By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
There’s an engineering principle worth bearing in mind when shopping for a car — used or new. It is that the greater the complexity of any system, the greater the odds of a failure of some kind. And its corollary is that the odds of problems developing increase at an almost geometric rate as time goes by.
With older, out-of-warranty (or soon to be out-of-warranty) cars, this can mean unanticipated, expensive repairs that can, when they get bad enough (and frequent enough) render the car a money pit not worth keeping.
With newer, still-covered cars, repairs may not cost you money. But there’s no getting around the hassle of things that don’t work right and which leave the car at the dealership rather than in your driveway.
If anything, it’s worse to be the unlucky owner of a brand-new car that needs constant fixing.
When you buy an older car, you accept going in that things may not be perfect. It’s the risk you take in return for the lower price. With a new car, on the other hand, the whole point of paying a butt-load of money is to have a problem-free car. If it ends up having problems anyhow, the fact that it’s “covered” isn’t much comfort.
Ok, so what about some specifics?
Be leery of “first generation” anything, but especially “latest thing” electronics.
Give them at least a year to sort the bugs out — and for unknown problems to become known. This is a modern-era version of the ancient wisdom about avoiding the first year of any new car model. These days, the cars themselves are usually pretty well sorted-out. But software/supplier/durability glitches often aren’t.
Avoid complexity for its own sake.
Several new car models have (or offer) systems, such as “mouse inputs,” that are almost certainly money pits in the making. Aggravating to use when they work, they are sure to be hugely expensive to restore to working order when they inevitably develop problems down the road. Steer clear if possible and save yourself some drama. Similarly: rotary knobs are more durable than “touch screen” anything — and a lot cheaper to fix if and when they do require fixing. If you’re physically able to handle it, manual sliding doors (and trunks/liftgates, etc.) are likely a safer bet, potential problem-wise, than electric-assisted ones.
And so on.
When buying used, buy the simpler car.
The higher-end (or higher-performance) the car, the more apt it is to have things like an electronically adjustable/auto-leveling suspension, high-end and high cost optics (headlights, instrument panel illumination), and a driveline (engine/transmission) more prone to problems than a simpler, more basic car’s driveline.
For example, overhead cam engines are very popular today — especially in import/higher-cost cars. But overhead cam engines often need periodic (and expensive) timing belt changes. Overhead valve (“pushrod”) engines are much less maintenance-intensive on this — and other — points.
Manual 4WD (where you pull up on a handle to engage the 4WD) has historically been more trouble-free than automatic 4WD (where the system is engaged and disengaged electronically and controlled by a computer).
Anti-lock brakes offer a safety advantage — but a car without ABS brakes will be cheaper to service. There’s no $800 ABS pump to fail.
The bottom line is that stuff that looks gee-whiz on the show circuit and which magazine reviewers (who, remember, are just test-driving someone else’ brand-new car for a couple of days) fawn over may not be such a great idea out in the real world — where it’s up to you to foot the bill — or put up with the hassle of a car that’s constantly in the shop for “diagnostics.”
Image Credit: spakattacks