Want something that will outlast you?
Reliability is a hard thing to pin down when it comes to cars. Companies like JD Power and Consumer Reports use initial surveys and predictive methods when it comes to brand new vehicles. However, you can't call with certainty how reliable a 2020 model year car is when we're in 2020. What we can do is figure out what the most reliable cars in recent history are based on their documented endurance and reputations. This is not a scientific list, but we believe, given our collective knowledge and experience, that it's a good one.
If you listen to the internet, you would believe that all German cars are money pits. The vast majority of that reputation comes from the cost of ownership, and second and third owners deferring on maintenance. Of course, not all German cars are born equal, and the W124 generation stands head and shoulders above the rest as possibly the most reliable luxury sedan around. Built between 1984 and 1995, the E-Class is known for going anywhere up to 500,000 miles with just minor repair issues. Nowadays, if you can find one with just 100,000 miles on the clock and all its maintenance records, the 4.2-liter V8 has only just been broken in. Just remember, luxury cars cost luxury money for routine maintenance.
If you want something newer, and even off the dealer's lot, you can't go wrong with a Toyota 4Runner for longevity. The current generation has been in production since 2010, so it's a proven platform, although not the cushiest and most tech-laden SUV on the market. If anything, it's low-tech level can only help in the long term as there's less to go wrong. The 4Runner's 4.0-liter V6 is a relentless little workhorse making 270 hp and 278 lb-ft of torque sent to the dirt via an uncomplicated 5-speed automatic transmission.
When it comes to the MX-5, just pick a generation and go with it. It's the little sports car than can, and seemingly forever. We've seen examples that have been beaten on through three or four owners and keep going well over 200,000 miles with little complaint. Part of that is down to maintenance being cheap, and the rest is down to the MX-5 being so well built in the first place. Initial reports on the 2020 MX-5 model are looking good, and we see no reason to doubt that this generation won't keep on going like every other model since 1995.
The Camry has achieved legendary status for its dogged reliability. Anecdotally, we have neighbors with his and hers 2004 models showing over 250,000 miles on one and 300,000 on the other. They only change the oil when one of them remembers it has been a while. There's also a high chance that you'll see an old nondescript Camry today if you live somewhere busy. Consumer Reports has had the Camry's reliability ratings at the top of its charts since the early 2000s, but this generation is still new. It's unlikely Toyota isn't going to be anything but careful to keep building on the Camry's reputation, though.
The only reason the Honda Accord isn't on this list is that the Camry has a bigger reputation. The Civic has built its reputation for frugal reliability since 1972. However, talk to a connoisseur, and they will likely point you to the fifth generation built from 1991-1994 for longevity. At 150,000 miles, the engine is only just broken in, and It had an EPA fuel economy rating of 44 mpg in the city and 51 mpg on the highway, although horsepower was only 70 to 125. The Si version was available in the US with all the glory of its single-overhead camshaft and VTEC power. The Civic is still noted for its longevity, and the fact you see so many around who's first owners learned to drive in them is a testament to that.
In reality, any rear-wheel-drive Volvo deserves to be on this list. The 700 series is probably the most easily identifiable as you'll still see them on the road today. Not just as old beaters, but as tuner cars as the chassis are ridiculously stout and the engine bays so convenient for engine swaps. Volvo didn't use to care about being sleek or fashionable and just built the most solid, safe, and dependable cars it could. Going back in time, there's a 1966 Volvo P1800 in the Guinness Book Of World Records. It was owned by Irv Gordon and hit 3.2 million miles on the odometer before he died.
The very first Lexus has a legendary status for reliability. When Toyota sent its luxury brand out of the gate, it did so after a long development period and a massive budget. The result was a V8-powered sedan that intruded on Mercedes and BMW's hallowed ground. Recently, auto journalist Matt Farah got his Lexus LS 400 up to one million miles by loaning it out to friends and other auto scribes. However, the Japanese luxury sedan does have a few common issues that can crop up. One is an exhaust leak that isn't a big deal, but if the starter motor starts to fail, that means there's an expensive visit to the shop coming up. The part isn't expensive, but it's buried in the V of the V8 under the intake and fuel injection components, and labor costs will mount up.
The Toyota Corolla matches its larger Camry counterpart for dependability. It's one of the best selling cars in the world and reached its reliability peak in the 2000s. From 1999, Toyota's 1.8-liter engine was a mainstay in the Corolla and remained in the Japanese automaker's range for 20 years. The engine has its own reputation for reliability but helped make generation nine, ten, and eleven of the Corolla as close to indestructible as a car can get.
While college professors favored the Volvo 740 at the end of the last century, the Saab 900 was the choice of yuppies that didn't want a BMW. Like Volvo's cars, Saab built its cars to last and if you see a Saab on the road, then chances are high that it's in excellent condition. There's a 1989 Saab 900 SPG that was donated with over a million miles registered in the Wisconsin Automotive Museum. Anecdotally, there's a 1983 900 Turbo in Maine that's reportedly driven across the country twice a year. It was last seen with over 400,000 miles on the odometer without much more than regular maintenance. It's just a shame Saab itself didn't last so long.
The original Volkswagen Beetle is still a common sight in some parts of the world. The main reason is that when one of the few parts on a Beetle does eventually fail, it's easy to fix. While it went out of production in most of the world in 1978, it carried on in Brazil and Mexico. The last one of a 30,000 unit batch rolled out of Puebla, Mexico, in July 2003 as a 2004 model year vehicle. Even in worst-case scenarios, a good home mechanic can pull the air-cooled engine out of the back in an hour, and an experienced shop in as little as 20 minutes. It's hard to kill a car that's so easy and inexpensive to maintain and repair.