Buying a used car has – up to now – usually been a good way to save money. You avoid the new car mark-up … and you take advantage of new car depreciation – which can be as high as 30 percent off MSRP “sticker” after as little as two years. But, the balance might be shifting in favor of new over used for the simple – and depressing – reason that the stuff they are putting into new cars to make the government happy is not likely to live a long and largely trouble-free life. And when the new car warranty runs out, that could mean a lot of trouble for you.
For example, turbochargers – sometimes not just one but two of them, staged in sequence (as for example Ford’s new line of “EcoBoost” engines) are becoming a fairly common feature in run-of-the-mill cars. Family cars – even economy cars. Turbos used to be found almost exclusively in performance and luxury cars. Because turbos – which provide an on-demand increase in power – are expensive. So how come they’re being used more and more in economy-minded and family cars? Because they also provide a fuel economy benefit – the flip-side of on-demand power. They permit the use of a smaller-in-size (and so, more economical) engine, which makes the government happy. The on-demand power (as when you want to accelerate quickly to merge with traffic) makes consumers happy – and more, tolerate an engine that would otherwise be too small/weak.
That’s the upside.
Turbocharged engines are also hotter-running, higher-stressed engines. This – historically – has also meant shorter-lived engines. Maintenance – such as oil and filter changes – is also a much more critical factor with a turbo’d engine. Reportedly, the latest designs are much-improved in terms of long-haul durability. But the key word to draw a bead on is reportedly. The truth is we won’t really know how well these new-design turbo (and multi-turbo’d) engines hold up until a large enough number of them have been in circulation for a long enough period of time – at least five or six years. Long enough for them to be out of warranty.
Then, we’ll see.
Same goes for the new Auto Stop-Start feature several new cars now come with – again, to try to placate Uncle Sam and his ever-escalating demands for more fuel-efficient cars. Like hybrids, the engine automatically shuts down when the vehicle is stationary – as when it comes to a stop for a traffic light. When the light turns green and the driver presses down on the accelerator pedal, the system automatically restarts the engine. If you drive in a heavily congested area – and do a lot of just-sitting-there – the feature might save you a noticeable amount of gas. Upside.
The downside may come six or seven years from now – when the car is out of warranty – and you’re on your own. Starter motors – up to now – were designed to start the engine maybe four or six times or so in a given day. What happens to their long-term durability when the duty cycle is much more extreme (perhaps dozens of start-stop cycles every day)? How much will it cost to replace one of these starters?
Several automakers are putting “automated manual” transmissions in their cars (for example, the Direct Shift or DSG transmissions used in several new VW models)… also for the fuel efficiency benefit. A computer operates the clutch – and the transmission functions as a conventional automatic, as far as the driving experience is concerned. Just put it in D and off you go. These transmissions are amazing from an engineering/technical point-of-view. But they are also very complex – and when they fail, very expensive things to repair/replace: about $2,500-$3,000 is the current going rate.
The government has also recently required that all new cars be equipped with tire pressure monitors – and soon, back-up cameras.
More such stuff is in the pipeline.
It’s all neat – but it isn’t free. And when the warranty runs out, it’ll be left to you to foot the bill for repairs. Since some of these things are mandated by law (such as the tire pressure monitors and back-up cameras) you will have to get them fixed, if they stop working. If you want to make it through state “safety” inspection, that is.
And while there’s no law (yet) requiring that a car’s turbocharger be fully functional, if it’s not fully functional, the car won’t function very well – if at all. Which means – again – you’ve pretty much got to get it fixed.
The bottom line could be that we are finally on the threshold of something many (me included) have feared would eventually come to pass: The era of the throw-away car. The complexity of new car design is reaching a kind of apotheosis – a point of no return as far as what you might call economic fixability is concerned. You buy it, it works great for a period of time. And when it stops working great, you throw it away. Because it’s just too damn expensive to repair it.
It’s entirely possible, I think, that warranty coverages will reflect this. The industry-best is now 10 years/100k. That will probably become the de facto standard.
And after that, it’ll be time to throw it in the woods.