6 reasons why Japanese cars are more reliable than Continentals

2020 GR Supra

Ok so first of all – the above is a generalization based on reports that track Car Brands’ Reliability records such as this and this.

I myself am of the impression that the above is a sweeping statement, and we can’t use it to generalize all models from Japanese and Continental makes.

But, the perception still holds because you often see friends/conti owners on forums complaining about their unreliable ride and how it has been at the workshop for days or weeks because it’s waiting for parts to be shipped from Europe and how expensive it’s gonna be when the repair bill comes. I get it, i’ve been there myself.

To give you a teaser, I have taken excerpts from an interview with Tetsuya Tada – who is the chief engineer of Toyota, and who was also involved in the collaboration with BMW to create the 5th gen BMW Supra.

From this interview, it’s very clear that there are huge differences in the Japanese and German approach. I’ll summarise what Tetsuya Tada said for you :

We’ve learned a lot from BMW. The task list of each step in car making they expended on R&D was impressive. I almost started to think if they had an infinite budget funding to the task of design. Each step just much more extensive (and expensive) than what we would normally expend in different areas. Just astonishing. I started to doubt myself if this whole thing can be accomplished in a manner that can profit as a product sold as a Toyota.

Tada was amazed by the time, effort and especially the money BMW puts into research and development

Also impressive was the amount of road testing and final tuning they would do on each test mules. You’d think they are working on a final car when you look at the meticulous care they have toward a early testbed. They also love to print a complete modeling and design right down to the location of the badge, before we had decided on the car itself! I mean stacks and stacks of diagrams and blueprints, computer simulations, and so many man-hours of something that isn’t a product yet…

Tada on how rigorous BMW’s validation testing and tuning was on test vehicles

And the tables were turned then BMW was amazed at Toyota’s processes :

…BMW couldn’t believe how extensive some of our quality and efficiency studies were as parts came into shape one by one. We would take every bit down to a fastener or rivet, and put it through our stringent quality control and a dozen other testing, we’d ship thousands of parts back to Japan for analysis. That is normal to us. Each piece we test at our level, they were now the ones surprised.

Hope that gives you an idea of the differences between car makers.

So, after combing through numerous articles, car blogs, forums and owners’ feedback – I have zoomed down this reliability debate to the following reasons :

 

Reason #1 – Culture

Germans love rules. They follow those rules. German engineers expect people to follow their rules.

When Japanese engineers go on to design a product they ask themselves: “How will the customers use it? How can I prevent failure if they abuse it?”

The German engineer: “I made this machine and it has to be used in this particular way. If the customer abuses it and it fails it is his fault, not mine”.

And so it is. For most German products, if you use them exactly as the manual states and within the conditions, it is designed for it is probably going to last indefinitely. Go outside those limits and you can expect it to fail.

Japanese products, on the other hand, are going to take a beating well outside specs and ask for more.

From a driving.ca interview, Steven MacNeil (general manager of the Lexus manufacturing plant in Cambridge, Ontario), gives us some insights into how the Japanese brand operates :

“We’ve been told before we’re kind of OCD when it comes to not only the design but in our preparation and then our efficiency and quality as we go into mass production,” he said. “Whether that’s making sure our environment is clean so no dust gets into the engines or whether we’re torquing to the exact specification for every bolt, our motivation is to do everything to that specification to meet the customer requirement.”

Pride in craftsmanship, particularly where monozukuri is concerned, means taking the time to ensure that details are not glossed over. Sweating the small stuff matters, as does communicating its importance, said MacNeil.

Lexus also ensures it’s workers undergoes stringent testing before they are allowed to work in the production plant.

“We send them to fundamental skill modules – like tightening or connectors or hose routing or painting, whatever the skill is – and they practice until they are proficient,” he explained. “Then, we send them line side where the team leader takes over and matures their training skills. And then we go and follow up and make sure that they’re meeting those requirements.”

This is just the start. Ever heard of Takumi masters?

At the Lexus plants in Japan, certainly highly skilled staff members are referred to as Takumi masters. The word Takumi roughly translates to “artisan,” and these masters are selected for their skill level and refined senses.

It’s been said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice for someone to become an expert at their craft; Takumi masters train for 60,000 hours to earn the titles that certify them as master trainers.

One of the standards they must be able to meet is the ability to fold an origami cat with their non-dominant hand in 90 seconds. (Yes i’m not kidding).

You can even try the challenge here.

So to sum it up – to be an expert in a field, you need 10,000 hours of practice. Takumi masters have to practice 3 times that amount.

Practicing 8 hours a day, for 240 days a year, means it will take more than 30 years to achieve 60,000 hours of practice. (The minimum time it takes to be a Takumi master is still 25 years, according to Lexus)

Talk about determination !

You can read more about the amount of training Lexus workers undergo in this article.

 

Reason #2 – Focus

Going back to the interview with Tetsuya Tada on the collaboration between Toyota and BMW on the new Supra, here’s his take on how the two companies utilize two fundamentally different strategies to design their cars:

…they (BMW) wanted to design a package, and from there they would naturally evolve a shape and size of the body from that packaging, a functionally oriented goal. They’d often say to me, “the car will shape itself, as we put in the equipment where it needs to go.” And they will spend a great deal of time in how to mechanically package this. I mean a lot of time. Our company (Toyota) with my tenure and experience, the focus was always design elements being the priority. We would first spend a lot of time on the shape and appeal of the car from a visual perspective and adjust based on where mechanical things fit or how our assembly lines can be efficiently used.

Based on that, you can see that the approach to designing a car is also different, and although this may be a weak argument for the reliability of Japanese cars, there are other factors we have not talked about :

 

Reason #3 – Testing

MacNeil says that Lexus remains consistent and thorough in how parts and finished vehicles are tested to ensure they meet quality requirements.

“(We) 100 percent dry-test all our engines and wet-test all the transmissions,” MacNeil said. “Some OEMs don’t do that anymore. They wait for it to get into the car before they test. But we still are meticulous to make sure the powertrain is meeting all the specifications before we put it in the car.

“Once it is put into the vehicle, we test drive every vehicle on the test track. Not only (do they) go through a roll test on the vehicle performance line in the plant, we take them outside and drive them on a test course checking for noise, vibration, harshness, power, those types of things.”

 

Reason #4 – Innovation

And like I mentioned above, the Japanese will favor simplicity and older tried and true tested system due to reliability than take technological leaps and risks like German car manufacturers do.

The Japanese rarely ever take huge design or tech risks like Germans and this means they last longer at the expense of new technologies which the Germans are usually the first in the automotive industry to implement.

From Autovolo, If a small engine is constantly used at high speed, it’ll need to work much harder than a large engine to keep the car moving at 70mph.

This will increase its fuel consumption and could lead to greater long-term wear and tear as the engine’s components are put under strain. There are exceptions, though. More and more engines are using technology such as turbocharging, which can make a small engine behave like a much larger one.

Now you know why Lexus uses big displacement engines instead of smaller turbocharged ones.

I personally believe that engines are not the problem. But in moving away from engines, let’s look at electronics – which seem to be a common problem with continental cars.

According to Consumer Reports – Audi dropped to 14th in 2019 because both the redesigned A6 and the new Q8 had well-below-average reliability due to issues with power equipment, engine computers, and in-car electronics.

In the same report, the redesigned BMW 3 Series sedan and X5 midsized SUV were well below average. The 3 Series’ problem areas included the emissions/fuel system and in-car electronics. The X5 had many in-car electronics issues.

Volvo’s XC90 and S90 remained below average in reliability, with in-car electronics issues such as problems with the display screen.

The Alfa Romeo Giulia had much-worse-than average reliability, with in-car electronics and power equipment problems, including the keyless entry system.

The only exception here was Porsche :

In 2019, Porsche ranked fourth overall. The redesigned 2019 Cayenne had well-above-average reliability, while the Macan compact SUV and 718 Boxster and Cayman were average or better.

Porsches are also advanced luxury cars with fancy electronics, but somehow Porsche manages to maintain it’s reliability ratings..

And this brings me to my next point :

The new Porsche Cayenne

 

Reason #5 – Lesser Features, Lesser Failures

This I feel, could be one of the biggest factors in reliability.

Take a Toyota Altis, and compare it with an equivalent continental car – let’s say the Audi A4.

The Altis comes with a 4 cylinder naturally aspirated engine, and features like dynamic radar cruise control, pre-collision system, lane departure warning.

The Audi A4 comes with a 2-litre turbocharged engine, MMI navigation with Audi’s virtual cockpit (Altis has a simple non-digital display), and you can opt for the following :

  • Audi’s matrix LED headlights (which cost more than $7k!)
  • Lumbar support, pneumatically adjustable with massage feature

  • Power seats in front including memory feature for the driver seat

  • Contour/ambient lighting package, multi-color

  • Bang & Olufsen Premium Sound System with 3D sound

  • Audi pre sense basic

  • Audi active lane assist for export markets (without road sign recognition)

  • Park assist including parking aid Plus

  • Head-up display

  • City assistance package with Park Assist package

  • Audi side assist including Audi pre sense rear

  • Adaptive sport suspension with damping control

  • Dynamic steering

  • Side airbags in rear

With so many additional features that you can opt for to be added onto your car – which do you think will be the first to encounter a part failure?

Also bear in mind that these options are custom-fitted onto a car, whereas on the Altis, most of it comes as standard and it’s all part of a big production line.

Another example (this is a generalization since more Japanese cars now come with a turbo)  :

Japanese car: 4-cylinder naturally aspirated engine with 6-speed automatic

European car: 4-cylinder turbo, dual-clutch with launch control

Japan: The speed limit is generally 100 KPH (120 on some freeways).

Autobahn: 130 KPH to no speed limit

Also, Japanese factories have a culture of pointing or verbalizing every part of the checklist as they do quality control and otherwise usually work in silence.

Audi A4 Interior

 

Reason #6 – Different Target Markets?

I took this from a forum, so it may or may not be 100% accurate, but it does make sense.

With Asian commuters, there could be customer expectations for reliability and quality. It has to be relatively inexpensive, start every time you turn the key, have enough power to safely merge onto a highway, have all the basic amenities like aircon, a decent stereo that plays well with android/iOS devices, and makes it out to 150k+ KM with proper maintenance and only one or two unplanned major repairs past the 100k mark.

With German luxury cars, it’s very different. They don’t target the buyers shopping for cheaper cars. They are after the folks who can either afford to buy an expensive car (or the customer has his company/government buy the vehicle for them).

And what do you expect when you pay a lot for something? You want the best.

Customers in that price range will want the latest and the greatest bells and whistles on top of all the basics that set the car apart from the competition. As such, customers like that will not want to keep a car they buy for the next 10 – 20 years, either.

Now, if you’re in the business of making luxury cars that the majority of your customers won’t keep for more than five years, why even bother designing something that’ll last any longer than that?

There’s a saying – Asian cars are meant to be used, European cars are meant to be sold.

So – that gives us some insights into why it seems that Japanese cars are more reliable than Continental cars.

If I have ready access to a workshop (like in Singapore) – then my money would still go to a European car because I like driving (and European cars tend to drive better), and I could do with the extra features.

Continentals also have a design that appeals to me more, although we are seeing some massive design improvements from the likes of Hyundai and Kia.

BUT – if I were to be stuck somewhere in the desert for a year with a car, my choice would definitely be the Toyota Land Cruiser V8, as opposed to a continental car like a G Wagon or a Range Rover Vogue.

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