and they don't want to hand this business over to third parties."

Rate of Improvement Accelerates - Find the best car deals!

Not only has vehicle dependability improved to the best level ever, but the rate of improvement was much greater than the rate of improvement in the previous two years. The 2021 industry average of 121 PP100, the lowest in the study's history, marked a 13 PP100 (10%) improvement from the 134 PP100 level in 2020. In the previous two years, improvements were only 2 PP100 and 6 PP100, respectively.

While overall vehicle dependability is up, however, the level of dependability in the American market's most popular vehicle categories — trucks and SUVs — is not as good. Cars continues to be the segment with the most dependable vehicles, averaging 111 PP100. In contrast, SUVs, the most popular broad category in the market, average 122 PP100. Trucks, another very popular segment of the market, average 130 PP100. 

The study's authors identify the SUV and truck results as problem areas worthy of attention, noting that trucks and SUVs currently account for approximately 80% of retail sales each month.

"Today's three-year-old vehicles are of higher quality and more dependable than in previous years," Sargent said. "Most owners aren't experiencing their vehicles breaking down or falling apart but, for many, vehicle technology continues to function poorly or inconsistently. If an owner can't rely on a system to work as they expect, it is also considered a lack of dependability."

Now in its 32nd year, the J.D. Power U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study measures the number of problems per 100 vehicles (PP100) experienced during the past 12 months by original owners of three-year-old vehicles. A lower score reflects higher dependability. 

The study examines 177 specific potential problems grouped into eight major categories: 

  • Audio/communication/entertainment/navigation (ACEN)
  • Engine/transmission
  • Exterior
  • Interior
  • Features/controls/displays (FCD)
  • Driving experience
  • Heating, ventilation and air conditioning
  • Seats

The 2018 model-year vehicles measured in this year's study were first examined in the J.D. Power 2018 U.S. Initial Quality Study (IQS) that indicated new-vehicle quality had improved for the fourth consecutive year and reached its best level ever. Six of the 10 brands that ranked highest in that study also appear among the 10 highest ranked in the 2021 Vehicle Dependability Study.

Information for Consumer Car Buyers - Find the best car deals!

The J.D. Power U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study is a key component in the Consumer Ratings featured on JDPower.com. The Consumer Ratings are assembled using data from verified owners who have participated in the VDS plus the U.S. Customer Service Index (CSI) Study; U.S. Initial Quality Study (IQS); U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study; and U.S. Sales Satisfaction Index (SSI) Study.

"The insights uncovered about vehicle dependability are valuable not only to automakers but to car shoppers," said Tanya Parkes, vice president of the consumer division at J.D. Power. "Shoppers who visit JDPower.com can also learn how a vehicle compares to others, which brings more clarity to the shopping experience. The J.D. Power 100-Point Scores are based on independent and unbiased insights from consumers who have actually owned these vehicles, and that's something in which shoppers are keenly interested." 

The 2021 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study is based on responses from 33,251 original owners of 2018 model-year vehicles after three years of ownership. The study was fielded from July 2020 through November 2020.

J.D. Power is the source of information for this article. It was accurate on February 18, 2021, but it may have changed since that date.

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