That chart full of dots in the back of the Consumer Reports automotive section used to be called “Frequency-of-Repair Records,” although somewhere along the way someone with fear of hyphens or something decided it ought to be “Reliability Records.”
“Reliable” is another one of those vague words, like “peppy”, that get used a lot and leave me puzzled. Do they mean “reliable” as in “will start and run forever with minimal maintenance” or do they mean “reliable” as in “I followed the manufacturer’s service schedule religiously and the cruise still works after three years”?
There’s different kinds of reliable. When I was dirt poor and needed a “bridge” car to last me until I could get something better, I bought an ’84 Pontiac Trans Am. I did not buy it necessarily because it was a Trans Am, but because it was the newest car I found on short notice with a carburetted Chevy small-block V-8 and a GM Turbo Hydramatic transmission; a combination that will run like crap longer than most cars will run at all, can be repaired by anybody, and every junkyard in America is full to the brim with spare parts. Plus, you know… hey, Trans Am? Anyway, it was reliable in the ‘start up and run’ sense, but it was also a mid-’80s GM car, which meant that somewhere around 75k or so miles, bits begin to fall off and subsystems start checking out, but you don’t really need cruise control, AM/FM cassette, the dome light, or various small interior trim bits to get to and from work.
Same thing with applying “reliability” as a constant across an entire brand. BMW’s E36 platform is the automotive equivalent of the cockroach; they’re still everywhere on the roads and the newest one you see is twelve years old; they’ll often go a quarter million miles without using anything but gas, tires, and oil. Conversely, a 750iL won’t make it across a parking lot without breaking down. Most any little Japanese sedan from the ’70s was reliable as all getout; they’d run ’til the body rusted off… if it had a manual transmission.
I had a ’75 Toyota Celica, which wasn’t a sedan but which did in fact have both a manual transmission and a fair amount of body rust; it was still running in 1995 when I decided I’d had enough of this particular automotive hair shirt. Unfortunately, what I got to replace it was a middle-80s two-door Detroit sled with two good ideas implemented badly: fuel injection (one injector in the middle of the throttle body) and aluminum heads (on top of an iron block and a gasket that couldn’t deal with either). On the upside, the interior was sweet, albeit with too many touches of domestic baroque, and the ancient three-speed automatic never missed a shift.
Said Celica survived a lot of horrible things: a collision with a petroleum tanker, several trips across the Mojave, and perhaps worst of all, maintenance by the likes of me. Now that’s “reliable.”