How to Choose a Car: The Best and Worst Brands

There is no getting around it. If it has four wheels and an engine, I love it! From a finance perspective, this can be a dangerous area. But a little knowledge goes a long way towards solving that problem. I could write at least one book on this subject but I think I’m going to approach it one topic per post. In this one, I’m going to talk about which brands are best and worst from a financial perspective. I’m not going to cover every single brand that exists – only the more common ones that are either at the top of the heap or the bottom. I will touch on cars and trucks here but I will not talk about SUVs simply because I know nothing about them. Why not? I’m a finance guy and approach everything from that perspective. So in my world, SUVs basically don’t exist. As you will notice as this post progresses, you need to look beyond the brand name because those get bought and sold all the time. Who actually does the manufacturing is much more important than the logo they’re slapping on the product.

With cars, I have to start with Toyota/Lexus. They are simply the best of the best. It starts with their manufacturing process. These guys are absolutely obsessive about efficiency and quality control and it shows in everything they produce. They have very few misses. Almost any of their cars are very reliable, efficient, and refined, and as a result, the cost of ownership is low. That said, they are not perfect. While they’ve gained ground in recent years, especially with the Lexus brand, they are a little weak on the design side, both interior and exterior. And as a former Supra owner, I am horrified and disgusted at the way the name is being bastardized today. That car appears to be more BMW than Toyota and bears little resemblance to the legend it shares its name with. That said, I’m sure it will sell very well; just not to those of us who loved the original for what it was – a beautiful, relatively reliable, extremely modifiable, high performance machine at a surprisingly low price.

While not quite up to Toyota’s standard, Honda/Acura is a solid choice as well. Originally a motorcycle manufacturer, Honda is a little more performance oriented than Toyota. Their reliability and efficiency are also great although both are a definite step below Toyota’s. In my opinion, their design is hideous – especially with their Acura brand – but I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One other Asian manufacturer that deserves a mention is Hyundai/Kia/Genesis. These cars were much maligned years ago but they have come a long way. Today they are nearly competitive with Toyota and Honda on reliability and efficiency. And as a bonus, because they are still working through their reputation struggles of the past, they are very value oriented. They tend to offer features you normally don’t see at their price points. I would expect Hyundai’s new Genesis luxury brand to continue that trend and offer a very competitive value relative to that of its competition.

On the truck side, things are a little simpler; get a Ford. The F150 has been outselling the competition for a very long time and with good reason. It is the best truck, period. There are plenty of good competitors here – the Silverado/Sierra and the Tundra at full size and the Ridgeline, Tacoma, and Colorado/Canyon at mid size. That is the smallest trucks go these days unless you want a Nissan Frontier, which is the lone small, cheap truck left in existence (sadly, the legend in this category, the Ranger, is coming back as an F150 Light, a similar bastardization to that of the Supra). In general, I don’t recommend Nissan as it is a middle of the pack manufacturer but in this case, it is the only option. Trucks are very expensive so I would only advocate buying one if you genuinely need it. But if you are going to use a truck as a truck, a Ford is a no brainer.

Those are the best brands. Which ones should you stay away from? If we’re talking about cars, anything American is a pass. The big three (Ford, GM, Fiat/Chrysler) have huge legacy costs that go into every vehicle they produce. With big, expensive vehicles like trucks, they can make it work. With cars, it simply handicaps them too much. The best evidence of this is their reliability. With the better Asian brands, you can usually get the odometer to six digits without doing much more than changing oil, brakes, etc. If you pull that off with an American car, count yourself lucky and sell it soon because that luck won’t last forever. That trend only accelerates as the mileage gets higher.

And please don’t be fooled by Chevy’s incredibly irritating JD Power commercials. They are flat out bullshit. A lot of money changes hands when it comes to using JD Power awards in marketing and they are dubious at best anyway. In fact, some other manufacturers took Chevy to task on this recently, pointing out some of the most blatant lies and threatening to take legal action. While refusing to admit to anything, Chevy wisely pulled the ads in question, tacitly revealing the reality of the situation in the process. It shouldn’t have had to come to that but it’s a great example of how low the standard for truth in advertising actually is. I ignore 99% of it in all forms and I highly recommend you adopt that policy as well if you haven’t already.

Aside from American branded cars, I don’t recommend anything German because of reliability issues and overall high cost of ownership. They manufacture everything with very tight tolerances and the result is that while the quality of the better brands (BMW and Mercedes Benz) is very high at first, it goes downhill quickly from there and maintenance/repairs are not cheap. Volkswagen (including Audi, Porsche, and some other brands under the same ownership) is on the automatic pass list. I don’t recommend anything British (or formerly British brands like Jaguar) as their reliability is atrocious, particularly when it comes to electrical issues. And finally, while Fiat/Chrysler vehicles (Dodge, Jeep, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, and a handful of other brands are included under this banner) are usually cheaper than their competition, there is a good reason for that. They are simply some of the worst vehicles on the road. Efficiency and build quality are usually poor while reliability is worse. This was the case long before Fiat got involved and it hasn’t changed. And let’s not forget that the Ram logo is literally a vagina. You can’t make this stuff up.

To sum this all up, if you’re looking for a car, you want Toyota/Lexus, Honda/Acura, or Hyundai/Kia/Genesis. If you’re actually going to use a truck, stick with Ford. If I didn’t mention a particular brand or group of brands (ie German cars), that means it is somewhere in the middle – not among the worst but not among the best either. And who wants to pay good money for something average? Obviously you still want to research individual models but in general, if you stick to the best brands I’ve listed here AND take care of whatever you buy, you are very likely to come out ahead.

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