Most people have at some point heard the phrase, “German engineering”. It is usually used in the context of highlighting cutting-edge technology, top tier quality, precise manufacturing methodologies and high performance products.
While this expression has now approached meme-levels of overuse in the automotive world, there are some truths to these assertions. But does the Germanic commitment to engineering excellence translate to outstanding reliability and dependability for German automobiles from manufacturers such as Mercedes Benz, BMW, Audi & Volkswagen?
Let’s explore the truth behind the claims and separate the facts from the myths.
The Origins of German Automotive Excellence
The idea of German automotive engineering prowess and world class reliability first gained traction back as early as the late 1960’s, with the idea then taking root over the following couple of decades and firmly cementing itself in the developed world’s collective consciousness by the mid-1980’s.
During this time period, German cars were often actually more reliable and considered to be built to higher quality standards than their global competitors from England, Italy, Japan and the United States. When Consumer Reports first began its Long-Term Reliability Tests and Initial Quality Index tests in 1972, German brands like Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz would usually come out on top. The initial quality ratings for even the VW Beetle topped many US domestic vehicles from manufacturers such as Ford, Jeep, Mercury and Pontiac.
This automotive era conjures up mental imagery of German cars ‘built like tanks’ and that were often owned by politicians and celebrities.
Changing of the Guards
However, as time went on, the competition began to catch up and the German brands’ focus on providing maximum performance and amenities led to increasingly complex vehicles and chinks started to form in the armor of the manufacturers from Deutschland.
By the late 1980s and into the 90s, Japanese manufacturers like Honda, Toyota, Acura, Infiniti and Lexus began producing the most world’s most reliable models. Over this past decade, Korean manufacturers such as Hyundai and Kia have joined the Japanese automakers to round out the top echelon in terms of dependability.
Consumer Beliefs vs. Statistical Evidence
Despite these changes over time, the myth of German automotive reliability has persisted strongly to this day. In a survey of more 750 people conducted by Warrantywise in the UK, Mercedes, Audi and BMW were all ranked by subjective consumer opinion in the Top 10 for Reliability.
Perhaps surprisingly, Warrantywise’s empirical data actually ranked those same manufacturers as 27th, 28th and 29th respectively. Similarly, in J.D. Power’s Automotive Performance, Execution & Layout (APEAL) study, which looks at how gratifying a new vehicle is to own and drive based on owner evaluations, Audi, BMW Mercedes and VW all achieve a 4/5 in this survey.
When reliability is the focus, however, such as in the 2019 J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study (a look at the number of problems per 100 vehicles), no German automotive manufacturer managed to break into the Top 10. In J.D. Power’s Initial Quality rankings from the same year, Mercedes had a rating of 4 out of 5, while BMW and Audi scored just 3/5 and VW only managed 2/5.
When J.D. Power narrowed the focus specifically to German Vehicle Dependability, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz each fell below industry average and ranked 20th, 17th and 19th respectively, despite Germany’s overall dependability generally improving since 2015. According to Consumer Reports, the last time these German brands were measured as above average for Reliability was back in 2007.
So What Happened?
Despite these studies and consumer experiences, German cars are still widely revered for their luxury, high performance and technological innovations. However, the inherent downside to these merits is a level of complexity that would often put early spacecraft to shame and which leads to increased maintenance difficulty and costs coupled with poorer reliability.
When and if the manufacturers cuts costs, the areas that will likely receive cheaper and lower quality parts will be in areas the customer might not notice from the driver’s seat.
The Importance of an Independent German Auto Mechanic
In certain instances, German cars have become so complex and maintenance intensive that some mechanics will shy away from working on them entirely, particularly in regards to the more expensive and high-end models. Their reluctance to work on high-end German automobiles often is attributed to their intricate designs, exotic engine designs and extremely complex electrical systems.
These concerns, coupled with expensive maintenance and repairs from dealerships when the manufacturer warranties expire, means that it is more important than ever to find a trustworthy, experienced and knowledgeable independent German auto mechanic. Such a mechanic will be your greatest ally for keeping your German car running at it’s best and help you avoid and address issues in the most cost-effective manner possible.