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Why ‘Reliable’ Cars Aren’t Safe from the Mechanic’s Bill: The Most Common Repairs on Popular Sedans

Even if you own a trusty, boring sedan, you still need to set aside money for auto maintenance. Learn the most common repairs on reliable cars like the Toyota Corolla, Honda Accord and Ford Focus.

Common repairs among reliable sedans: Toyota Camry and Corolla, Honda Civic and AccordOver the summer I wrote about my intrepid white minivan, a 1998 Toyota Sienna well on its way to hitting 200,000 miles. And as the mileage racks up, more problems pop up: some mechanical, some related to the body and construction.

With the brutal winter weather of the last few weeks, I lost the handles on my driver’s side door and hatchback within days of each other. And looking back over the history of the car, it sure would’ve been nice to possess a look-ahead type of report—one that could’ve given me a sense of which issues might dog the Sienna over time.

As it turns out, folks driving some of America’s most popular sedans now have just such a roadmap. Fixya, a website based in San Mateo, Calif., has just released a new report comparing the number of troubleshooting requests for five lines of classic sedans—pitting them head to head with data from more than 30 million Fixya users to determine which car line is most reliable, and the top problems for each line.

As you may know, Fixya is a community-based troubleshooting resource where consumers can post questions—and get answers—about the gadgets, devices and machines in their lives. With the Test of Time report, Fixya put five cars up for review: the Honda Civic, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus. These five models are perennially popular among the budget conscious not only because they won’t break the bank but because they have reputations for being reliable (if a bit boring). Car-lovers may want to pick up a slightly more fun-to-drive model, but if you’re considering one of these trustworthy vehicles, this report is a good reminder that even if you drive a Camry, you still need an emergency fund.

What does the study show?

To answer this question, it helps to know something about what the report addresses—and what it doesn’t. To give each vehicle a two-digit Test of Time score, “we divided the average number of units sold per year in the U.S. over the course of the report by the number of problems associated with the car on the Fixya website,” says Fixya CEO Yaniv Bensadon. “The higher the score the higher the chance the vehicle line will exhibit problems.”

That score won’t tell you how much that higher Test of Time score could cost you in car repairs, but there’s a good reason for this. “Fees fluctuate between mechanics and the severity of these problems varies amongst individual vehicles and their respective owners,” Bensadon says.

As for how the cars ranked, here are the scores from lowest (fewest issues) to highest (most issues):

  1. Toyota Camry (.15) – Top Issue: Gas Pedal/Acceleration
  2. Honda Civic (.17) – Top Issue: Brakes
  3. Honda Accord (.28) – Top Issue: Transmission
  4. Toyota Corolla (.33) – Top: Gas Pedal/Acceleration
  5. Ford Focus (.54) – Top Issue: Power Steering

You might notice that with the Corolla and Camry, for example, gas pedal/acceleration crops up as a top issue. That corresponds to the controversy Toyota experienced in 2009 regarding this problem, which led to massive a recall of vehicles. Fixya users reported some other snags with their Toyotas, though not nearly as worrisome; these include  power steering and electrical system troubles.

Some other highlights from the report include:

  • Honda Civic owners on Fixya had the most trouble with their brakes—whether that involved problems with their brake lights or the brakes themselves. Issues with brakes were particularly worrisome, with consumers feeling vibrations when braking, and braking taking longer than normal to complete. This could be caused by worn-down brake pads, warped brake rotors or a faulty brake pin.
  • The biggest issue among Honda Accord owners was transmission trouble—whether that meant the engine stalling while starting the vehicle, a slight delay in response time when accelerating, or the gearbox feeling as though it disengages while driving the vehicle. Smaller issues included headlights and power steering, but these are both less worrisome and expensive for Accord owners.
  • Ford Focus owners reported having a lot of problems with the power steering in their vehicles, which could be caused from rundown brake pads, power steering fluid in need of replacement, or even a steering rack in need of inspection and tune up.

The folks at Fixya are quick to note that this report is unscientific, meant only to show general trends across each vehicle. Still, it’s impressive that Fixya could tap such a huge number of users to prepare the findings. With the Ford Focus, for example, Fixya drew on more than 1 million total “problem impressions” reported by its user base. There’s even a degree of specificity with the power steering issues the Focus has, as reported by Fixya. Sometimes it “temporarily goes out while driving,” or “is relatively touchy and responds quickly to slight movements.”

Someone armed with the Test of Time report might catch a glimpse of which problems these vehicles could face, but they also have something more—a litmus test for knowing when a mechanic visit is in order.

“So many people experience car troubles, but have no idea what the potential issues could be and immediately take the car into a mechanic,” Bensadon says. “By doing a little research, and adding a bit of elbow grease, you can potentially save yourself a great deal of money in the long-run by knowing which problems are worthy of a trip to a mechanic.”

He adds: “Furthermore, if users have to go to a mechanic to fix their issues, this report keeps them informed on what the potential fixes are—and will help them avoid being charged any ancillary fees associated with fixing their vehicle.”

One of the great secrets of being an effective financial steward is planning ahead: knowing what you need to do as a matter of maintenance with your most expensive possessions before trouble arises. Give the folks at Fixya credit for using the power of data to arm consumers with more knowledge about the cars they drive.

And if you don’t see you car on this list, hang in there. Bensadon says there will definitely be more Test of Time reports in the months to come. In the meantime, you can also check out Fixya’s car and truck troubleshooting lists for Ford, Honda and Toyota.

Which makes me wonder: Is there a specific link for, say, the 1998 Toyota Sienna? Oh yeah; it’s right here. Maybe the advice from Fixya users and experts will help me get one step closer to that 200,000 milestone.

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About Lou Carlozo

Based in Chicago, Lou Carlozo is a personal finance contributor for Reuters Money, a columnist with DealNews.com, and a former managing editor at AOL's WalletPop.com. Contact him with story ideas for Money Under 30 at feedbacker@aol.com, or follow him via LinkedIn and Twitter (@LouCarlozo63).