Ask anyone what they think the most reliable brand of car is, and they will probably say “Toyota”.
Ask anyone what they think the most reliable brand of luxury car is, and the answer will probably be “Lexus”.
Don’t believe us? All you need to do is “rev up your engines” and watch a Scotty Kilmer video on YouTube:
Even the least car-savvy person could probably name a number of Toyota models that are famed for reliability, such as:
- Land Cruiser
Toyota reliability is so legendary that even Top Gear set out to see just how indestructible a Toyota is:
Militaries and militant organisations tend to be fans as well:
There’s a reason why the Toyota Landcruiser is the vehicle of choice for the United Nations in Africa, or for outback exploration in Australia.
Long story short, Toyota and Lexus cars are prized worldwide for their supposedly superior reliability and durability.
In this edition of Car Facts, we seek to get to the bottom of the issue of Toyota’s legendary reliability and answer the question “Why are Toyotas so reliable?”
As part of this, we will also examine the reliability of Lexus cars as well (as Lexus is just the luxury sub-brand of Toyota).
Are Toyotas & Lexus Actually Reliable?
No discussion of Toyota and Lexus reliability is complete without a good old-fashioned personal anecdote. After all, everyone knows someone who has had a Toyota or Lexus that has seemingly lasted forever despite no maintenance or servicing.
Around 5 years ago, I lived in a “flat” (“house share” in other countries) with some friends.
One of the housemates had a late 1990s Toyota Starlet; a small, economical hatchback designed for city driving (although as you would expect from a Japanese manufacturer in the 90s, Toyota also made a rather superb turbo version of the Starlet!).
One day, this housemate asked if anyone else knew how to check the oil in a car after overhearing me talking about checking the oil in my Citroen.
I asked her when the last time she checked the oil was, and she replied “I’ve never checked it.”
I then asked her when she last had the car serviced.
“Never,” came the reply.
She had owned this car for over five years at this point, and had never once had it serviced or even checked the essential fluids.
With great trepidation, I popped the bonnet of this humble little Toyota Starlet, not quite sure what sort of automotive horrors would be lurking underneath.
I pulled out the dipstick, wiped it clean with a rag, and then checked again.
The oil level was perfect.
Okay, the oil wasn’t exactly fresh – but there wasn’t a single leak, and the levels were right where they should be.
I managed to convince the housemate to get her car serviced, and I know for a fact that this particular Starlet is still on the road and working well for its current (new) owner.
Now this is anecdotal evidence of course, but I figured I would put this into the article as one of those “stereotypical Toyota” stories.
You know the ones I mean … the Hilux that someone down the road owns has done a million miles, the Supra running five trillion horsepower on stock internals that is as reliable as a Swiss pacemaker … that sort of thing.
But anecdotal evidence isn’t enough.
After all, anecdotally speaking, the most reliable car I’ve ever owned was an old Citroen – but we all know that Citroen is one of the least reliable car brands internationally, when stats are considered.
So with that in mind, let’s look at Toyota & Lexus reliability “by the numbers” by consulting third party reliability surveys to see what the data has to say!
Toyota & Lexus Reliability – By The Numbers
As any car buyer probably knows, there are a number of different organisations that collate and report data on reliability of car makes and models.
While exact rankings and placings vary from survey to survey, it is a sure bet that most reliability studies will have Toyota and/or Lexus placing within the top five brands for reliability, and often within the top three.
For example, let’s take a look at the current JD Power rankings:
You can see Lexus at position two, and Toyota at position five in terms of lowest number of “problems per 100 vehicles”.
Reliability Index rates the Toyota IQ as the most reliable car in the UK, based on real-world warranty claims.
A 2019 survey by What Car? Magazine (looking at Britain’s most reliable cars) placed Lexus at number one for reliability, and Toyota at number two. This data was based on surveys from over 18,000 car drivers.
According to a recent RepairPal survey in the USA, Toyota & Lexus didn’t perform as well as in some of the other surveys we mentioned here but still ranked in the top 10 most reliable brands at 7 for Lexus and 8 for Toyota.
A detailed, recent Consumer Reports study for 2020 found has Toyota and Lexus vehicles featuring prominently in the reliability stakes.
Long story short, while the exact placement of Toyota and Lexus vehicles may vary in reliability studies, there is certainly plenty of data (along with anecdotal evidence) to support the notion of their superior reliability when compared to many other manufacturers.
We could spend all day looking at different reliability studies, and you’ll almost always find Toyota and/or Lexus ranking prominently.
Is Perception A Factor?
One other matter to consider is that of perception.
As buyers/owners generally perceive Toyota and Lexus cars to be more reliable, they may be less likely to report faults, which may then feed back into public perception of the brand.
If you buy a used Range Rover, you expect it to blow up every five seconds in spectacularly expensive fashion. You are “mentally prepared” (hopefully) for the worst case, and anything that does go wrong you will probably be open about.
However, because you expect a Toyota or Lexus to be reliable, you may be less inclined to complain if/when something does go wrong … if this argument makes sense?
A word of warning here: Because of Toyota’s stellar reputation for reliability and durability, it is our experience here at Garage Dreams that Toyotas do have a reputation of falling into the hands of people who do not always do the best job of maintenance.
This can be because the owner perceives that their Toyota is so reliable it doesn’t really need maintenance, or at the budget end of the market they have bought a Toyota because they want cheap, reliable transport that is less likely to throw big bills. If you are of more modest means, you are probably better served with a Toyota Corolla than a cheap BMW or Mercedes, for example.
Certainly, here in NZ, it is more common to see a European car with full service history than a Japanese car (especially something like a Toyota).
However, as with all second hand cars you generally must buy on condition anyway – unless you are looking out for something very particular in the service history (a non-Toyota example would be something like checking for an engine rebuild on a Mazda RX-8).
Lexus cars don’t seem to suffer this phenomenon so badly, generally because they are aimed at the higher end of the market where owners are probably going to be able to more easily afford maintenance and repairs. The exception here tends to be Lexus cars that have fallen into the hands of “aspirational” owners who want to be seen to drive a luxury brand but cannot afford the requisite maintenance – be careful here.
Why Are Toyota & Lexus Cars So Reliable?
Now we come to the crux of the article.
We’ve established that Toyota and Lexus cars generally are more reliable than other brands.
What is it about Toyota & Lexus that makes these vehicles more reliable than average?
From our research, here are some of the key reasons for Toyota & Lexus reliability:
Why Toyota & Lexus Cars Are So Reliable:
- Toyota is a “conservative” brand (I do not use this term in a political sense). They are patient and diligent when it comes to making changes that might affect durability ore reliability, rather than chasing the use of cutting-edge technology. This isn’t always the case of course, as Toyota we’re quick to the party – and successful – with the Hybrid Prius for example, but as a rule Toyota executives and engineers take their time with the development and implementation of new technology that other manufacturers may dive head first into. Take a vehicle such as the Corolla – while other manufacturers are generally building economy passenger cars with small turbo engines, Toyota uses a larger naturally-aspirated engine that is less complicated and less likely to break.
- Toyotas tend to focus on function over form. Lexus is a little different being a luxury brand, but even compared to Mercedes, Audi etc there is a tendency towards functionality over “flashiness”. If you compare a Toyota of just about any class/type to similar vehicles from similar manufacturers, you will probably notice that the Toyota will generally be more basic and functional in terms of features. For example, a base Corolla is definitely not as luxurious or well-appointed as a base Golf. Even higher spec Toyotas tend to be a bit less luxurious and feature-packed when compared to the competition. Toyota cars are generally never the most innovative, interesting, economical or best performing in their segment – and this is not a criticism. Instead, they are built to last, which is a good thing in our opinion!
- Another reason for the superior reliability of Toyota vehicles is “localization” of vehicles. What this means is that Toyota engineers will often make changes to a car depending on where it is sold in the world, and based on local requirements and conditions. Compare this to say a German car maker like BMW, who will design and build a car for German conditions whereas its “use case” somewhere like Australia (as well as operating environment i.e. temperatures and climate) might be very different. There is an interesting thread on Reddit where a former Toyota employee goes into more detail on this topic. Long story short, Toyota has regional design houses that localize the design and engineering of vehicles to best suit local conditions and requirements. This quote sums up this concept of localization:
- Anyone who has driven an Australian-built Toyota compared with Japanese-built models will know about this, as they tended to have suspension setups made for more demanding local roads.
- Perhaps the most important factor behind the reliability of Toyota and Lexus cars is the management and manufacturing process and ethos. The “Toyota Production System” – originally called “just-in-time production” focuses on designing out overburdern, inconsistency and eliminating waste. Toyota’s production systems and management processes are legendary in the world of manufacturing and business (in fact, there is a whole industry out there that basically consists of other businesses trying to apply Toyota’s principles to their own organizations, with a litany of consultants and third parties assisting in this). There is simply too much I could cover in this article about Toyota’s management and manufacturing philosophies and processes, but a simple overview of the key points to consider is:
- A focus on a “culture of quality”. Employees, managers etc are instructed, expected and incentivized to focus on quality as opposed to sheer output. If an issue is detected, the production process will be shut down until it is solved. This is the “Toyota Production System” at heart.
- Strong supplier relationships. Toyota has good relationships with suppliers to ensure they get the best possible parts, and they will drop suppliers whose product is found wanting.
- Innovation and improvement in manufacturing. Some have argued that Toyota has made the biggest contribution to manufacturing since the development of the Ford assembly line in the early 20th Century. Toyota embraced and improved on the principles of lean manufacturing. Interestingly enough, a big driver of this (along with the post-WW2 growth of Japanese manufacturing in general) was an American by the name of W. Edwards Deming. He took American manufacturing and management principles that were used to success in WW2 but discarded thereafter, and used them to great success in Japan to help develop their manufacturing industry. This episode of the This American Life podcast, which chronicles a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors, does a better job of explaining than I can. This article also provides some interesting insight.
- Toyota focuses on the development and production of reliable cars, rather than the most exciting or innovative vehicles. For example, if you look at Toyota’s current vehicle line-up, the majority of vehicles in it are designed to be reliable, utilitarian transport (think Corolla, Camry, Land Cruiser, Prius and so on). The only real exceptions are some TRD-tuned models and the Supra (which – as we all know by know – borrows most of the go-fast bits from BMW). Compare this to a manufacturer like Mercedes-Benz. While Mercedes-Benz does make “normal” cars, a great deal of emphasis is placed on their AMG models that are built for power, excitement and fun first and foremost. This wasn’t always the case, with Toyota building a number of exciting cars in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s – but even those had a reputation for generally being more reliable than competing models.
- Japanese culture also seems to play a role in Toyota’s reliability (and that of other Japanese brands as well). It is part of the national psyche to strive for excellence and avoid “losing face” which might come from creating an inferior product. From the lowest worker to the executive board, Japanese culture takes loyalty to the company and pride in work very seriously, and this tends to reflect in the quality of Japanese cars – as well as other products from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Conclusion – Why Are Toyotas So Reliable?
As you can see from this article, there are a number of reasons why Toyota and Lexus cars are so reliable.
There is no single factor that solely determines the generally-accepted-to-be-superior reliability of Toyota cars.
Instead, it is a combination of philosophy, technology and methodology that combine to make Toyota the name most synonymous with automotive reliability.
Toyota’s reputation for reliability and durability is certainly no fluke, and not down to chance.
It is the culmination of many years of hard work and innovation by many talented individuals, as well as a culture that supports these outcomes.
To recap, the biggest reasons for Toyota and Lexus reliability are:
- Toyota tends to be conservative in the adoption of new, potentially unproven technologies, and instead prefers to refine existing designs and technology gradually over time.
- From an organisational perspective, Toyota has a management structure and ‘ethos’ that is dedicated to producing the best possible outcomes in terms of technology. This is perhaps the biggest factor, sometimes referred to as the “Toyota Way”. There is a whole lot of reading out there on this subject (far beyond the scope of this humble blog) – I suggest you start with reading The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer if this subject interests you … this article just scratches the surface.
- Toyota focuses on building durable, reliable cars as opposed to necessarily the most exciting vehicles in the world.
- Local design houses mean that cars can be customised for the local market in which they are to be sold, making them better for local market conditions. For example, if a particular market needs beefier suspension, then you are probably going to see that on the localised model.
Toyota are slow to adopt new, unproven technologies. Other manufacturers dive in headfirst into adopting new technologies that might provide various benefits to drivers and owners, but aren’t necessarily proven. This goes against Toyota’s ethos.
Fundamentally, Toyota and Lexus’ reliability is built on superior manufacturing processes and management methodology.
As we mentioned earlier, this does not mean that Toyotas are free from reliability issues. You still need to maintain a Toyota, and you may still have issues.
However, when looking at both stats and anecdotal evidence (for what it’s worth!) you can say with certainty that Toyota and Lexus tend to come out on top.
Make sure you check out our growing list of Toyota and Lexus buying guides on this site, including:
We also have more buyer’s guides in the pipeline, so don’t forget to check back regularly.
Finally, we would also appreciate any comments or feedback on this article (positive or negative). Just use the comment function to get in touch with us.
If you know anyone who would like to read this article, then please consider sending it on to them as well.