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Hyundai Unseats Toyota As Most Reliable Car

By Aaron Crowe

If your car’s “check engine” light comes on a lot and sends you on an expensive trip to the mechanic too often, you might want to consider buying a Hyundai.

Hyundai passed Toyota for the top spot in CarMD’s annual ranking of manufacturer and vehicle reliability for having low frequency of repairs and low repair costs. The new list was released Dec. 3 and this is the third year the company has issued the report.

“They’re just really solid, low cost, low maintenance vehicles,” says Kristin Brocoff, a spokeswoman for CarMD, a provider of car repair data.

The Vehicle Health Index is based on more than 151,000 repairs performed on model year 2003 to 2013 vehicles from Oct. 1, 2012, to Sept. 30, 2013. The U.S. government mandated in 1996 that on-board diagnostic systems be included in all vehicles as a way to detect malfunctions and turn on the “check engine” light if there’s a problem.

Part of the index ranking is based on repair costs of parts and labor. The national average for repair costs was $367.84. Of the top 10 vehicle manufacturers in the index, General Motors had the lowest average repair cost at $304.99, and Toyota had the highest at $540.33.

Here are the top 10 car makers in CarMD’s index, followed by their average repair costs and the overall 2013 index rating. The lower the index rating, the better the score.

  1. Hyundai: $312.67, 0.80 index rating
  2. Toyota: $540.53, 0.86
  3. GM: $304.99, 0.91
  4. Chrysler: $325.38, 0.96
  5. Honda: $469.93, 0.97
  6. Ford: $385.82, 1.04
  7. Nissan: $404.61, 1.09
  8. Kia: $346.92, 1.56
  9. Volkswagen: $438.35, 1.79
  10. Mitsubishi: $472.96, 2.84

Cheapest repairs for GM

GM had improved scores for repair frequency and repair costs. On average, GM repairs had a 17% increase in average labor rates, with a 5% drop in parts costs, Brocoff says.

“When labor costs rise it can be from shops increasing their rates to keep up with the rising cost of doing business, but it can also have to do with more complex repairs that take more hours to complete,” she says.

GM saw a slight drop in catalytic converter repairs — normally an expensive item at $700 in parts alone. Parts costs typically drop as owners take better care of their vehicles and trade up to newer vehicles, Brocoff says.

Some of the best news for GM drivers may be that 11.71% of GM repairs were for a loose, damaged or missing gas cap, and that such fixes are typically free and only require tightening the cap. The downside is that more GM drivers have to take the time to get that problem checked when their check engine light come on.

Toyotas most expensive to fix

Toyota was ranked the top manufacturer the previous year, but dropped to number two this year because it had a 52% increase in repair frequency.

Toyota had the highest overall repair costs, mainly because the five vehicles with the highest average repair costs were Toyota Prius hybrids. The 2012 Toyota Camry and the 2010 Toyota 4 Runner, however, had low repair costs at less than $100 on average.

A hybrid battery costs as much as $3,130 to replace, Brocoff says, and since many hybrid cars are getting close to 10 years old, they may soon need a new battery. Such batteries cost $6,000 to $7,000 to replace only about four years ago, she says, so the cost is coming down significantly.

When hybrid repairs are removed from Toyota’s average repair cost of $540, Toyota’s average repair cost drops to $470, Brocoff says.

Common repairs

Different types of vehicles tend to have a unique set of failures, the CarMD report found. “Replace Oxygen Sensor” — a sensor that measures the amount of unburned oxygen in the exhaust and tells a car’s computer when there is either too much or not enough fuel as compared with oxygen for ideal operation — was the most common repair, accounting for 8.31% of all check engine related repairs last year. If the sensor isn’t repaired, the car’s gas mileage can drop by as much as 40%.

Oxygen sensor repairs accounted for 21.5% of Suzuki repairs and 13.75% of Hyundai repairs in the past year.

The next most common repairs for “check engine” repairs were a loose gas cap, catalytic converter, ignition coil, and spark plugs.

“Replace Ignition Control Module” was also popular. It sounds like something NASA would require in space but is a system that manages the electrical current used by the ignition coil to spark the plugs and start the car. It accounted for 29% of Saab repairs last year.

Warnings to inspect or replace the battery charging system accounted for 17.2% of Acura repairs, and 17.8% of check engine lights for Volvo owners were for loose or damaged gas caps.

CarMD listed the top 100 cars in its Vehicle Health Index. For drivers whose car didn’t make the list, it offers a free report to find out how well their car did.

Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for CheapCarInsurance.net.