Why Are Japanese Cars More Reliable?

It’s no small secret that most buyers tend to rate Japanese cars as being more reliable.

Ask someone what to buy if you’re looking for a reliable car, and you’ll probably be told to look at Toyotas, Hondas etc.

While there are always variations at an individual vehicle level, when you look at reliability surveys etc that study the market as a whole, it does generally seem that Japanese cars are more reliable.

Japanese car brands tend to dominate reliability studies and surveys. For example, a 2017 “What Car?” survey found that 6 of the top 10 brands in terms of reliability were Japanese.

Recently I wrote an article on why Toyota & Lexus cars are so reliable, but today we are going one step further and looking at the Japanese car industry as a whole.

Why are Japanese cars more reliable than their European or American counterparts?

Is this actually true at all? Or is it just a myth?

Keep reading as we delve into the secrets of Japanese car reliability.

Car Reliability Is Something We Take For Granted These Days

My parents grew up in the UK in the 60s and 70s.

According to my dad, a common sound in the mornings (especially in winter) was the sound of people trying desperately to start their cars in the morning.

Cranking engines, popping bonnets, and cries of ‘start, you bastard’ (or words to that effect) weren’t uncommon.

Top Gear also covered this in one of their cheap car challenges, where the presenters are tasked with buying cheap British Leyland cars and have to drive them around a track against a Datsun 120Y.

As Jeremy Clarkson says in the episode “[the 120Y] showed the world cars could be reliable].

Excuse the poor quality of this clip, but you can see around 10:20 the segment in question:

The truth is that having a reliable car is something we take for granted in the 21st Century.

Even if new cars do have reliability issues, it is vanishingly rare that the issue will involve the car not starting at all or suffering a serious breakdown.

Instead, reliability issues tend to be more niggly issues.

However, in the 60s and 70s – before Japanese vehicles really exploded on to the scene – cars were often rather unreliable and prone to serious issues on a frequent basis.

Therefore, we cannot understate the impact that Japanese cars have had on motoring in regards to reliability.

It is thanks to brands like Nissan, Toyota and Honda that a generation of car buyers were able to get into actually reliable vehicles for the first time, and other manufacturers were forced to keep up (thus helping the entire industry to innovate).

Those early Japanese vehicles that came to Europe and America in the 70s are a big part of the reason why we enjoy much more reliable vehicles today.

Reasons For Japanese Car Reliability:

Now we’ve established that Japanese cars generally are more reliable, and also the impact of this on the car market as a whole, we need to look at why Japanese cars are generally better in the reliability stakes.

As we covered in our piece on why Toyotas are so reliable, there are actually a few reasons for this rather than any one single reason:

Manufacturing & Management Process

One of the biggest factors in why Japanese cars are generally more reliable is the production processes that Japanese brands pioneered.

Following WW2, Japanese industry was forced to adapt and rebuild. Japanese manufacturers couldn’t afford assembly lines as complex as those in the United States or Europe, so were forced to “make do with less” and develop processes and procedures that worked with more limited resources.

There was little room for error, and because of this employees were encouraged and expected to halt the production process upon spotting a defect (in USA and Europe, mass production lines would continue and then the defect was to be fixed “after the fact”).

An American by the name of W. Edwards Deming was integral to the development of Japan’s superior manufacturing and management processes, with the ultimate example being the “Toyota Production System”. His principles were designed to reduce waste, improve output and constantly refine and enhance what was being made.

Diagram of the Toyota Production System

The impact of his work on Japanese manufacturing (particularly Toyota) is a detailed field of study and beyond the scope of this article, but here are some interesting resources you might like to consult.

For the purposes of determining why Japanese cars are more reliable, suffice it to say that Japanese management and manufacturing processes developed to promote superior reliability through a focus on improving efficiency, reducing waste, spotting and fixing faults before they got out of control, and ultimately gradual refinement and improvement as opposed to sheer output at any cost.

Cultural Differences

Japanese culture plays a part in the reliability of the cars they produce. Loyalty to the company and pride in output are critical components of Japanese culture.

There is a cultural desire to avoid “losing face”. This is not to say that European or American car makers take no pride in their work.

However, ask anyone who has been to Japan or lived there (the founder of this site actually likes in Tokyo at present) and they will tell you that Japanese workers generally have a different level of loyalty to their organisations and achieving goals.

Labor laws and conditions also play a part here, and were especially important in the earlier days of Japanese car brands breaking in to the European and American markets.

To use the British Leyland example from earlier, basically the workers in BL plants spent much of their time on strike, working to rule, or otherwise taking other forms of industrial action (this is a gross oversimplification, but this article is not focused on BL)

This led to reduced output and quality, as well as antagonism between workers and their managers, resulting in a loss of pride in output and “care”.

While the engineers may have developed some truly innovative and interesting vehicles, there was simply not the cultural environment that promoted quality manufacturing. This resulted in cars that might have had some clever design elements, but generally poor build quality.

Compare this to Japan, where labour laws and customs promoted a more cohesive and cooperative environment that clearly led to better quality vehicles being produced.

Conservatism In Design & Development

Japanese car makers tend to be more conservative in the development, uptake and implementation of new technologies.

Although this isn’t always the case and there are exceptions to the rule, it is generally accepted that Japanese car manufacturers tend to move less quickly when it comes to adopting and implementing potentially unproven technologies in their vehicles.

European brands tend to be far more comfortable with developing and rolling out new technologies in shorter time frames. The downside of this is that Japanese cars are rarely the most innovative, and are generally never the most exciting or luxurious to drive in their respective class (compare a VW Polo to a Toyota Yaris, for example, and you’ll see what I mean).

It’s not uncommon to see a small Euro hatchback with a twin clutch gearbox and high output turbo engine, whereas a Japanese car will run a conventional automatic with a less powerful naturally-aspirated engine.

With European and American vehicles you’ll often get more in the way of creature comforts and technology. Japanese car makers also tend to like innovating and refining on one piece of technology for a longer time frame, as opposed to jumping from one piece of tech to another.

Take Subaru, for example, who have been refining their AWD system for decades now and using it in almost all of their cars.

Subaru has been improving their AWD system for years.

Focus On Reliable Types Of Vehicles

Japanese car makers also tend to focus on the design and creation of more reliable types of vehicles. Take a manufacturer like Honda; most of their vehicles are designed to be economical, reliable transportation – the only real performance vehicle they make these days is the Civic Type R.

Compare this to European manufacturers, especially German brands, who tend to focus their brand image and output around their luxury and performance models e.g. Mercedes AMG or Audi RS. European manufacturers also tend to build their cars for the satisfaction and enjoyment of the first owner, who will probably have the car for 3-5 years depending on how long the finance period is.

Although Japanese car makers tended to have a more diverse array of “fun cars” in the 80s/90s/early 2000s, these days they tend to focus more on building reliable city cars, sedans and family SUVs, with the occasional performance model thrown in to boot.

A typical Japanese brand showroom will not tend to contain the most exciting cars in the world. You don’t go to Toyota or Honda for oodles of fun and excitement (Supra and Civic Type R aside). Instead, you go because you want a quality, durable vehicle that gets the job done.

Conclusion – Why Are Japanese Cars More Reliable?

As you can see, there are a number of reasons why Japanese cars are generally considered to be more reliable than European and American vehicles.

To recap, the biggest reasons are:

  1. Japanese manufacturing processes developed in the 20th Century that promoted reduced waste, improved efficiency, and a focus on eliminating technical faults at the expense of sheer output. Look up “lean manufacturing” if this concept interests you further.
  2. Japanese vehicles and makers tend to be more conservative in the adoption and implementation of unproven technologies.
  3. Many Japanese manufacturers focus on the development and building of reliable, economical family cars as opposed to performance vehicles.
  4. Japanese corporate and societal culture plays a role as well.

It’s also important to bear in mind that Japanese cars aren’t free from problems. Look at issues like Toyota’s accelerator scandal, which resulted in deaths, injuries and millions of dollars in settlements.

It is issues like these that have led some to argue that modern Japanese cars aren’t really that much better than their American or European counterparts (i.e. Japan basically “lost its way” in the mid 2000s and is trading on the reputation of days bygone).

Japanese manufacturing in general isn’t immune to problems – one only needs to study the history of the Takata airbag scandal to see this first hand; this issue is still resulting in vehicle recalls!

However, it is also clear that Japanese manufacturers do place value and pride in reliability, and that the Japanese car industry as a whole was integral in improving the reliability of cars across the board.

It is because of those early vehicles that we enjoy cars that last longer and work more reliably these days.

If you have any questions, comments or concerns about this article, then feel free to leave a comment below – we would love to hear from you.

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