Adding Context To That Consumer Reports Electric Car Reliability Report

Most everyone in America has seen the screaming headlines. “Consumer Reports pummels electric vehicle reliability,” says a headline in the Detroit Free Press. “Electric vehicles have almost 80% more problems than gas-powered ones,” screeched CBS News. “EVs significantly less reliable than gas-engine cars,” crowed Faux News. Omigosh. The onslaught of negative press made me think about taking a shotgun out to the garage and putting my Model Y out of its misery.

But wait. Before taking such drastic action, I decided to actually read what Consumer Reports had to say. Here is the actual headline from November 29, 2023: “Electric Vehicles Are Less Reliable Than Conventional Cars. Hybrids are the most reliable cars and PHEVs the least reliable in CR’s most recent survey; Tesla’s Model Y is newly recommended.”

Well gosh, if the Mode Y is recommended, perhaps there is more to the story than the headline? So I decided to read the report for myself, something the Detroit Free Press, CBS News, and Faux News didn’t think necessary in their pursuit of excellence in journalism. Here’s what Consumer Reports actually said.

Electric vehicle owners continue to report far more problems with their vehicles than owners of conventional cars or hybrids, according to Consumer Reports’ newly released annual car reliability survey. The survey reveals that, on average, EVs from the past three model years had 79 percent more problems than conventional cars. Based on owner responses on more than 330,000 vehicles, the survey covers 20 potential problem areas, including engine, transmission, electric motors, leaks, and infotainment systems.

“Most electric cars today are being manufactured by either legacy automakers that are new to EV technology, or by companies like Rivian that are new to making cars,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. “It’s not surprising that they’re having growing pains and need some time to work out the bugs.” Fisher says some of the most common problems EV owners report are issues with electric drive motors, charging, and EV batteries. (Note: Charging problems reported by members are with the vehicle, not with home or public chargers.)

Tesla, which has been building EVs for more than a decade, falls near the middle of the pack in terms of brand reliability. Its Model Y, first introduced for model year 2020, is recommended by CR for the first time this year, with owners reporting fewer issues with its suspension, in-car electronics and general build quality than in previous years. The Model Y joins the Model 3 in earning CR Recommended status.

“Tesla’s Model 3 and Model Y are now the sweet spot in the automotive industry when it comes to building electric cars,” Fisher says. “While Tesla is still a relatively new car company, it has more experience producing EVs than any other automaker.”

“While Tesla’s EV components are generally reliable, the company continues to struggle with the build quality of its vehicles,” says Steven Elek, who leads the auto data analytics program at CR. “Tesla powertrains are now pretty solid for the most part, but Tesla owners report a lot of build quality issues including irregular paint, broken trim, door handles that don’t work, and trunks that don’t close. All of these pull down the brand’s reliability score.” (Consumer Reports factors build quality issues that require repair into our reliability calculations, but they are not weighted as heavily as more serious problems, such as those with the engine, transmission, or drivetrain.)

This year’s survey data show that hybrids continue to be among the most reliable vehicle type: Hybrids have 26 percent fewer problems than conventional models, even though they have both a conventional powertrain and an electric motor and therefore more potential problem spots than conventional cars.

“It might not seem that long ago, but Toyota launched the Prius hybrid about 25 years ago,” Elek says. “Automakers have been making hybrids long enough that they’ve gotten really good at it. Plus, many hybrids are also made by manufacturers that tend to produce reliable vehicles overall, such as Toyota, Hyundai, and Kia.”

Hybrids also are not typically loaded with high-tech features like multiple customizable displays that can be problem-prone, which is why Fisher says they are great options for drivers who are more interested in getting ideal fuel mileage than they are in bells and whistles. “These vehicles are not necessarily a tour de force of technology, so there’s just less that can go wrong with them,” he says.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), which have both a battery for short-range electric driving and an internal combustion engine for long range driving, are the least reliable category — 146 percent more problems than conventional cars. “PHEVs are sort of like an EV and a conventional car rolled into one, so by their nature they have more things that can go wrong with them,” Fisher says.

For example, the conventional version of the Chrysler Pacifica minivan has a reliability score high enough to be newly recommended this year. But the reliability score of the PHEV version of the Pacifica is well below average and the model is not recommended. “Issues with the hybrid drivetrain and charging system pull down the minivan’s reliability score,” Elek says.

Fisher says there are always exceptions to these reliability trends, which is why it’s vital to consider the reliability score of any model before buying. “PHEVs as a class are unreliable, but the Toyota RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid is one of the most reliable models in our survey this year. Similarly, the Ford F-150 hybrid has transmission and other issues that buck the trend of strong hybrid reliability.”

Unpacking  The Consumer Reports Reliability Study

Credit: Fritz Hasler

Autoblog decided to look behind the numbers. It says Consumer Reports reworked its methodology for deriving predicted reliability ratings, and updated the questions about problem areas to address issues specific to electrified and electric vehicles. The results still bear out clichés, such as vehicles that have been on the market longer being generally more reliable, and sedans being generally more reliable than SUVs and trucks.

There are 12 potential problem areas specific to battery-electrics, there were 17 potential problem areas for ICE-powered vehicles, 19 for regular hybrids — the 17 ICE problems plus the electric motor and battery pack, and 20 potential problem areas for PHEVs — the 19 from regular hybrids plus EV charging.

Brands were scored on the “weighted overall problem rate for all models within a brand for each model year” combined with a brand’s average result from the 2021 to 2023 or 2024 model year depending on how much info there was for 2024, combined with CR’s owner satisfaction survey and CR’s in-house testing and safety data. The new equation means this year’s result can’t be compared to previous reliability rankings, Autoblog said.

Consumer Reports also grouped powertrains together when discussing reliability, which is where some issues start to appear. Apparently, EVs suffered 79% more problems than gas-powered vehicles. That will undoubtedly lead to shock headlines, but it’s also misleading, Autoblog says. Most EVs are new to the market, which goes back to the cliché mentioned earlier. There are also a lot fewer make/models availability, meaning that simply averaging all models together will result in a few bad apples skewing the results.

Plug-in hybrids fared even worse in this powertrain-to-powertrain reliability analysis. Then again, there are few of them available in the US and two of them, — the Audi Q5 and Pacifica Hybrid — have abysmal reliability ratings that drag the entire category down.

Meanwhile the Toyota RAV4 Prime, Kia Sportage, BMW X5, and Ford Escape plug-in hybrids all posted average to well-above-average scores for reliability but still got dragged down s a group by the Q5 and Pacicica. In other words, Autoblog concludes, “this is a lot more complicated than it seems.”

We reported recently that Ram is working on a PHEV pickup truck called Ramcharger that uses pretty much the same powertain as the Pacifica Hybrid. It seems like a brilliant idea but if it suffers from the same reliability issues as the Pacifica, it will be DOA when it arrives in dealerships.

The Takeaway

CleanTechnica has published many articles on the true cost of ownership of electric cars which find they are almost always cheaper to own then their gas powered cousins. We would like to suggest that there is a vast difference between a piece of ill fitting trim and a major driveline issue that makes a car undriveable.

Electric motors, being rather simple devices, tend to last longer than internal combustion engines and transmissions that have thousands of parts. We also suspect that electronic failures are more common in electric cars equipped with elaborate infotainment systems and self driving software.

My wife and I have been driving electric cars exclusively for the past three years. To date, we have spent precisely nothing on maintenance and repairs. $0.00. What’s that you say? My experience is a small sample size that may skew the results? I couldn’t agree more, but the same can be said of the Consumer Reports survey. Want our advice? Drive electric. Be happy!

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