My former classmate Judd Slivka, now a journalism professor at Mizzou, pointed me to Long-Term Quality Index, a long-term study of the reliability of used cars co-created by our fellow Mizzou alumnus Steven Lang. Judd called it an outstanding example of data-driven journalism, and I agree.
The results are enlightening.
Where does Buick’s reputation for quality come from? An unusually high percentage of Buicks live to age 18, so there truly is data that backs up that perception. But that doesn’t mean there’s an unusually high number of them with 180,000 miles on them. Honda, Toyota, and their luxury brands Acura and Lexus dominate that field. The 2002 Honda Civics that my wife and I drive with 225,000 and 216,000 miles on them aren’t flukes. 2002 was a good year for the Civic, as was 2000 and 2001. A Buick may be a better car than a Chevy, but it’s also possible that the biggest difference between the two, besides the quality of the interior, is that it’s marketed to an audience that will demand less from it.
It’s interesting that car quality can be cyclical. A good company’s new models might be average in quality, but as they work the kinks out, late in their life they can become much better than average. Glancing at the data, it seems to be good to buy a car toward the end of its body style than the beginning.
Because he collects the data over the course of years, I think this data is much better than what you’ll find in a magazine that evaluates a car over the course of a few months at most, and it’s free. In my line of work, I do an enormous amount of profiling based on the data we have available, and sometimes we have to change direction when the data tells us something we’re doing isn’t working, could work better, or simply that our resources will give us better results for the money if we apply them elsewhere. Steven Lang is applying the same approach to cars.