The automotive industry isn't an easy one to do business in. There are recalls, there's a long list of established brands to compete against, and it's an extremely capital-intensive business. So it's critical for investors to keep tabs on which brands and companies are improving the quality of their vehicles, or falling behind. It's the positive or negative trends in brands that will eventually make a financial impact.

The good news is that Consumer Reports tracks an immense amount of vehicle data for just this purpose. Let's dive in and uncover the winners and losers from CR's Car Reliability Survey.

Buick pulled off a major feat for General Motors this year. Image source: General Motors.

No surprise at the top

Before looking at the rankings, let's cover how the survey is set up. CR gathered data on more than half a million vehicles spanning 300 models from 2000 to 2016 – and a handful of 2017 model years, too. The data comes from CR's subscribers, who answered survey questions on their experience with the vehicles.

Starting at the top are Toyota's (NYSE:TM) namesake brand and its luxury Lexus brand, with the latter taking the No. 1 spot. Lexus' score of 86 out of a possible 100 was easily the highest in the survey, with Toyota's namesake brand coming the closest at 78. It's no surprise to see Toyota here -- it's known for its less flashy designs but also for its high-quality vehicles, and that isn't likely to change anytime soon.

Arguably the biggest surprise was General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Buick brand in third place. No other Detroit brand has scored so high since CR began tracking brand performance in the early 1980s. Buick managed to jump four spots, with an average reliability score of 75. It might be a short-lived jump for GM's Buick brand, though, as it has recently launched multiple new vehicles, and newer vehicles tend to have more small issues.

Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) had only two models being tested and ranked 25th out of 29 brands, with a score of 28. On the bright side, Tesla's Model S was upgraded to "average reliability" and made CR's recommended-models list -- the only electric vehicle to do so. It was Tesla's new Model X SUV that brought the manufacturer's overall score down. Numerous complaints, such as the door sensors not detecting objects properly, have come in about the falcon-wing doors that look impressive but cause consumers major headaches because of their impractical functionality.

The biggest loser?

It seems too easy to pick on Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NYSE:FCAU), because no matter the survey FCA brands typically bring up the rear, but the automaker's scores across its lineup of brands just aren't inspiring. FCA's Jeep was the automaker's highest-scoring brand at the No. 23 spot, with a score of 30. Dodge and Chrysler ranked 26th and 27th, with respective scores of 28 and 26. Fiat and Ram brought up the rear, taking second to last and dead last, with respective scores of 17 and 16.

Here's what we know: Newer cars have more problems, and it takes years to work the kinks out. We also know that increased complexity, such as infotainment systems or connectivity applications, can cause a score to drop quickly if they aren't well done. Ultimately, it's important for investors to understand what companies are making reliable and popular products. To that end, it's no surprise that Toyota is doing well, it's encouraging that GM is improving with Buick, and sadly, it's no surprise that FCA is living in the bottom tier. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.