If someone put a gun to your head and said you can pick only one car for the rest of your life and if it breaks down they’ll pull the trigger, what would you buy?
There are a few trains of thought on this one, how many of you would go for a new car and how many of you would go for something older and more simple? In this blog, I’m going to run through some candidates of what I think are the most reliable cars out there.
I’m going to put my cards on the table here and say that I believe the 1990s is the golden era for reliability. For all of you that think new is always better, think about this. By the 1990s the internal combustion engine had over 100 years to be refined and perfected, engine technology had gone from 2 horsepower and a top speed of 10mph in the 1885 Benz motor wagon to 618 horsepower and 240mph in the 1993 McLaren F1. Carburettors were being ditched for more efficient electronic fuel injection but the complex, stifling emissions equipment seen on today’s cars wasn’t required yet. It was a Goldilocks time for the automobile. Nannying safety kit wasn’t a thing, meaning less complexity and less weight too. My belief is than any earlier, there are potential quality and age-related problems, any newer, there’s too much to go wrong. Now, there are definitely some exceptions to this but for the most part, the not too old, not too new rule holds up.
Being a patriotic Brit, it hurts me to say the UK isn’t going to be included here. We’ve never had the best reputation for reliability and build quality and I think the British Leyland era from the late 60s on, did irreversible damage to the entire British car industry. Likewise, the French can’t be included, their cars are known to be unnecessarily awkward to repair “because French.” It’s goodbye to the Italians too. You get the impression style and beauty came before longevity when designing many of their cars and just like the Brits and the French, can’t seem to get electrics to work properly for any period of time. Unfortunately, it’s these countries that produce some of the most exciting and desirable cars ever made!
When people started to take the Japanese seriously and got over their badge snobbery, the rest of the car world had to stand up and take notice. They were producing high-quality machinery that was well screwed together, well equipped and for a decent price. My theory that the 90s is the golden decade, correlates with Japan’s golden decade too. Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Mazda all had major motorsport success and all had a halo road car showcasing their engineering ability. But for this blog, we’re looking further down the pecking order to the more basic, run of the mill cars.
For Toyota, you can take your pick of any Corolla or Carina. (I once owned a Carina that I paid £450 for and it dumped its coolant on a drive, all I did was top it up hoping to limp home so I could investigate further, only for it to fix itself and never use any coolant again). There’s also the over-engineered Hilux pickup (see top gear episode where they try to kill it and fail) and the Land Cruiser that supposedly is built to a 25-year life cycle when the rest of the car industry aim for 10. Honda has the trusty Civic and Accord and although it’s not from the 90s, the Jazz is one of my go-to cars when someone asks for a cheap, reliable runabout. Nissan has the Micra, Sunny, Bluebird, Almera and Primera and was at their best before the merger with Renault. As for Mazda, well the answer to every car guys question is always MX5 isn’t it! The little car that took the open-top British sports car recipe and actually made it work.
As you can see there’s plenty to choose from if you want Japanese. This is where my loyalties lie and through personal experience, their cars just seem so well thought out. Ok, some of the interiors aren’t the nicest places to sit but you get the impression the money has been spent on what counts, the mechanical bits. On the second-hand market, there’s something to cater for pretty much every budget, basic models (Corolla/Civic/Micra, etc.) with long MOT’s and higher miles can be had for under £1000 and pristine low mileage examples of the special cars (mx5, land cruiser, etc.) is name your price.
I know I might make a few enemies saying this but I think the Germans are overrated when it comes to reliability. VW group have the meme-worthy check engine light troubles, BMW took a real nose dive when electrics became more prominent in cars (anyone who watches Hoovies Garage will know that his expert mechanic, point-blank refuses to work on anything from Munich) and the late 90s saw Mercedes hit their all-time low with quality suffering badly. Rot, failing electrics and bad build quality in general falling well short of what people expected from the three-pointed star. However, anything prior to this shoddy period is golden.
I’d be placing my bets on W123, W124 and W201’s being the cars to have. These were made in the days when Mercedes supposedly built a car, then set the price, rather than building the car to a set price and having to cut corners to meet the target. Many were used as Taxi’s and upwards of 500,000 miles is not uncommon. Any of the available engines are capable of huge mileage and if specced with MB-Tex, the interiors can prove just as durable. Values of these bank vault-like Mercedes reflect their reputation. W123 and W124’s in similar condition and spec often go for more than the W210 that replaced it. The bodies of the newer car were more prone to rot thanks to a shift in steel suppliers to save money and more electrics means more to go wrong. Even from a styling point of view, most prefer the older boxy designs over the awkward-looking, bog eyed quad headlights of the W210. Mercedes are also the best in the business for stocking parts for their older cars, meaning in the unlikely event that something breaks, you shouldn’t be stuck searching eBay for dodgy second-hand bits. Buy one of these trusty old Mercs and you genuinely have a car for life. The 190e or 190d (code name W201) is a great way into a practical, reliable car with a premium badge. Decent cars can be picked up for under £2000.
The Volvo estate often gets referred to as a brick thanks to its boxy design but it might as well be used to describe its build quality too. These big chunks of Swedish metal are as tough as a Vikings old boot. Your pick of the bunch here is the 700 series, 900 series and the 850. Production for the 700 went from 1982 to 1992 and built a formidable reputation for toughness as seen in Top Gear (Clarkson driving a 760 into a brick wall at over 30mph and the car was still able to drive away) and for raking up very high miles that continued through to the more rounded styling of the 900 series that was in production from 1990 to 1998. The 850 once again took the boxy design and tank-like build quality of the 700 and 900 series into a more modern, front wheel drive proposition. The 850 proved incredibly versatile being used by families, police forces and even a British touring car effort! For anyone debating their durability, you must see this video https://youtu.be/u7V-G3PiRUc.
Good examples of all three of these cars are still out there but you’ll pay a premium for clean, low mileage examples as their reputation is well known. Petrol engines can be thirsty but I’m told the diesel in the 700–900 is bombproof. Their boxy styling isn’t for everyone but if it is, you have yourself a spacious, comfortable family wagon that will take you to the moon and back.
I’m sure there are many cars I have left out (I’m based in the UK and little experience of US domestic market cars) and I’m also sure there are many people out there with cars that by reputation, don’t have the best track records but from personal experience, have had years of trouble-free motoring. If you’re one of those, please let us know what car you have and we can try and debunk some of the untrue stories about those particular cars. Likewise, if you’ve had a car that the general consensus would tell you is reliable but from your experience, is anything but.