I hate to bag on American cars because I’ve owned a few and there are several that I like.
But speaking as an American, the reputation that American cars have garnered isn’t undeserved.
My dad’s first car was American. It was a 1974 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme that was six years old when he bought it.
The car was in the shop so often, that I nicknamed it the Oldsmokebile because smoke was often either pouring out of the hood or the tailpipe.
He traded it in for another six-year-old car, this time a Subaru GL.
He absolutely fell in love with the engineering and never looked back to American cars.
On average, American nameplates tend to have a higher number of recalls than other auto manufacturers.
Add to that the seriousness of those recalls and it’s no wonder why consumers have been flocking to competitors in droves since the early 90s.
Recalls happen when a vehicle’s performance, equipment or construction are deemed unsafe.
For instance, in 1994 NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) banned the Toyota Supra from America due to issues with reliability.
But the most serious recall was with the Ford Pinto where a known design flaw resulted in the car catching fire after a rear end collision trapping occupants inside.
After about 27 deaths and an investigation, Ford finally recalled over 1.5 million Pintos as well as 30,000 Mercury Bobcats for a fuel system modification.
Given my dad’s ownership history with his Cutlass Supreme it probably comes as no surprise that GM (General Motors) has had the most recalls of any automobile manufacturer.
And if you think this is just a problem at a time when the auto industry was facing problems due to the gas crisis.
In the last twenty years GM has had 671 recalls according to NHTSA affecting over 5 million GM vehicles.
Followed by Ford with 635 recalls. And Chrysler with recalls that affected almost five million cars.
Get into a thirty-year-old Honda Civic and everything falls elegantly into hand.
The same cannot be said of Camaros from the same era. As much as I love third gen Camaros and Firebirds, I can’t say the same.
These are not comfortable cars without doing some modifications: If I move the seat so I can see properly, the steering is practically in my chest.
Adjust the seat back, and now I’m guessing at what’s in front of me.
Even in American cars today (using the Camaro as an example again) the large size of the exterior doesn’t prepare you for the cramped interior.
The Mustang is no different.
And while the Dodge Challenger offers the most interior room in its class. That thing is a barge in the modern world of muscle cars.
Many owners have complained of the latest Mustang’s build quality citing large panel gaps and misalignments.
And this is from factory. Part of the problem is that American cars are often get rushed to market.
Whereas foreign cars are well scrutinized undergoing a battery of international requirements for the foreign markets they get shipped into.
One Size Fits All
American cars have had a one size fits all philosophy to auto manufacturing for decades.
A lot of times the features on offer are so nominal that choosing one over the other comes down to brand loyalty.
You have to figure that this superfluity has to be one of the reasons why so many domestic car brands have met their demise.
Let’s take a look at the Camaro again.
For many generations, the Firebird was offered by Pontiac as a more plush and powerful alternative to the Camaro.
But looking at the third generation, both cars ride on the same F-body platform. They make use of the same engines (often times manufactured by Chevrolet).
And except for a few cosmetic differences like the Firebird’s pop-up headlights, parts are virtually interchangeable.
Even today, the GMC Yukon is billed as the more luxurious Chevrolet Tahoe. But then where does that put the Cadillac Escalade all of which ride on the same platform?
The domestic auto market has tried to compete with the runaway success of Japan’s economy cars for years.
It began with cars like the ill-fated Pinto, and most recently the Chevy Cruze.
But while the Corolla and Civic are nameplates that have been around since 60s and 70s. You can’t very well pop down to your local Ford and Chevy dealership and ask to test drive a late model Pinto or Cruze.
In my opinion, one of the very best compact cars produced by America was the Saturn.
My sister had one and two of my friends had one. One of my friends even bought one for his wife when they got married.
Saturn was an American car brand that really brought the fight to Toyota and Honda.
And just like that, the car company that was going to change the way consumers buy cars was gone just as quickly.
Indeed, American cars are cheap. But they’re cheap for a reason. That’s no doubt how my dad got saddled with his first car.
While the initial sticker price of a Chevy Cruze compared to a Honda Civic might be enticing, what are you really getting?
American cars get the reputation of being unreliable cars that are quickly slapped together at an assembly line because more often than not they are.
Did you know for the cost of $11 per car Ford could have prevented the deaths of all those people?
Once again, if you think this just an issue with cars from the 1970s. Consider the second-generation Ford Explorer.
Over 200 deaths and 700 injuries were caused by Explorer rollovers. The rollovers were blamed on Firestone tires.
But the first-generation Explorers had rollover issues too which were found to be the result of a big, top-heavy car with a too narrow wheelbase.
Washington Post reports even showed that of the 25,000 SUV accidents, Explorers were involved in twice the number of their competitors.
Let’s address the elephant in the room – reliability.
Let’s face it, no matter how much of a fan you are of American cars (of which I am included) no one buys an American nameplate hoping to take it to 300,000 burden free miles.
Now this doesn’t mean that certain domestic cars can’t be reliable.
Saturns were some of the most reliable American cars I’ve ever experienced.
And no I’m not talking about those rebadged cars before the company became extinct.
Ford’s Panther-based cars like the Crown Victoria and Lincoln Town Car have also proven to be quite reliable with some owners reportedly taking their cars to nearly 400,000 miles.
But as in the case of the Saturns owned by my friends, none of them came away from their ownership experience without a story about how the engine burned oil.
My sister was as fastidious about keeping up with the oil consumption in her Saturn. The result of which was a thrown rod, which meant a brand-new engine.
And while some people might wax lyrically about how great the 90s Ford Ranger was (and I’ve driven them, they’re nice and among my favorite pickups of the 1990s).
They forget that it was the result of a joint venture with Mazda. So, even though the badge said Ford, inside beat the heart of a B-Series.
We’ve kind of touched on this already but I feel it requires specific mention.
A complaint you’ll often hear during the review of American cars is about the cheap quality of the materials used inside the car.
Go ahead and look up the review of any fourth generation Camaro and the biggest complaint will be about the cheap plastic and interior finishes.
And indeed, as you shop for fourth generation Camaro or Firebird many of the dashboards have been cracked to pieces by the sun.
Contrast that with the interior of a 1993 Toyota Camry. As I’m looking through CarGuru, these cars still look gorgeous.
And the interiors don’t look as ravaged by years with everything still in place.
Too Big for Their Own Good
Pioneered by the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V in the late nineties. There’s a reason why the crossover is gaining in popularity over the SUV.
It’s no secret that Americans prefer big cars to hall people and stuff in which might take them off the beaten path.
Americans started buying SUVs as daily drivers in the 90s when gas was cheap and plentiful.
But as gas prices increased, they began questioning how much space they actually need.
And though our rugged and frontiers nature inclines us to dip our foot into the road less traveled.
We found that we don’t hear the call of the wild often enough to justify the cost of daily driving an SUV in the face of the rising cost of living.
According to Good Car Bad Car, in 2021 the number one most sold CUV was the Toyota RAV4 at 407,739 units followed by the Honda CR-V at 361,271 units.
When was the last time you saw a Dodge Neon? While longevity is arguably determined by maintenance.
The quality of the car has a lot to do with it too.
A friend of mine bought a 2009 Chevrolet Aveo brand new hoping to pass it on to his daughter who was six at the time.
His mother bought the same year, make and model. From the first week she had the car she experienced nothing but issues.
Then when my friend came to visit my wife and me five years later, let’s just say his Aveo looked worse for wear.
And this isn’t a guy that doesn’t take care of his cars – he’s a mechanic after all.
But if you are looking for American cars that can go the distance, you do have a few choices.
Besides the Panther body cars, I’ve known the Chevrolet Suburban and Ford Expedition to go well past the 200,000-mile mark.
My wife’s brother’s 1999 Chevy Silverado has well over 200,000 miles on it and it’s still going.