Cars in general have become more reliable over the years — and yet, there are always some models that outlast their peers. Pinpointing exactly how many miles a given model racked up collectively or individually is virtually impossible, but we’ve identified 10 cars we see as having exceptional — sometimes surprising — endurance. Note that we left out trucks: Almost all seem to hold up well.
It’s the mid-to-late 1980s. GM quality is going up and its sales are still pretty high, though falling. This version of GM’s venerable nameplate, along with its clone the Buick Century, hit the intersection of these two trends: GM made a lot of them, and they lasted. Most of the bugs had been worked out on these models’ forebears, the much-ballyhooed (and much-troubled) GM X-Bodies.
That many of their first owners were seniors who drove them gently and serviced them conscientiously probably helped matters. Note that the Chevy Celebrity and Pontiac 6000, basically the same car, don’t enjoy the same endurance.
The what? Here’s the story, in short: It’s a Toyota Corolla with a different nameplate, and everyone knows those last forever. Longer version: the Prizm and some other Corollas-by-another-name (The Chevy Nova and the Pontiac Vibe) were built in California in a GM-Toyota joint venture called NUMMI. The odd arrangement let Toyota get around restrictions on Japanese imports, and let GM learn about Toyota’s vaunted manufacturing techniques. Oh, and the car gets 35-40 mpg on the highway, which has made it golden during an era of high gas prices.
Subaru Wagons (All of Them)
If all of these failed to start tomorrow, thousands of college professors in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest would have to walk to class. Fortunately for higher education, due to these cars' truck-like fortitude (note that Subaru’s parent company is Fuji Heavy Industries), that’s not likely. The standard all-wheel drive on all models also means they’ll get their owners — often automotive know-nothings — through nasty weather as well. It also makes them something of a regional taste. You can tell which region they’re from by the inevitable school and/or bumper stickers.
Volvos (Rear-Wheel-Drive Ones)
Dawn of Man-1996
To some extent, these are the Subaru wagons’ spiritual and actual predecessors. Part of what Volvo had going for it was that it basically built one car for 25 years under a variety of nameplates. In their staid Swedish way they eschewed fashion and focused instead on great quality (and safety). Scandinavian origins can also be credited for their rust-resistance.
After duty as family truckster, these cars often devolve to being the kids’ college vehicles — and sleeping quarters at Phish shows.
If these can handle police pursuit and taxi duty, they can handle you. Even though the civilian versions lack some endurance-building parts like oil coolers and stronger suspensions, the core components of the Great American Sedan are all there: V-8 engine, solid rear axle, body-on-frame construction.
The Chevy Caprice held this niche as well until the mid-1990s when GM decided to turn its production facility over to big SUVs.
*The Crown Victoria was only available for fleet sales beginning in 2008. The Marquis went to the guillotine along with the entire Mercury brand in 2011.
FIAT: "Fix It Again, Tony," right? That was the joke line about Fiat, which slunk away from the North American market in the early 1980s.
That reputation doesn't apply to the "Cinquecento," of which the Italian maker cranked out 3.4 million between 1957 and 1975, many of which are still plying Italy's narrow stradas today. It helps that the two-cylinder car is outrageously simple -- basically, a lawnmower with a roof. Only a handful made it to the states since they top out around 50 mph.
(We note that Fiat, now Chrysler's majority shareholder, has returned to the U.S. with a single model -- the new 500. It's like a fun ride, but we’re not making any forecasts on its reliability).
If you wanted a Mercedes in the early 1980s that got anything close to reasonable mileage, you got a diesel. That the company sold as many as it did was largely a fluke of federal fuel economy regulations. That they were dead-reliable was due largely to their inline-five diesel engines. Remember, Mercedes makes tons of diesel trucks.
Generally garaged and dealer-serviced by their wealthy owners, many of these are in a second or third life. They’re popular among tinkerers who convert them to run on recycled vegetable oil, aka “greasels.”
Look around you next time you’re driving. Those anonymous tan and silver four-doors? They’re Honda Accords. Perhaps you’re in one!
Combine best-selling status with reliability — a nice virtuous cycle — and you get ubiquity. Exactly what it is about Honda that provides such durability is the subject of debate (and much corporate espionage) but surely some of it has to do with the fact that it’s Honda Motor Company. They put their engines and engineering first.
The smaller Honda Civic shares much of the toughness but is more likely to be modified to look flashier and run louder, with maintenance simultaneously neglected.
To the insiders, these are the E30 models. To a lot of people, they are the protypical yuppie-mobile. And while their original upwardly mobile professionals have moved on newer and larger BMWs (or, more likely, Lexuses), these models are still riding on, thanks mostly to their reasonable simplicity and a wide range of available parts — though having the dealership keep it in as-it-came-from-the-factory condition is said to be an expensive fool’s game.
There's even a racing series that features only this model car.
We’re going to make an exception to our ‘no-trucks’ rule for the Jeep Cherokee. For one thing, it’s not really a truck — the first small SUV, it did not have the traditional body-on-frame construction.
But it did have plenty of the Jeep toughness (and a straight-6 engine) built in, and many of these are still roaming America’s secondary roads — and Europe as well, in a turbodiesel variant. Interestingly, even as Jeep came up with the upmarket Grand Cherokee (somewhat less reliable, natch), it kept cranking out the old model, basically due to consumer demand. Oh, one more truck exception? The original Toyota 4-Runner.