Every year, J.D. Power releases its Vehicle Dependability Study, which measures how dependable a vehicle has been over the previous three years of ownership. It is a valuable study, some would say more important for your consideration than its better known Initial Quality Study, which measures quality issues and problems as reported by customers after just three months of ownership.
We have chosen to show you vehicles that are at the top of their categories based on Power's 2012 VDS, as well as what we think their counterparts are. Power does not tell is which vehicles score at the bottom of the heap in their category, but we have applied our expertise and weighed that against Consumer Reports and IIHS safety ratings to offer the worst choices in the category. That's not to say that our picks are bad cars. In many cases, they are just less good than their rivals.
It's important to remember that the VDS champ is a car the car that was sold three years ago. In some case, these models have been substantially upgraded, and will have to be scored again. But in our experience, models that score tops in VDS rarely fall very far from the top even after a redesign unless the automaker really messes up. We are showing you the picture and information links of the 2013 models of all vehicles. But it's also worth noting that the fact that these cars have been the most reliable over the last three years means that the 2008 versions make for excellent used car purchases.
Best Sub-Compact Car: Toyota Yaris
MSRP: $14,115 - $16,400
Invoice: $13,551 - $15,743
Fuel Economy: 30 mpg City, 38 mpg Highway
The Toyota Yaris has been known as the most basic of basic transportation ever since it showed up on U.S. shores.
It is the 2008 model that scores the top spot on J.D. Power's VDS tally, but the car you can buy today was much upgraded for the 2012 model year.
Toyota has gone back to the drawing board for the 2012 model year, combating the dullness of the old Yaris with a combination of more expressive exterior styling and the promise of improved driving dynamics. It has even tuned the Yaris SE with a stiffer suspension and bigger tires as an olive branch of sorts to budget-minded enthusiasts.
It has been upgraded all the way around the interior with better materials and more carefully done surfaces and controls. The SE model is equipped with a six-speaker sound system made more desirable with the addition of a USB input, auxiliary jack, Bluetooth streaming music and hands-free calling. The sound system is great for a vehicle that costs only $16,400.
This new model should score even better, we think, than the old Yaris as owners will almost have to be happier with the overall package than they used to be.
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Toyota Yaris Photos & Information
Toyota Yaris Specs
Toyota Yaris Local Dealer Price Quote
Worst Sub-Compact Car: smart fortwo
MSRP: $12,490 - $17,890
Fuel Economy: 34 mpg City, 38 mpg Highway
The smart fortwo is the other end of the spectrum for us. Consumer Reports and AOL Autos editors rate it at the bottom of the scale for entry-level cars. For a car with only two seats and a bone jangling ride, it presents neither a good fuel economy story, nor a particularly good buying value. At more than $15,000, we'd rather buy a used anything-else than a new fortwo.
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smart fortwo Photos & Information
smart fortwo Specs
smart fortwo Local Dealer Price Quote
Best Compact Car - Toyota Prius
MSRP: $24,000 - $29,805
Invoice: $22,560 - $27,744
Fuel Economy: 51 mpg City, 48 mpg Highway
The Toyota Prius is the king of all hybrids in terms of sales, and it also scores the top spot in the entire compact car category, beating its own showroom-mate, the Corolla, as well as the Hyundai Elantra.
Prius owners have rated the car extremely reliable over three years of ownership. And we have never had reasons to doubt that the car is reliable. We find the driving experience a bit bloodless, but people buy the Prius for fuel economy, which is an impressive 51 city/48 highway. Prius owners tend to really love the their car like people loved their Volkswagen Beetles.
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Toyota Prius Photos & Information
Toyota Prius Specs
Toyota Prius Local Dealer Price Quote
Worst Compact Car - Suzuki SX4
MSRP: $15,845 - $19,349
Invoice: $15,212 - $18,575
Fuel Economy: 23 mpg City, 33 mpg Highway
It's not that the Suzuki SX4 is a bad car. In fact, some of our editors have told tales of its competent all-wheel-drive system barreling through a foot of fresh snow on the streets of Michigan.
But Suzuki scores terribly on quality and reliability and the dealer network is, well, challenged to provide good customer service.
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Suzuki SX4 Photos & Information
Suzuki SX4 Specs
Suzuki SX4 Local Dealer Price Quote
Best Compact Sporty Car - Scion tC
MSRP: $18,725 - $21,815
Invoice: $17,789 - $20,725
Fuel Economy: 23 mpg City, 31 mpg Highway
Scion tC, a Toyota product sold at Toyota/Scion dealers, is a well-built, inexpensive sports coupe that sits atop Power's VDS tally in the "compact sporty" category where it doesn't really have much competition.
There is a newly designed tC that will have to work hard to keep its spot. The Hyundai Elantra coupe, for one, should challenge. The new tC has a somewhat cheaper feeling interior than the old one. And the engine doesn't feel as well tuned as the original tC. It feels like a step backward to us, but we will see what the owners say about living with it day in and day out.
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Scion tC Photos & Information
Scion tC Specs
Scion tC Local Dealer Price Quote
Worst Compact Sporty Car - Honda CR-Z
MSRP: $19,695 - $21,255
Invoice: $18,763 - $20,243
Fuel Economy: 31 mpg City, 37 mpg Highway
The least desirable competitor to the Scion tC for us is the Honda CR-Z. The 1.5 liter four cylinder engine is mated to an electric motor to make for a hybrid drivetrain. Honda just seems to be in a muddle about what to do in the hybrid category, and this model shows it.
The design is awkward looking and makes for poor rear visibility. It only has two seats where its competitors have four. The interior seems cheap and is devoid of some common features. We love Honda engines and many of their models, but this is a miss.
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Honda CR-Z Photos & Information
Honda CR-Z Specs
Honda CR-Z Local Dealer Price Quote
Best Midsize Car - Ford Fusion
MSRP: $21,700 - $32,200
Invoice: $20,235 - $29,705
Fuel Economy: NA
Ford Fusion is a car that Ford launched with a thud, but one into which it poured improvements as it restructured itself and refocused on quality. It has been steadily working up the sales ladder, and Power said all that hard work paid off starting with the 2008 model that topped the list for dependability among owners of mid-sized cars. That means it beat Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
All that learning in the old Fusion was applied to the all new 2013 Fusion, which is better looking, sleeker and better equipped. Time will tell for dependability, but we have high expectations for the new Fusion to live up to the reputation of the old one.
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Ford Fusion Photos & Information
Ford Fusion Specs
Ford Fusion Local Dealer Price Quote
Worst Midsize Car - Dodge Avenger
MSRP: $18,995 - $25,495
Invoice: $18,730 - $24,330
Fuel Economy: 21 mpg City, 29 mpg Highway
The Dodge Avenger is a car we can feel a bit sorry for. It was a car developed while Chrysler was owned by private equity firm Cerberus Capital, which, like most private equity firms, knew more about cost cutting than product development. The car competes in one of the most brutal categories in the auto industry, and just barely competes.
Chrysler owner Fiat has made many improvements, but is in process of phasing out the car in favor of one that it developed from scratch. We don't hate the Avenger, but we can only recommend it if it is much cheaper than the other cars in the category when the rebates and incentives are factored in.
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Dodge Avenger Photos & Information
Dodge Avenger Specs
Dodge Avenger Local Dealer Price Quote
Best Midsize Premium Car - Hyundai Genesis
MSRP: $34,200 - $46,800
Invoice: $32,070 - $43,320
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg City, 29 mpg Highway
Hyundai Genesis is a charmer. Owners appreciate how the Korean company studied and benchmarked both BMW and Lexus to try and learn the best from both about performance and creature comforts. The result is the Genesis, which surprises and delights both on the road and in the wallet.
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Hyundai Genesis Photos & Information
Hyundai Genesis Specs
Hyundai Genesis Local Dealer Price Quote
Worst Midsize Premium Car - Volvo S80
MSRP: $38,950 - $46,800
Invoice: $36,613 - $43,992
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg City, 28 mpg Highway
It's not that we dislike the S80 or would feel ashamed to own one. It's that the car competes in a fiercely competitive category and seems to stand off to one side of the field watching he action. Safe as ever, yes. But the performance of the base engine is weak and the driving dynamics about as interesting as a 1980s Toyota. Except for those who put safety first and only in their consideration, the S80 just isn't in the game.
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Volvo S80 Photos & Information
Volvo S80 Specs
Volvo S80 Local Dealer Price Quote
Best Minivan - Toyota Sienna
MSRP: $26,435 - $41,325
Invoice: $24,453 - $38,020
Fuel Economy: 18 mpg City, 25 mpg Highway
Minivan buyers really do pay attention to studies and surveys more than in any other category. Sienna owners put their minivan at the top of the dependability survey, and that was before this minivan got an overhaul that made it even better.
A versatile, nicely appointed interior and more than acceptable road manners makes the Toyota a top choice.
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Toyota Sienna Photos & Information
Toyota Sienna Specs
Toyota Sienna Local Dealer Price Quote
Worst Minivan - Kia Sedona
MSRP: $24,900 - $29,190
Invoice: $24,165 - $27,275
Fuel Economy: 18 mpg City, 25 mpg Highway
It's the cheap one. Kia has been manning the lower end of the price ladder as Chrysler, Honda, Toyota and Nissan have been moving up in price and features.
For that, Kia should be commended. Offering a cheaper alternative to families who need seating for seven but not necessarily the wood trim and DVD package is a noble calling. But cutting corners just makes it not as competitive with the big boys.
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Kia Sedona Photos & Information
Kia Sedona Specs
Kia Sedona Local Dealer Price Quote
Best SUV - Ford Explorer
MSRP: $29,135 - $40,720
Invoice: $27,459 - $37,972
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg City, 24 mpg Highway
In the mid-sized SUV category there is a tie between Ford Explorer and Nissan Murano. No surprise that Ford led in dependability. The company has poured a lot of quality improvement into its SUVs, especially since it does not even offer a true minivan any more. The old Explorer was a winner. It will be interesting to see if the new one launched for the 2012 model year with much better fuel economy grabs and pleases its owners as much as the old one did.
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Ford Explorer Photos & Information
Ford Explorer Specs
Ford Explorer Local Dealer Price Quote
Worst SUV - Toyota FJ Cruiser
MSRP: $26,880 - $28,470
Invoice: $24,999 - $26,477
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg City, 20 mpg Highway
The Toyota FJ Cruiser seemed like a good idea. It was meant to be an homage to the old Toyota Land Cruiser of the 1970s, a Jeep-like, fun-to-drive beauty that was loved the world over.
But the FJ has always just been…well…awkward. Awkward and clunky to drive, park and see out of. The whole thing. It comes in pretty colors, but it's beastly to drive.
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Toyota FJ Cruiser Photos & Information
Toyota FJ Cruiser Specs
Toyota FJ Cruiser Local Dealer Price Quote