The most reliable cars in the world are today manufactured in Japan. Towing and leasing companies as well as three comprehensive surveys report that they stall least often, and even garage mechanics prefer Japanese cars, such as the Subaru 1600 DL, for example.
Twenty years ago, a new European and very luxurious car burst onto the Israeli scene. It came with a collection of features that at the time seemed (certainly in a European family car) like a sci-fi film: cruise control, a computerized map, power steering, two electric windows and central locking. The Talbot Solera dazzled quite a few consumers, who jumped at the opportunity to acquire the innovations and gadgets. According to the February 1983 price list, the car was selling for 692,000 old Israeli shekels. In contrast, a Subaru 1600 DL was basic and cheap: 472,000 shekels. Where are these cars now?
The prestigious and state-of-the-art Solera is most likely to be found, in an advanced state of decay, strewn along roadsides or in junkyards. The cheap Subarus, however, continue to drive in every condition. Proof may be obtained from Negev Bedouin who keep them running on a diet of dust and sand for hundreds of thousands of kilometers. Is this a representative sample? Do Japanese cars necessarily last longer?
The Europeans can't take the heat
The inquiry began at Shagrir, Israel's largest towing and salvage company. Last year, Shagrir towed 380,000 cars - an astonishing number if we consider that the total number of cars in Israel is around 1.5 million. The company keeps detailed statistics on breakdowns, classified according to manufacturer and model, but refuses to disclose the data.
"I'm not at all interested in causing a stir in the car market," says the deputy CEO, Micha Krauss. "What I can say is that the Japanese cars are the most reliable. In second place are the Korean cars. In third place are the Europeans and in last place, the American cars."
Does that apply to the newest cars also?
"Certainly. Even though the car fleet of the country's residents is younger today, the cars stall more often. My father had a Fiat 600. He drove it for 70,000 kilometers without any problems, did an overhaul and drove another 30,000 kilometers. Today, cars drive 300,000 kilometers using the same engine, but stall 10 times during that period."
What is the main reason for the problems?
"Stupid reasons: the alarm system, tracking system and all sorts of electronic items. That, incidentally, is why we do the most towing in the summer. Computers and heat don't go together. Last Sunday, we towed a record 1,800 cars in one day."
And the Japanese computer systems are better able to withstand the heat?
"Yes. The Japanese make real adjustments for the Israeli heat. I know that Mazda conducted four days of trials in Israel during the height of the summer on Jordan Valley and Dead Sea roads."
The technical manager of the Maestro towing company, Ze'ev Nisimov, agrees with this assessment. "On average, a European car stalls at least 50 percent more than a Japanese car," he says. "The Japanese cars are more reliable; Toyota is first, followed by Mazda, Honda and Subaru. Mitsubishi is in fifth place. Most European cars experience more problems. But you have to remember that a lot of it has to do with the systems that are installed in Israel. The root of the problem is the protective systems. If it's an integral part, there are fewer problems. But European cars also have many problems with the original systems."
The leasing and car rental companies have also accumulated a lot of knowledge and experience. Again, most of those questioned declined to use their names when commenting on this subject. They are worried about hurting importers with whom they work very closely. "The gap between Japanese and European cars is large," says the operating manager of a large car rental company. "Seventy-five percent of my time is devoted to handling problems with European cars, and only 25 percent is spent on Japanese cars."
Another manager at a leasing company says: "Over a three-year period I charge 10 percent more for a European car. This difference stems from maintenance costs, reliability and demand in the used-car market, which is usually directly related to a car's reputation and reliability throughout the years. Except that I usually get a bigger discount from the importers on the purchase of European cars, which is likely to shrink this gap."
According to the CEO of Hertz, Danny Shimoni, "The maintenance costs I charge for a Japanese car is seven agorot per kilometer. For a European car, it's eight agorot and may go up to nine. If operational leasing of a Japanese car costs a customer NIS 3,200, the European car will cost NIS 3,400. That is assuming that the purchase price is identical, the size of the discount is identical, as is the currencies' behavior. The thing is that the euro's ongoing slump is enabling me to get better prices for European cars."
Gal Gemer, the transportation manager and safety officer at a high-tech company, Nice, also sings the praises of Japanese cars. "I have 70 Subaru Imprezas at the company. Apart from tune-ups, these cars simply never see a mechanic. Not only aren't there any problems, but the wear-and-tear is also low. Even the brake pads don't wear out. Despite all my criticism for the car itself, you can't argue with the reliability of the Mazda Lantis either. The same thing, of course, also applies to Toyota."
And the European cars?
"In the past, there were a lot of childhood sicknesses, mostly electrical problems and problems with the automatic gears. But in the last year-and-a-half, these have almost totally disappeared. I have a fleet of 200 Ford Focuses. There were a few problems with the floater in the gas tank, but that's been taken care of. I also don't have any problems with the Renault Kangoo. On the other hand, I'm less satisfied with the Fiat Punto. The electrical problems with it continue. Overall, I think the world is balancing out. The European cars are approaching the reliability of the Japanese cars and the Japanese are becoming more comfortable and safer and hugging the road better, along European standards."
The Germans are left behind
Japanese superiority in terms of reliability and quality is clearly reflected in different surveys conducted around the world. Despite their public image, German cars, it turns out, are also significantly inferior to Japanese cars. The German magazine, "Auto Motor and Sport" two months ago published a survey on this subject that was conducted among 70,000 car-owners. The top five spots for cars with the fewest glitches went to Japanese cars (three of them manufactured by Toyota). The Mercedes C class was ranked only 49th, the Volkswagen Golf ranked 95th, the BMW Series 7 ranked 114 and the Audi A6 ranked 133rd.
Another comprehensive survey was recently published by the English magazine, "What Car." The survey was based on claims submitted by car owners to Warranty Direct, a company that insures against problems in cars whose manufacturer warranties have expired. The average age of the cars in the survey was four years old, and the average amount of kilometers driven was 72,000. Four of the five top spots of cars with a minimum amount of problems went to Japanese cars. First place went to Mazda (with 17 problems per 100 cars); second place actually went to a well-known European company - Mercedes (25 problems), third went to Toyota (26), fourth to Honda (27) and fifth to Toyota. Only European cars appeared in the bottom spots: Renault (48 problems per 100 cars), Saab (48), Citroen (50), Land Rover (53) and Alfa Romeo (64).
The European auto industry is almost twice as old as the Japanese industry. Operations such as Peugeot and Fiat have been around since the beginning of the previous century, whereas Honda and Subaru began building cars only 50 years ago. However, the Japanese nurtured their uncompromising attention to quality from day one. The Europeans, in contrast, started taking the matter seriously (relatively speaking) only in the early 1990s. Japanese quality is also apparent in Japanese cars manufactured in Europe such as the Nissan Almera or the Honda Accord. This is perhaps proof that the production line worker's mentality is only part of the issue.
The manufacturers acquire most of the auto parts from independent secondary suppliers, and their quality is a critical aspect. According to Kazu Akamoto, a senior development engineer at Toyota, interviewed in the English magazine, "Autocar," "secondary suppliers always have problems and excuses. German car manufacturers are more willing than the Japanese to accept the excuses."
"Having trust is good," Nissan's manager in Europe, Ian Gibson said to "Autocar," adding "but being in control is preferable. Our suppliers must report everything - where the parts were manufactured, what equipment was used, how the workers were trained, where the temporary workers were hired from and how the production equipment is maintained."
The Japanese apparently also place supervisory engineers in the suppliers' factories. On the other hand, they are more generous with the suppliers and enable them to earn around 15 percent. The Europeans allow less.
There are also differences in the hierarchy of engineers at the car manufacturing plants. In the Japanese plants, the production engineers have the last word. They are also the ones who dictate a conservative approach - do not take risks and do not make last-minute changes to all sorts of components in the car. In the European plants, the development engineers, who are fans of advanced technologies, rule the roost. They insert assorted innovations and gadgets into the car up until the last minute. That may perhaps be good from a marketing and competitive perspective, but it is problematic in terms of quality control.
Most mechanics questioned agreed that the Japanese cars are more reliable, but the newer European cars were steadily reducing the gap. "It's a solid fact," says Amos Guetta of the Guetta Garage, "the Japanese mechanisms are better. The Japanese build and plan nicer than everyone else. Take, for example, the whole electrical system. The wiring is orderly; the catches are strong. Everything is reinforced. The finish is nice. In European cars, everything is standard and simple. The wear-and-tear on them is greater. You see it in the engines, engine valves, gears, radiators and in many other parts."
If all cars were Japanese would you be out of work?
"There would be less repair work, but a lot of regular tune-ups. We make easy and good money on tune-ups. I wish I had only tune-up jobs."
Danny Shama of the Randan Garage in Jerusalem's Talpiyot neighborhood says, "Hardly anything ever goes wrong with the electronics in Japanese cars. In the European cars, such components get ruined. The Japanese cars also almost never get overheated. Many of the European cars are sensitive to the heat. Most Toyota and Subaru models are incredibly reliable. Gasoline and periodic tune-ups are all they need."
And what do you drive?
"A Citroen GTI 1900 BX. But it's a unique car that I personally take care of."