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Consumer Reports pummels EV reliability, says hybrids have significantly fewer problems

Electric vehicles may be the future, but in some ways they look a lot like the past. Particularly reliability.

That’s the bottom line from Consumer Reports’ eagerly anticipated annual reliability survey, which sounds like an ‘80s tribute act: the top tier, brands credited with excellent or very good reliability, is dominated by Japanese automakers, with a smattering of Europeans and a South Korean.

Electric pickups like the Ford F-150 Lightning were the leasat reliable vehicle category in Consumer Reports' annual survey.
Electric pickups like the Ford F-150 Lightning were the leasat reliable vehicle category in Consumer Reports' annual survey.

Unlike those bad old days, though, the culprits are advanced electronics, not oil leaks and faulty transmissions.

Electric vehicles are among the worst offenders.

“The problems with internal combustion engines are mostly sorted,” Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports senior director of testing, told me. “The new problems are mostly associated with electronics: Electric vehicles that use brand new platforms and power trains.”

In a positive change from the era of the Cadillac Cimarron, U.S.- based brands − Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Dodge, Ram and Tesla − earned six of CR’s 11 “good” ratings, along with Hyundai, Infiniti, Nissan, Genesis and Audi.

Spots 22-29 −“fair” − went to Ford, Lincoln, GMC, Volvo, Jeep,Volkswagen, Rivian and Ford. Chrysler had the bottom rung, “poor,” to itself. Several brands − Alfa Romeo, Mitsubishi, Land Rover and Jaguar among them − were omitted due to insufficient data.

Consumer Reports brand reliability ratings

  1. Lexus

  2. Toyota

  3. Mini

  4. Acura

  5. Honda

  6. Subaru

  7. Mazda

  8. Porsche

  9. BMW

  10. Kia

  11. Hyundai

  12. Buick

  13. Infiniti

  14. Tesla

  15. Ram

  16. Cadillac

  17. Nissan

  18. Genesis

  19. Audi

  20. Chevrolet

  21. Dodge

  22. Ford

  23. Lincoln

  24. GMC

  25. Volvo

  26. Jeep

  27. Volkswagen

  28. Rivian

  29. Mercedes-Benz

  30. Chrysler

Source: Consumer Reports.

Compact cars like the Acura Integra were the most reliable vehicle category in Consumer Reports' annual survey.
Compact cars like the Acura Integra were the most reliable vehicle category in Consumer Reports' annual survey.

More tech, more problems

“This is a super exciting time in the auto industry,” Fisher said. “EVs are bringing major changes in technology and performance. Cars and trucks that can go zero to 60 in less than four seconds are becoming commonplace.”

So much for the good news.

EVs in model years 2021-24 suffered about twice as many reliability problems as internal combustion engines, or ICE, according to CR’s survey of about 70,000 vehicles.

The five least reliable vehicle categories, from bad to worse, are:

  • Electric cars

  • Electric SUVs

  • Full-size pickups

  • Midsize pickups

  • Electric pickups

It’s rare a category of vehicles is so small that it’s easy to point fingers at specific vehicles, but with only two EV pickups on the market − Chevy hadn’t sold enough electric Silverados to be in the survey − one can safely say:

  • The Ford F-150 Lightning and Rivian R1T fared poorly with CR readers.

  • Tesla, despite its own well-documented quality issues, has a pretty low bar to clear when it finally begins delivering meaningful numbers of its long awaited Cybertruck.

EVs have 79% more problems than ICE vehicles, according to CR’s survey. CR excludes problems with commercial CD fast chargers from the report. They’re an infrastructure issue, but they’re also another reason many buyers are reluctant to commit to EVs.

Hybrids were the big winners, with an average 26% fewer problems. Faring worst were plug-in hybrid vehicles, an extremely promising technology that features a bigger battery than a regular hybrid, so the vehicle can go farther on electricity in daily driving, but also has a gasoline engine for long trips. PHEVs had 146% as many issues as ICE vehicles.

“PHEVs are more complicated and automakers have less experience with them,” Fisher said. “Although Toyota, Hyundai and Kia’s PHEVs are all very reliable."

The Jeep Wrangler 4xe is America's top selling plug-in hybrid, pr PHEV.
The Jeep Wrangler 4xe is America's top selling plug-in hybrid, pr PHEV.

Consumer Reports' most reliable vehicle categories

  1. Compact cars

  2. Sporty/sports cars

  3. Small pickups

  4. Midsize/large cars

  5. Luxury midsize/large cars

  6. Compact SUVs

  7. Subcompact SUVs

  8. Luxury midsize SUVs

  9. Luxury compact cars

  10. Luxury compact SUVs

  11. Minivans

  12. Midsize two-row SUVs

  13. Luxury midsize three-row/large SUVs

  14. Midsize three-row/large SUVs

  15. Electric cars

  16. Electric SUVs

  17. Full-size pickups

  18. Midsize pickups

  19. Electric pickups

Source: Consumer Reports

Practice makes reliable, if not perfect

The poor reliability isn’t due to an inherent problem with EVs, but rather that the technology and parts to make them are new.

“EVs are brand new vehicles with brand new powertrains and often built on brand new platforms,” Fisher said. "That’s a lot of things that can go wrong, especially in the early days of a technology’s adoption.”

“The problems with internal combustion engines are mostly sorted,” Consumer Reports senior director of testing Jake Fisher said. “The new problems are mostly associated with electronics.”
“The problems with internal combustion engines are mostly sorted,” Consumer Reports senior director of testing Jake Fisher said. “The new problems are mostly associated with electronics.”

There’s a double whammy on top of that, he said: Established automakers are new to building EVs, while EV specialists are new to the high-volume production of automobiles.

Want more? Many EVs are marketed mainly to early adopters, people who crave the latest technology.

“Throwing all that technology at a new vehicle just complicates things further,” Fisher said.

“Hybrids have been around for 25 years. They’re established technology with reliability superior to ICE. And they’re generally sold to practical people who aren’t weighed down by a desire for new features and technology.”

Unanticipated consequences

On top of all that, over the air software updates, or OTAs, touted to allow automakers to fix problems and add features with a download, occasionally misfire, requiring another OTA to fix an issue that may have disabled a key system, or the entire vehicle.

“Used well, OTAs are a positive,” Fisher said. “Used poorly, they’re a problem.”

The leading automakers in CR’s reliability survey, Toyota and Honda, “are very conservative,” Fisher said.

General Motors and Ford, by comparison, “are all-in in new technology, and they walked away from small and midsize sedans that were some of the industry’s most reliable vehicles.”

Contact Mark Phelan: 313-222-6731 or mmphelan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan. Read more on autos and sign up for our autos newsletterBecome a subscriber.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: EV reliability gets bad review in Consumer Reports. Hybrids win big.