Inside Baseball About New Cars

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There is probably a rule against what I am about to do. As a guy who makes his living writing articles about cars – and reviewing new cars – I surely flirt with nacht und nebel for revealing the following:

* There aren’t any shitty cars anymore –

At least, not like there used to be shitty cars. Sure, there are new cars that don’t sell well – or which are ugly. But that’s different. I mean cars that literally began to fall apart within a few months of purchase – or even sooner. There is no modern analog to rolling class-action lawsuits like the early ’70s Chevy Vega with the aluminum engine that GM was too cheap to sleeve and which, accordingly, often required as much oil as it did gas before the new car smell dissipated. Or a mid ’80s Yugo. Or anything like that. Sure, sometimes a new car will have bugs. But it’s rare to find one that’s deeply, fundamentally fecal in the way that was once common. All new cars are also covered by comprehensive warranties that last at least three years (worst case) and, increasingly, as long as five years and 50,000 miles – with the major parts (engine and transmission) usually covered for longer.

Every automaker still selling cars today has a quality/reliability level that would have seemed literally unbelievable 20 years ago. The bar for “par” is so much higher now that second (and maybe third) tier scorers on customer satisfaction surveys are probably building cars that are more reliable than the best stuff you could buy back in the ’80s. What all this means is your risk as a buyer is much lower than it’s ever been. And accordingly, you should cast a very wide net when shopping – and consider all makes/models, not just the ones with the perceived best reputation. Because while some are still better than others – they’re all pretty damn good.

* There is no such thing as a slow new car –

Any new car can hit at least 100 mph on top; only a few can’t reach 115-120. Anything with a V-6 is usually capable of doing 130 – or more. There isn’t a car being sold right now * that can’t comfortably cruise at 80 or even 90 MPH – more than fast enough for the fastest legal driving you can do for any length of time in the United States. They are quick, too. The average new economy car gets to 60 in about 8 seconds. Mildly sporty ones are typically in the sixxes. Five second (or quicker) cars are common now. Historically, that’s exotic car territory. But you can pick up any one of several new cars priced under $30,000 that are capable of that level of performance. The most lethargic new cars need about 10-11 seconds to get to 60 – which for perspective is as much as twice as quick as the slowest cars of the ’80s and not far off the pace of the quicker cars of that era.

* Your new car can probably out-drive you

Unless you’re a very good driver – naturally skillful and with some real training on a track behind you – your car’s limits are probably higher than yours. The higher you go up the food chain – from average cars to high-performance cars – the more extreme the disparity. A current-year performance car has as much or more cornering power as a full-on race car of the not-so-far-gone past. Unless you happen to be a race driver, or have some race driving experience, you’ll reach your limits long before you reach the car’s limits. This has it’s good and its bad points. On the one hand, an average driver can go much faster without pushing himself – much less the car – too close to the edge. He can experience speed – especially lateral speed – that was inaccessible to previous generations (who weren’t reckless or suicidal). It’s pretty easy to go very fast in a new car. Almost any new car. This was not true in previous years. Before the ’90s, it took real skill to drive an average car at a rapid clip, especially in a corner. It was fairly easy to get in over your head, too.

Today, you have to be really pushing it to get near Trouble. And of course, most people don’t. We have all this capability, but to a great extent it is massively under-used. And so, wasteful – and thus, stupid.  Also, because the capabilities of modern cars are so high – and the skill of the average American driver so low – new cars are heavily idiot-proofed. This makes it harder to access the car’s actual limits – or test your skill as a driver – if you do know what you are doing behind the wheel.  

But the real revelation here is that criteria such as “handling” that you read about in new car reviews is mostly an abstraction.  Most of the car journalists doing the testing are only marginally better drivers than you are – and some are worse. I’m telling you from direct personal knowledge. A few of these guys are barely able to walk anymore, let alone drive – let alone drive fast.

So, know this: Any new car you might buy can corner, stop and take a curve at a pace that’s plenty satisfactory for any driving you might do in this country that’s within the bounds of legality – and probably also, your own skill as a driver. Worry more about the ride. And whether you like the seats – or the stereo.

The rest of it has already been taken care of.

Throw it in the Woods?

*  The (not-so)Smart car is an exception – bu it’s not really a car, so it doesn’t count.






  1. Talk is cheap. Facts are not. Every year a survey of car troubles is put out by Consumer Reports. The report is based on customer replies. It usually is put out in April. It is a report card on cars. Usually it dates from the latest and greatest all the way back 5 years to see what actually went wrong with people’s cars. GM is probably the trailing edge of the pack. Followed very closely by Chrysler cars. Ford seems to be coming back with better engineering though I am inclined to wait and see.
    The leading edge right now appears to be in the foreign market. Surprise! Surprise!
    The ones most comfortable with their reputation appear to be going down hill, both in reliability and price. The underdogs appear to be taking their place. Hyundai appears to be coming up in the world.
    When I see little black circles in the chart, that means something seriously wrong with the engineering. Yes, competition seems to be weeding these people out of the marketplace. So what does the government do? They step in and encourage the badly engineered to fail that we have endured as customers over the years.
    I recommend looking at that survey very closely. I think they are biased towards foreign cars. But I also think there is a lot of truth in that customer survey. That is where I look to see if improvements have been made.

    • Consumer reports is what it is, a survey of people who subscribe to consumer reports who are willing to fill it out and return it. That data set is then digested by CR staff.

      It’s a fundamentally flawed method of measuring reliability.

  2. I have previously read that the worst new car of today is better than the best new car of 1980. I don’t doubt it, but I’ll hang on to my old cars as long as I can. My daily driver, a ’97 Mustang GT, still runs like new, but needs oil quite often; I can’t see it leaking or burning, but it’s low on the dipstick about once a month. Oil is cheap, however, and I keep a large stock of Castrol 5W30 on hand. Wish I could trade it for a new Mustang GT or better (Cobra/Boss 302/GT500) but that will have to wait until we’re out of the Greater Depression…

      • For about $5k, I think, he could buy a new crate 5.0 from Ford. 400-plus hp. Add a Tremec six speed for another $2k or so. A weekend’s work, maybe – and he’d have a car that’s quicker than a new GT (because the ’97’s lighter than the current car) for less than $10k and good to go for another 10 years of fun!

        • To make my ’97 equal to my ’12 would be a considerable undertaking. Having both to examine at my leisure I can see the considerable differences. Even once sourcing all the parts and purchasing all the SN95 materials required to get the suspension and brakes to the same level there would be quite a lot of engineering work and labor to go. Even for my car which is a fair distance there already with a mildly upgraded suspension and brakes that make it relatively, for SN95 purposes, a brembo brake package car. But I’d have to go further yet to get it like the ’12 even in that respect.

          If I didn’t have to work for a living (instead being able to set my own hours etc) it might be economically feasible to do. Since I do work for living it wasn’t.

          I don’t think any home upgraded ’97 would ever be really equal. The compromises of being an SN95 would haunt it always.

          • Overall, yes.

            But – in terms of straight line acceleration?

            A drivetrain swap for less than $10k (potentially, a lot less than that, if you’re capable of rebuilding an engine on your own and just need to buy parts/send a few items out to the machine shop) could easily get that ol’ SN95 into the low 12 second bracket – quicker than a new GT.

            And a rebuild of the stock suspension, with a few key upgrades to the rolling stock and brakes, would get it to handle/brake extremely well. Granted, not as well as a new GT (nor ride as well). But certainly good enough to be very effective in the hands of a capable driver – and certainly, lots of fun!

          • This comes down to the same thing as other discussions, what is the value on one’s labor?

            The ’97 is more than just a few parts away from the handling and power. Parts cost doable, but it’s an engineering project and I get paid to do those, so that cost is something I must consider.

            Also having a car down long term or frequently as a consequence of making a project. My policy has been mod intelligently when stock wears out. So far it’s worked well. I’m not touching the drivetrain until it requires attention because it’s worn out. But now with the new I suppose I could make it a project, but my ’73 has priority presently.

            Maybe I should have chosen a different career… that way when I got home from work I would want to do engineering projects 🙂

            • Ever see those Top Ten “best” lists the Military Channel has for things like tanks or subs or rifles? Similar situation with cars, as I see it. Example: My ’76 TA is a long way away from being able to deliver the lateral gees of a new Camaro SS, or stop as well. But, with a cam swap this weekend and some tuning, I could get it to be at least as quick – if not quicker – than a new SS. And with a set of upgraded wheels/tires, a few suspension parts, I could get it to handle well enough that I could at least keep up with a new Camaro, maybe do batter, depending on its driver!

          • I think I can best illustrate it this way.
            My ’97 has:
            2000 cobra R brembo front brakes.
            1998 Cobra wheels.
            FR500 steering wheel
            Steeda tri-ax shifter, clutch cable, and quadrant.
            Maximum motorsports lower rear control arms.
            2003 cobra front control arms.
            Maximum motorsports camber-caster plates
            2003 cobra radiator
            Eibach springs
            Eibach sway bars
            Bilstein struts and shocks.
            And that doesn’t include what I replaced with stock parts and some little things I’ve probably neglected.

            The car isn’t anywhere near the ’12, neglecting power.

            At minimum I would need, in addition to what I’ve already done:

            The front as I have it may be ok… but I got a feeling I’d need this:
   (and the list of stuff on that page)

            Also a welding class so I can make welds I’d trust my life with and a 4 post lift.

            Then after that… the drivetrain.

            The cost of the parts doesn’t bother me. It’s the time to do all the work, the debugging, the solving of all the problems that come up, the bolts that won’t come out because of all the road salt, the parts that don’t work quite the way the instructions say on my car, (I had to install the camber-caster plates in the ‘race’ set up to get a decent alignment, I figure something is slightly tweaked from one of the times the car got hit and was made apparent by the lowering, this took me quite a while to sort out until I got something I felt comfortable with alignment wise) The after market parts that don’t work because they were made for earlier mustangs, like the bolt kit I bought from jegs. And all the other stuff that just plain goes wrong even with good planning.

            Like I said… If I didn’t have to work for living, having to report to work 8-10+ hours a day, I’d go for it. No problem. But working for a living sucks up a lot of time. I have to assign value to my time and my other projects and hobbies 😉 Writing the check and keeping the ’97 was the best choice for me. 🙂

    • The Castrol is your problem. Try an oil change with Walmart 5W30 and a pint of Marvel Mystery oil, then Mobil 1, 5 W30 High Mileage. You’ll have a non oil burning rocket ship ’till the worms are at your bones, just don’t let your teenagers drive it.

  3. What bugs me is technology for technology’s sake.

    I used to have a 1970 Land Cruiser FJ55 (the “wagon”). It had a $2 switch in the dash that activated a $20 solenoid that engaged the four wheel drive. Now I own a ’94 Ford Ranger with four wheel drive. Full disclosure: the thing won’t die. I have taken care of it and it is now less than 2000 miles away from 200,000. But when the four wheel drive went out, I learned that it took a $350 computer module to activate a $350 shifter motor to engage the drive. Even adjusting for inflation, that clearly is technology for technology’s sake (and for overcharging for parts….)

    • Agree.

      My ’98 Frontier is one of the last 4WD trucks with old-style lock-em-yourself hubs vs. an electronic-actuated system. Does it take a bit more effort to engage the 4WD? Sure. But it is inherently more rugged, durable and fault-proof than a modern system.

      For me, cars reached a critical mass of too-much technology in the mid-1990s, when air bags became mandatory. You can enjoy most of the advantages of a “modern” car without all the crap they’re now fitting them with. When my old Frontiers finally need to be replaced, I plan to buy an even older F-100/F-150 or equivalent, make a few key updates and screw new!

  4. I’m not sure why you think this is “inside baseball.” I consider this stuff common knowledge.
    Most auto manufactures design and build cars with one underlying principle. YOU CAN’T DRIVE.
    A casual look at national accident statistics, and my 5 years as a wrecker operator, bear this out.
    Most people can’t handle 90hp much less anything approaching 200hp. It’s for this reason that
    most cars are idiot proofed and dumbed-down. It’s to keep the general public from killing more people than they already do. And what passes for driver education and training would be laughable
    if the costs in human life weren’t so tragically high. The auto companies know they aren’t ever going to have a shortage of stupid, inadequately trained drivers. They also know that drivers who don’t survive car accidents, whether due to driver error or not, don’t buy knew cars. End result, we get safer cars. The only downside is, we’re tinkering with the laws of natural selection. With safer cars, we are assured that many idiots will survive their own stupidity, instead of being killed by it.

  5. Another thing: there aren’t any really unsafe cars anymore. At least not like there used to be. Not only are today’s cars heavily idiot-proofed, if you do get into a crash, serious injuries/deaths are a lot less likely. While some rate better in crash-worthiness than others, and safety recalls are still happening, we just don’t see any modern-day Ford Pintos or Chevy Corvairs. Even inexpensive cars have safety features that were unheard of 20 years ago, or were only available in very expensive cars. Yes, a LOT of this is indeed because of Cloverism. But a lot of it is that customers have demanded a higher degree of safety, along with better design. And while makes like Mercedes-Benz and Volvo still offer the fortresses on wheels they’re known for, humble Nissan Versas and Ford Focuses protect you quite well.

    • Which is why education is needed, not regulation. People are now convinced of the benefit of so many things the regulations could vanish tomorrow and new designs would still have them.

      It’s just easier to point a gun than convince a person. So do gooders go around pointing guns.

  6. I couldn’t agree more about clovermobiles. Slight variations in styling between makes and models seems to be limited to the taillight arrays and grills – the larger and more glitzy they are the more prestigious the car. In my eyes they are pretty much the same boring thing. Two seaters are an exception to that rule but as toys they remain a rarity on American roads. If I can ever dig out the slides I’m going to post some shots of a restored 58 Cadillac with airbag suspension.

  7. Yes but new cars sure are ugly to me! Like plastic lumps driving around. There are, generally no classic lines anymore. No contrasts with chrome trims or bumpers. I long for the early sixties or fifties styling!

    • I do, too.

      The reason for the sameness has to do – to a great extent – with the need to conform to federal bumper impact and other requirements. These lay down general parameters that are hard to deviate from.

      Chrome is gone because of the cost – thank the EPA for that.

      • You should start a movement to buy Lot-ii. The one company that snuck past the Nazis. I’ve decided actually, I’ll probably be getting one of those instead of the S2000. Too many compromises.

  8. No doubt, most new cars have commendable quality for the duration of the warranty. I suspect however, that some makes have components that won’t last too much longer than that. Other models are made from quality parts that should last significantly longer. Over the longer run, there could be a big difference. If it weren’t for their perceived “long lasting quality and reliability” the bland, boring offerings from Toyota and Honda would be losing market share much faster than they currently are.

    And OK, most new cars seem fast compared to 25 years ago. But today, there are plenty of “slow” cars. This is determined by how fast or slow they are compared to the other new cars on the road. The concept may be “relative,” but it is still quite “relevant.”

    • “And OK, most new cars seem fast compared to 25 years ago. But today, there are plenty of “slow” cars. This is determined by how fast or slow they are compared to the other new cars on the road. The concept may be “relative,” but it is still quite “relevant.”

      Except most drivers barely drive faster than the speed limit! Even when I am out driving my ’98 Nissan Frontier with 140,000 miles and a 150 hp four-cylinder under the hood, I routinely pass 90 percent of the cars I encounter on secondary roads because I am driving 70 in a 55 and 60 in a 45 and so on.

      On the highway, even with higher posted limits, not many cars are going faster than 80.

      Yeah, it’s nice to have the power – if you can use it. If you are willing to use it. Most drivers – in my experience, at least – aren’t!

    • There are basically NO mitsubishi cars with or without mopar emblems that are worth having post warrantee…(and chrysler has not made a car since the early 90s, they’re ALL mitsubishis) Just the worst cars on the road from a mechanics perspective…absolute steaming piles of exrement.
      I’d take a yugo over a neon or eclipse ANY day.

        • I think the partnership lasted through the mid-’90s. Remember the “Dodge” Stealth? And if memory serves, Chrysler was still using the Mitsubishi-sourced V-6 in minivans during that period, too.

      • I use to work on cars professionally and I agree with you 100%. I still work on cars a lot, but only my own stuff. I buy used, and I buy vehicles that are easy to maintain and work on. Chrysler and Mitsubishi never cross my mind when vehicle searching, even when looking at giveaway beaters.

        • The current Challenger really appeals to me. Of the three resurrected retro pony cars, it is the truest in form and function to the original. But I’d be reluctant to buy one for the same reason I would have been reluctant to buy a 1970 Challenger: Overall quality control seems to be noticeably lower. For example, when I opened the trunk of the press car Challenger I had, I discovered really sloppy looking body joins, with brutal spot welds slathered in body seam filler, then painted over just like that. I hadn’t seen anything like this in any modern car. In fact, the last time I saw body assembly like that was in a circa ’70s-era car. Now, it’s possible that’s no reflection on the basic goodness of the car; maybe it’s as well-built and durable as competitors. But that sight would have scared me off as a buyer – because I’d be wondering about all the stuff you can’t see that you’ll find out about just after the warranty expires….

  9. I agree with what you have said here but all of the technical applications are the points of grief.

    ’95 Ford Pickup-strange electromechanical problem in the transmission.
    ’97 Chev P/U heater controls countiually went out/transmission went out (light duty-prefer a pickup to a car)
    2000 Chev P/U heater controls
    2004 Chev P/u heater controls/speedometer went out
    2007 Chev P/U heater controls/ heater door operater/front hub and bearing assembly/Rear engine seal replaced@ 22,000-I complained of what I thought is a flywheel vibration at certain speeds and they call it “normal” for that engine/front brakes and rotors completly shot at 24,000. It now has 27,000 and the “air bag needs service” light comes on at times (stays on for days at times.
    2009 Toyota Camry – I’ll stop there. the engines in most of these (except for the 2007) are great but all of that rinky dink crap on them really makes me yearn for the past.

    • That’s the catch 22 … new stuff generally runs well, longer – but when something does go wrong, it is often both complicated and expensive vs. what was the case with the old stuff.

  10. I have a ’65 Sunbeam Alpine, which was decent performing low priced sports car back then. Mine wears correct bias ply tires. Some years ago, my neighbor provided a Lynx to his daughter–it had an automatic transmission. I was behind her in my Alpine going through some curves on one of the few twisty roads around here. I was shifting between 2nd and 3rd, so probably we were getting up to maybe 35 in the straights. I was getting some nice tire noise as I drifted through the turns. I could see that she was driving with one hand. Probably had the radio going full blast, too. Then she rolled down the window and tossed out an apple core. A cheap econo box 20 years newer, old enough to be in the hands of a teenager who was simply driving home, would out perform a sports car in the hands of someone who is quite able to keep it out of the hay bales. Ohh, the insult!

    • Yup!

      Coming up “the mountain” – a great road near us that’s a series of S turns ascending a 6-8 percent grade for about 3 miles – it takes full time and attention to work my ’76 Trans-Am (stock, including 15×7 wheels) through the curves at a consistent 50 MPH (posted 35). I can hit those same curves at a consistent 60 without even really trying in almost any new car – let alone a new performance car!

    • LOL, that brings to mind that old song by the Playmates:

      “I’ll show him that a Cadillac is not a car to scorn.
      Beep beep–beep beep–his horn went beep beep beep.”

  11. Ahhhhh, I wish I had the money for a new car. The standards are great nowadays. Do you think cars will get shittier as time goes on though? Like perhaps this is a peak of new car quality?
    I agree with the last line as well LOL

    • It’d really be great if government just got out of regulating car content and let the car companies build cars to suit the market instead. Imagine, for example, Ford offering a “competition” version of the Mustang GT without any air bags. This alone would significantly reduce the weight and cost of the car. And that’s just one government edict. If Ford didn’t have to worry about federal bumper-impact standards, it could offer the Mustang with lightweight braces instead of the massive steel structures hiding behind the front and rear fascias. The customer could be advised his car was not as “crashworthy” as the standard car – and sign a waiver acknowledging this and absolving Ford of any liability. The car could be made probably 300-500 pounds lighter – and so, would be much quicker and faster without even touching the engine.



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