Luxury and dependability a rare combination in European cars, Consumer Reports finds

If you are in the market for an expensive, dependable German luxury car, think again, Consumer Reports warns in its annual ranking of auto reliability Tuesday.

"The larger [European] manufacturers, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, are among the worst automakers overall," Consumer Reports said.

It turns out that expense and luxury don't always equate to reliability, said Jake Fisher, senior automotive engineer with Consumer Reports. Often, there is an inverse relationship.

Big luxury cars come with "a lot of power equipment, electronic gizmos and complexity," Fisher said, "and that means more chances for something to go wrong."

In particular, Audi and BMW have introduced new high-performance engines that combine power and fuel efficiency, but the technology has been daunting, he noted.

On Tuesday, BMW announced it would recall about 130,000 vehicles equipped with its twin-turbo, inline six-cylinder engines because they may experience a failure of the high-pressure fuel pump and suffer from reduced performance. The recall covers 135i, 335i and 535i sedans, coupes and other vehicles from the 2007 to 2010 model years.

"At the other end is the Toyota Yaris, which was Toyota's most reliable vehicle and is the Japanese automaker's cheapest vehicle. There's not much to go wrong with the car, but we don't recommend it because it performs poorly. Performance and reliability don't necessarily go hand in hand," Fisher said.

Five of BMW's 11 models scored below average for reliability. Six of Mercedes-Benz's 13 models were below average. Nearly three-quarters of the Audi models Consumer Reports analyzed were below average, including the A6 with its new, supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 engine, which was tied with the Jaguar XF for the worst reliability.

Of the major European luxury nameplates, only Porsche and Volvo did well in the magazine's ratings, with all of their vehicles having average reliability or better. The rankings are based on surveys of owners or lease holders of 1.3 million vehicles conducted this year.

While European luxury brands were moving down the reliability scale, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., the two biggest U.S. auto companies, continued to improve their standings.

The magazine, known for its influential auto recommendations, said that of the major domestic auto companies, only Chrysler Group, which faces aging design and quality issues, seemed unable to improve its vehicles.

The gains by Ford and GM are real but will take time for car buyers to accept, said Rebecca Lindland, a senior analyst with IHS Automotive.

"It takes years and years for the sins of the past to go away," Lindland said.

Ford remains the most reliable U.S. automaker, according to the Consumer Reports. The Ford Fusion Hybrid was the top-ranked family sedan. Overall, 90% of Ford's models, including its Lincoln brand, have at least average reliability.

But don't expect the Fusion to suddenly upend Toyota's popular Camry or Honda's Accord sedan in sales.

"Even if the Fusion does come in at the same score or better as the Camry, and they can promote the heck out of that, you will still have a lot of skeptics who think they are spinning the numbers," Lindland said.

Although what Consumer Reports says is still important, changing demographics are starting to diminish its influence on car sales, she said.

"For baby boomers, Consumer Reports is the bible," Lindland said. "For people under 40, it is blogs and websites. For decades, it has had a corner on the opinion market, but the Web is changing that."

GM's performance was helped by the closure of its Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer divisions as part of its bankruptcy reorganization last year. The brands were noteworthy for producing "troublesome cars," the magazine said. The report also noted that many of GM's latest cars, such as the Buick LaCrosse and the Cadillac SRX, are getting good reliability marks during their first year of production.

Chevrolet turned in its best showing in years, with 83% of its models earning average reliability scores or better.

That compares with Chrysler, which makes only one vehicle recommended by Consumer Reports, the four-wheel-drive Dodge Ram 1500.

Despite a series of recalls in recent months, Toyota Motor Co., American Honda Motor Co. and other Asian companies continue to dominate the reliability ratings. All of the models from Acura, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Scion and Toyota earned average reliability scores or better. Fisher believes that they do a better job engineering electronics and accessories, which are responsible for many of the malfunctions in modern cars. With the exception of the lower-rated European brands, most vehicles these days come with a reliable engine and transmission, the major mechanical components of a vehicle.

"If people had any idea about the absolute complexity of these products they would be stunned that they start every morning," Lindland said.

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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