The Hunt for a Reliable Car: What Matters

Looking to upgrade your set of wheels? Reliability matters. We speak with Michael Case from the RACV regarding what to look out for in your next ride.

In days gone by, sourcing a trusty set of wheels was often as easy as asking a mechanically minded mate whether to go Ford or Holden, and then casting an eye over the local trading post.

But times have changed, the number of car brands and models feels infinite, the trading post has been usurped by a sea of crowdsourced classifieds, and your mate's more likely to be able to tell you how to prepare the perfect smashed avocado on toast than whether the 2013 Mazda3 Maxx Sport is any good.

So with the help of mechanical engineer Michael Case, who has spent the past 29 years in vehicle testing, research and development at the Royal Automotive Club of Victoria, we've laid out some simple steps for hunting down a car that's hopefully going to last you a trouble-free decade, rather than one or two torturous years.

Consider your needs ... not wants

"There are never any iron-clad guarantees but there's definitely some things you can do to increase your chances of buying a more reliable car," says Case. "The first thing is deciding what your motoring needs are, because every car is designed for a particular purpose."

"Small cars, for example, are designed for use around town or shorter country trips, and perform those functions really well, but you wouldn't want to pack your family and expect to go around Australia, because they're not designed to do that."

"Avoid buying something that you might like the look of and that feels good to drive but that isn't what you really need, because it just might compromise reliability."

Do some digging

Whether you're buying a new or used car, some simple research on the makes and models you are interested in will set you on the road to worry-free ownership.

Particularly for new car buyers, Case strongly advocates the website ProductReview, where buyers can see feedback from everyday drivers on almost any car make and model.

"It contains reviews from car buyers of not just when they first drove the car, but what their ownership experience has actually been like," says Case.

"You can begin to see the themes, and each review published gives a star rating, so you can actually see that there are some models that consistently score more from consumers than others."

Used and abused?

While new cars offer the protection of a warranty to help ease the mind, used cars bring into play the issue of how well the previous owner has cared for the vehicle.

"If cars are not serviced properly, it could well affect their reliability; more because they have been neglected then they are inherently unreliable," says Case.

"When you're buying a second-hand car, its service history is absolutely critical and you need to see evidence with the owner's handbook, which must be completed by a proper service outlet."

An absolute must, says Case, is a vehicle inspection by a reputable, independent service centre.

"Inspectors often know what particular models might have typical faults, they know where to look on every different model and they know what they're looking at as to whether it's working properly or not."

"Inspection costs (ranging upward from $200) at first glance looks like a lot, but if you spend a couple of hundred dollars and avoid buying a vehicle you shouldn't and may have to spend thousands on, then that makes it a really good investment."

Toast your new wheels ... but don't get burnt

As you sit back and admire your ultra-reliable new wheels through the kitchen window, remember that vigilance should not end at purchase.

"What's critical is to keep the car serviced according to the manufacturer's schedule," says Case.

"When you're buying a second-hand car, its service history is absolutely critical and you need to see evidence with the owner's handbook, which must be completed by a proper service outlet."

"Have it serviced by the kilometer or time requirement, whichever comes first, and that will ensure the reliability of the vehicle and make it worth more later on when you come to sell it."