Why are American cars considered less reliable than Japanese and German? Is it a myth that American cars break more often than Japanese and German cars?

Mudassir Ali
Feb 15, 2020 05:01 AM 0 Answers
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Mudassir Ali
- Feb 15, 2020 05:01 AM

Originally Answered: Why are American cars considered less reliable than Japanese and German? Is it a myth that American cars break more often than Japanese and German cars or that’s not true anymore?
Oh, this is going to be fun.

I’m going to limit my answer to the post WWII era. While I’ve owned and driven cars from before that time, they’re not going to be really relevant to what I want to say here.

Post WWII, the American car industry completely dwarfed the sum total of all the competing nations that had an automobile industry. The British were second to the Americans in production, first in export (by necessity, there was this matter of war debts to pay off, ‘export or die’), but unfortunately their cars were designed and built to function in a country smaller than the New England states, with highway speeds of 50mph or less, and an engine based taxation system that forced engineers to build under square engines (small bore, long stroke) as opposed to what became an American school of design after 1948 – over square engines (large bore, short stroke, capable of high RPM for the time). British cars were found to be truly wanting at American turnpike (later Interstate) speeds, and their sedans failed rather badly on the American market. What did work in British imports were sports cars – something the British became synonymous with in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

In fact, the only imported cars that were able to stand up to American road conditions back in the 50’s were German. Volkswagen Beetles of course, Mercedes-Benz for those who could afford one (slightly more expensive than a Cadillac), Borgward, and Auto Union. All which were designed to thrive on the German autobahn, which before the war was the best road system in the world. Germany didn’t have the large spaces to drive between, but they had the roads where you could drive like you did have long distances to go.

So you had the American car industry roll into the 1950’s in a proud, comfortable mood. The only thing that was annoying was those funny little German beetles. They just wouldn’t go away. Yeah, they were funny looking, but . . . . . they were better built than anything coming out of an American factory. Which is why they could thrive on American roads, when the British, French and Italian competition were breaking down at a rate unseen in Europe.

And from this position of strength, the American car industry (GM, Ford, Chrysler, American Motors from 1954 on, and the rapidly failing Studebaker) came to the realization that they didn’t have to spend money on expensive stuff like re-engineering the drivetrain, brakes, chassis, handling, etc. Just change the cosmetics every year, call it new, and keep on selling. Minimum cost, maximum profits. And with a few exceptions (Corvair immediately comes to mind), this is what they did into the Seventies.

The Japanese arrived around 1958. The first cars, Datsuns (later called Nissans) and Toyopets (later called Toyotas), were essentially British sedans with the quality of a Volkswagen. And then some. They were small, dowdy, slow, but you couldn’t break the bloody things. But up against the American home team at the height of the Fifties and Sixties, they were unnoticed. Look up a picture of a 1958 Toyopet vs. a 1958 Chevrolet Impala if you need to have the point made.

So the Japanese did a rethink. They kept the size, the economy, and especially the quality. If anything they upped the quality. And they changed the styling to appeal to American tastes. So, by the early 1970’s the Japanese had attractive small cars with excellent build quality, decent performance for the time, that sold at a low price. Meanwhile the Americans were still building somewhat shoddily built large cars, with mediocre to lousy gas mileage that were still selling for a decent price . . . . . but they weren’t anywhere near the Japanese and German competition for quality products. And when they got out of their large car comfort zone and attempted to match the competition with a small car, it became really obvious that they were building a small car because they had to, not because they believed in the concept. After all, “small cars equal small profits.” We’re talking about the same people who wrote off Volkswagen Beetle customers as weirdos, at best, Commies if you really wanted to get nasty about it.

And the Gas Crisis of 1973 and 1979 hit, and lots of people who would have never considered looking at a small Japanese car, did. And immediately wondered why the American companies couldn’t build something like that.

What went with the Seventies continued in the Eighties: More attempts to take on the Japanese directly. And every one failed. Every attempt was just not as good a car as the Japanese competition. Some of them (Chevrolet Citation and its badge mates, Chevrolet Cavalier and its badge mates, etc.) were absolute embarrassments that hurt the parent company badly. And more and more American customers bought their last GM, Ford, Chrysler, American Motors product; found it wanting, tried something from Japan and never came back.

The Nineties were no different. American quality, by this point, had finally made a comeback and each years American branded car was better and better. But they still weren’t as good as the Japanese competition.

And here’s the real disaster. By this point, the American car buying public had decided this was gospel. 25+ years of inferior American cars had gotten the general car buying public to completely buy in to the idea that Japanese cars were better. And German cars were much better, but for most people they were unaffordable.

So now we’re talking the Twenty Teens. Is it still the same?


American cars are (in my opinion) the equal of anything the Japanese manufacturers have turned out lately. And they’ve been that way for the last fifteen years, at least. But that thirty year stretch of, quite frankly, American crap has given the Japanese a reputation that they’re still riding on. Never mind that a Toyota Corolla is not as good a car as a Chevrolet Cruze, or that a Toyota Camry is no better (and actually slightly less drivable) than a Ford Fusion. If you want to buy a Toyota, plan on paying a bit extra. Because they’re still riding on that reputation. As is Honda. And that reputation isn’t going away anytime soon. Partially because the American product has matched the Japanese. Maybe slightly beat it on some models. But in no way is it making the Japanese cars look pathetic like the Japanese cars were doing to the American competition 30–40 years ago.

The Germans? A slightly different story. They still make magnificent, expensive automobiles. They’re very well built. What they aren’t is the incredibly well built, carved-out-of-a-block-of-granite automobiles that Mercedes Benz cars were in the ‘50–80’s. They now have a reputation of being overly complicated, overly electronic laden cars that are expensive as hell to keep maintained after the initial warranty period. As in, better to lease than own, and plan on trading in once the warranty wears out.

However, their reputation from the past forty years have turned the three major German brands, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi (which is that Auto Union I mentioned many paragraphs ago) into THE luxury cars for the American market. If you want to show off your snobbishness and style, these are the brands you consider, plus Jaguar if you want to add an element of non-conformity to your attitude.

Lexus? More reliable than Mercedes, but buying one shows you worry about reliability more than style. Cadillac and Lincoln? They threw the game away decades ago turning out more American garbage. “Luxury cars” that were nothing more than dressed up Chevrolets and Fords (go ahead, show me where a 74 Cadillac is any better than a 74 Chevrolet) – and they kept it on for so long that it’s only in the past ten years that they’ve even been building a car that can be mentioned in the same terms as the five Japanese and European marques I’ve mentioned. And their status (and sales) reflect that history.

tl;dr: Are American cars inferior to Japanese and German cars? No. Definitely not. But given the 30+ years the American automobile industry spent throwing away their technological, quality and sales lead, it’s probably going to be another 30 years before the market gives then credit for coming back to a position that they should have never lost in the first place. If they can. I don’t think so, not because the Americans can’t turn out the product, but because the competition isn’t going to let them get that old advantage back. From now in, pretty much everybody (including the Koreans) are squared off equally.

And, why did they blow that advantage?

That’ll be another missive at a later date. And it’s going to be a lot longer than this one.

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