One of the most important criteria when evaluating cars is reliability. Reliable vehicles do not need frequent repairs and last for many years if they are maintained regularly. And good reliability scores and a reputation for dependability means those vehicles are likely to be worth more as a trade-in or used car.
Both Honda and Toyota have built reputations in the United States' car market on reliability. The ability for popular models like the Honda Civic and Accord, and the Toyota Corolla, Camry, and Prius, to exceed 100,000 or 200,000 miles without significant repairs has led to solid loyalty among consumers. It has also made these vehicles desirable as used cars and popular among dealers, who can quickly sell them.
But, between the two, how do they stack up against each other in 2021?
J.D. Power and Consumer Reports are the leading agencies that track vehicle dependability and reliability in the US. They rely on owner surveys to rank the quality and reliability of new cars and used cars between three and seven years old. Every part of the car is evaluated including the engine, transmission, suspension, the infotainment system, driver-assist technology, and fit and finish.
In Consumer Reports' 2020 annual reliability study, Toyota ranked third and Honda fifth among all brands surveyed behind Mazda, which came in first. While Honda and Toyota still perform relatively well in these surveys, there have been some hiccups in their previously impeachable scores. There is not anything severe enough to prevent buyers from seriously considering models from these brands, but paying attention to some of the differences could avoid frustrations later as an owner.
Engine and Transmission Changes
Honda and Toyota typically stick to their proven technology and rely less on outside suppliers than smaller automakers. The models sold in the US are primarily built in North America, too, and in assembly plants that are newer than those used by General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler).
Toyota, in particular, typically changes its vehicle designs every five years and the models receive more cosmetic and structural changes than mechanical ones. The 3.5-liter V6 engine that goes into models like the Camry, Avalon, Highlander, Tacoma, and many Lexus models dates back to 2002. It has been updated since to fit different models, boost power, and comply with the latest emissions regulations, but it is fundamentally the same engine.
The automaker's fuel-efficient hybrid powertrains have also remained relatively similar to when it first introduced them to the US in the 2001 Toyota Prius. While powered by tested four and six-cylinder gasoline engines with at least one electric motor, Toyota was slower to adopt lithium-ion battery technology than automakers like Hyundai and Kia. That was detrimental to overall packaging and range, but Toyota avoided early problems with battery life and reliability associated with that technology.
Honda typically refines, rather than replaces, its engine technology, too. Its V6 engine design dates back even further to 1996. In its current 3.5-liter capacity, the same engine goes into the Honda Pilot and Passport SUVs and the Honda Odyssey, Ridgeline, and various models from its Acura luxury division.
However, Honda started changing some of its engines, beginning with the 2016 Civic, introducing a 1.5-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine on some models that was intended to boost horsepower without hurting fuel economy. That basic engine was later used in some Honda CR-V models from 2017 and became the standard engine in the Honda Accord for 2018. Early examples of that engine in the 2016-18 Civic and 2017-18 CR-V were subject to customer complaints of stalling. Honda issued an extended warranty on these vehicles, but complaints have persisted as recently as this year. It sank the reliability of some recent years of the Civic, too.
Consumer Reports members also had issues with the transmissions in some recent Honda models. The company mostly phased out its long-lived manual transmissions in recent years in favor of newer continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) and nine and 10-speed automatic transmissions. The nine-speed automatic is the same design used in some Chrysler, Jeep, and Land Rover models, where it also had some early problems. And some companies including Nissan have experienced problems with CVTs in recent years, so Honda is not alone in having issues with new technology.
Another stumbling block for all modern cars has been the way they integrate new technologies. Vehicles with new infotainment systems, electronic features, and other advanced tech rarely get it right out of the gate. Honda and Toyota are not exceptions to this rule.
Honda was relatively quick to add Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity when both systems rolled out to vehicles in the mid-2010s. Most models that received them also used infotainment hardware and software that was new to Honda. Combine third-party apps for voice calls, text messaging, voice assistants, and navigation, and these early examples couldn't cope. Owners reported problems that would prevent some features from loading, camera images from appearing or even cause the whole screen to freeze and require restarting the car entirely. Honda started to phase in a new infotainment system on models such as the Accord and Odyssey, and Apple and Google have made their smartphone integration run more smoothly since. But when looking at used examples, it's worth consulting a service technician to make sure all of the software updates have been installed.
Toyota embraced Apple CarPlay later, with the 2018 Avalon the first of its cars to receive the technology. Android Auto first appeared on some 2020 model year vehicles before being made widely available through the Toyota lineup. But the automaker did this because it hardly changed its infotainment system through the 2010s as rivals added new software and features. Toyota's luxury subsidiary, Lexus, introduced a new interface and replaced a touchscreen with a trackpad-operated system with numerous initial glitches. With newer models like the 2020 Toyota Highlander and 2021 Sienna minivan and Venza crossover, Toyota began to update its interface significantly, but after seeing what needed work first on the high-end Lexus vehicles.
Infotainment systems have been a sore spot for many automakers as they rely on third-party software and continuous updates. But neither Honda nor Toyota have been immune from electrical glitches on features that have been around for longer. Owners from both brands have complained about phones that will not connect to Bluetooth, keyless entry and start problems, and even power sliding doors and liftgates that do not always work as intended. These may also extend to driver assistance features such as forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control, and high beam assist. While that is less of a problem on older vehicles, both brands include many of these features across the lineup under the names of Honda Sensing and Toyota Safety Sense.
Specific Toyota Vehicles
Most modern Toyota vehicles have escaped some reliability hurdles even after a significant redesign because its biggest sellers have done without substantial mechanical changes even after receiving major styling revisions. The Camry and recently discontinued Yaris topped their categories among new cars in J.D. Power's survey, while the Camry and Tundra also won prizes as used vehicles.
In Consumer Reports' survey, the Toyota Camry also does exceptionally well among midsize sedans, as does the Corolla with compact cars, the Highlander for SUVs, and the Sienna for minivans. But the Toyota Tacoma midsize pickup truck's once-unimpeachable reliability has been hobbled by build quality issues in recent years. It has come up as Toyota's lowest-rated model for reliability at times. The publication also found that the Prius would have more problems during the first year of a redesign, particularly with in-car electronics and some fit-and-finish hurdles. And the Toyota 86 sports coupe (known before 2017 as the Scion FR-S) also experienced several years of problems before ultimately becoming reliable in the last couple of years. The reliability of the latest Toyota Supra is unknown, too. It is hard to predict because it uses BMW engines and electronics and is built by a subcontractor in Austria rather than the Japan-based automaker.
The Toyota Tundra, 4Runner, and Land Cruiser are all considered reliable, but are the oldest designs in the brand's lineup and have less sophisticated four-wheel-drive and safety features than the company's newer models. The popular Toyota RAV4, however, has seen its reliability scores drop some since it was redesigned for 2019, but that is likely to improve with time.
Specific Honda Vehicles
As mentioned earlier, some of the new engines, transmissions, and infotainment systems Honda has added to its more recent designs have been a burden on its reliability scores. Some of these initial problems have been fixed now. The popular Accord, Civic, and CR-V models are generally considered dependable — even if they do not score as highly as direct Toyota rivals.
The automaker's most reliable models are its oldest, least-expensive designs, including the HR-V subcompact SUV and the now-discontinued Honda Fit subcompact hatchback. Civic and CR-V models with non-turbo engines have also proven more dependable because they also lack some troublesome in-car electronics found in more expensive trim levels.
In recent surveys, the Odyssey minivan has not been as reliable as before its 2018 redesign. The Passport SUV, introduced for 2019, has also received its share of black marks from Consumer Reports respondents, which is odd because it shares most major components with the Honda Ridgeline pickup and Pilot SUV, which have been considered relatively reliable.
Toyota is the Winner, For Now
When it comes to reliability, Toyota has the edge over Honda, embracing time-tested features that have proven to work. Refining their gasoline engines and hybrid powertrains while also keeping more control over the transmissions that go into all of their vehicles has kept them mechanically sound over the years. The automaker also goes many years without drastic changes under the skin to its vehicles. It tries out some of the newer technologies on its lower-volume cars and the Lexus brand before putting it on Toyota models that sell hundreds of thousands of examples per year.
However, the increasing speed advancements in technology reach new cars have forced Toyota to speed up how it adds features to its models, and it also sees dips in how they are put together at the factory.
Honda appears to be getting over the hump making its new engines, transmissions, and in-car electronics work correctly when new after a tough few years. These mechanical items will likely stay in the lineup for several years, too, and become more dependable. Used car shoppers need to see if any recalls or dealership service bulletins have not been addressed before buying, but customers looking at new examples can breathe easier.
New car buyers are best served when waiting at least a year after a model has been out on the market so that the manufacturer can sort out any initial teething problems or issue software updates. And all buyers need to research reliability studies for the models they are interested in rather than relying solely on a brand name's reputation.