The best con is one you never recognize. The one that keeps you paying – and keeps you smiling.
Modern cars get you at the beginning – the initial purchase price – and at the end (when the cost to keep it on the road becomes so high the best thing to do is throw it away and start over.
This is the price of “reliability” and “low maintenance” in the middle … the long con that many people have bought into.
First there’s that up front cost – now on average over $30,000 (more here) and taking at least 5-6 years to pay off for most buyers (vs. the once-typical 3-4 years). It’s not just the money you’re required to spend, either.
It’s the opportunity cost of the money.
What else you might have done with the money during those 5-6 years… and especially the last 2-3 years, which in the past would have been payment-free years? It’s an example of what the great economist Frederic Bastiat called “things unseen.” The stuff you might have done, the things you could have bought… but weren’t able to because you were still making payments on your car.
Or, looked at from another perspective: The car is “reliable” and “low-maintenance”… so you’re not paying for things like occasional tune-ups and minor adjustments, as in the Dark Days before computers and direct-injection.
This is the Sell.
You’re just paying a defined sum each month to own the car.
That’s the Cost.
Which is preferable from a money point-of-view? The $100 fall/spring tune-up and minor adjustment? Or the $400 a month (every month, for the next 5-6 years) payment?
How about the much-touted long-haul oil change intervals Now vs. Then? And “lifetime” coolant and spark plugs? Is it really a savings to go say 6,000 miles in between oil changes rather than 3,000 when the oil now costs $7 a quart? And – in a number of new cars – requires special siphoning machines to do the job?
It used to cost about $2 a quart.
Spark plugs are advertised as lasting 100,000 miles – and they do. But ever try getting them out after 100,000 miles? Lots of fun on the firewall side of a transverse-mounted V6 in a FWD car.
Modern cars with manual transmissions go much longer without needing a replacement clutch. But if the clutch slave cylinder – which provides hydraulic assist, making the clutch easier to work (and also maintaining adjustment automatically) craps out – and it will, eventually… especially if you neglect to change the fluid fairly regularly (which they count on) … it’s sometimes necessary to remove the transmission to do the job.
Which isn’t cheap.
There’s also this:
Stuff eventually does wear out. And – if it’s a modern car – then you’ll really pay.
I’ll give you an example, a True Story.
Lady I know has a Lexus RX, which she bought new back in 2000 for about $32,000. It has given her very little trouble since then.
Fifteen years on, it is beginning to cost money …. again.
It needs four new struts – the modern-car equivalent of an old car’s shock absorbers (which typically sell for about $100 a pair) except they combine the function of a shock absorber and the formerly separate (and lasts-the-lifetime-of-the-car) coil spring and so cost much more. Parts and labor.
One shop wanted $1,600 to do the job. Another upped that to $3,200 – claiming that in addition to the struts, the control arms needed to be replaced, too. Maybe so. Probably. But here’s the dilemma: The RX itself is worth maybe $4,000 at this point.
The RX’s engine is still running great – and the paint looks good, too. That’s also common with modern cars. But what good does it do you to have a great-running engine or paint that still looks good after 15 years if your $4,000 car needs a repair that amounts to a third to half its retail value?
With an older car that has shocks and coils, you can replace all four shocks for about $200.
That math makes sense.
But putting $1,600-$3,200 into the RX? Keep in mind that something else could and probably will crap out at any time (it’s the nature of the beast when dealing with any older machine) and hit you with another big bill. Which becomes mathematically more likely the longer you own an electronics-addled modern car.
Modern cars also often have non-repairable components (e.g., throw-away hubs, non-greasable/non-serviceable suspension parts) and also more complicated components. The RX’s struts, for example. Much more expensive to replace than a standard/old-school shock absorber.
Also more difficult.
Shocks on an old car were typically held in place by three bolts (two at the top, one at the bottom) and all you needed was some combination wrenches, a floor jack, maybe some rust penetrant and some determination to remove the old ones and replace them with new ones.
Almost anyone could do this job.
Fewer people can do struts.
Similarly, brake service. ABS – which all modern cars have – ups the difficulty level. And the expense. If the ABS pump goes out, it’s a big bill. Older, pre-ABS cars don’t have ABS pumps. Or wheel speed sensors. Or computers.
Much easier to service – and cost less to service.
So, sure, modern cars are more “reliable” and “lower maintenance”… for a while. In between when you bought the thing and are making payments on it and the point at which things begin to stop working … which seems to start happening shortly after your final payment.
With the old stuff, maintenance intervals were shorter and you generally did need to service things more often. But the things that needing fixing were simpler and cheaper – and so were the cars. We had them paid off in three or four years and it was easy (and cheap) enough to keep them on the road for another ten years after that.
Sure, you had to pop the hood more often and maybe sometimes the balky bastard wouldn’t start. But you could also go years without payments and the fixes were generally things you could do with hand tools by yourself. And even if you did have to pay someone else to do ’em, the cost was more manageable.
We had more money in our pockets for other things as a result.
Are things really better now?
You tell me.
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