Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!
Mark asks: Hello, Eric! I just donated $100 to your site, partly because I enjoy reading your knowledgeable and clear-eyed commentaries about automotive issues.
I am also hoping to get your advice about my vehicle situation. I presently drive an ’05 Odyssey with 172K miles on it. I like it quite a bit, not least because it is about as depreciated as it will ever get. My plan has been to drive it into the ground, then replace it with another Odyssey or other minivan maybe 5 years old. However, I have become concerned by your commentaries about automakers’ efforts to squeeze teensy weensy amounts of fuel economy out of their vehicles by incorporating things like 10-speed transmissions, which in turn threaten hugely expensive repairs down the road.
Or, just today, you commented about safety systems which can actually be threats to safety.
If I keep my Odyssey long enough, and I figure it most likely has at least three years left, I will find it harder and harder to avoid more and more of these sorts of features. Five years old now is 2013 or 14, and three years from now five years old will be 2016 or 17. Or else, I will have to opt for an older replacement vehicle than the five-year old vehicle I have been expecting to buy.
What do you think I should do? Still to my current plan and not worry about it, or perhaps replace my current Odyssey sooner so I can get a 5-year old replacement without having to buy a bunch of stuff I don’t want? Or, should I stick to my current plan, but buy a replacement vehicle which is more than five years old if that is necessary to avoid these troublesome modern features? Please let me know. Thanks!
My reply: Thanks, first of all, for supporting the site! Having been anathematized by Goo-guhl and otherwise guilty of heresy, it’s reader support that keeps this machine on the road!
Ok, on your question: We are all this boat together. Because all cars are being encrusted with these “features” of dubious merit such as very small (for the car . . or the truck) highly turbocharged engines and the eight, nine and ten-speed transmissions we’ve been talking about – even family and commuter cars.
Plus technologies such as automatic stop-start and “mild hybrid” systems with 48 volt electrics – all controlled by multiple computers tied to numerous sensors. Add to this a layer of “safety” systems which are becoming very aggressively pre-emptive and also very technologically elaborate (and so, expensive).
The general theme is that cars are increasing in complexity to a degree that – in my view – doesn’t make practical or economic sense. Their cost is rising and at the same time, they depreciate more severely precisely because of the complexity, which has greatly increased repair costs and also because a lot of the tech ages quickly. You end up with a much more (and much sooner) disposable car. It works ok if you go from lease to lease – or don’t mind buying a new car every six or seven years (or less).
But for most people, it’s bad news.
As to why this is happening:
Part of it is the mandates – now almost innumerable – issuing from Washington, which no longer accepts any limits on its self-appointed role as Car Designer in Chief.
One mandate in particular can be blamed for almost all the over-the-top changes we’re seeing now and which are coming. It is the almost doubling of federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mandatory minimums decreed by the Obama administration’s EPA. I’ve written at length about this before but in brief, CAFE established a “fleet average” MPG number which each automaker’s fleet must meet – or else the government applies “gas guzzler” fines as an inducement to meet them.
These fines, of course, are passed on to car buyers.
The CAFE standard is now on track to rise to almost 50 MPG on average by model year 2025, which is only about five years from now. The only cars currently on the market capable of averaging 50 MPG are small hybrids like the Toyota Prius, Hyundai Ioniq and Kia Niro.
To get non-hybrid cars even close to averaging 50 MPG will require things even more elaborate/complex/expensive than transmissions with multiple overdrive gears and very small displacement engines that cycle off as much as possible, which are turbocharged to provide on-demand power.
It will require adding more hybrids – and electric cars – to a car company’s model lineup, to even out the math.
Expect the engineering solutions to become absolutely desperate as we get closer to 2025.
So, what to do?
Most people do not realize the there is a tsunami of expense/complexity and nannyism of unprecedented magnitude coming. Hence, it is a very good time to snatch up a lower-miles car without as much of this stuff as you can find – before the prices of these cars begins to rise, as people realize what’s in store for them with regard to new cars.
The stuff made before about 2015 is still largely functionally and economically sane. Most will still have naturally aspirated engines (no turbo) and five or six-speed transmissions. Auto-stop is fairly rare in 2015 and older vehicles. If you go slightly older, you can often avoid direct injected engines (these are prone to carbon fouling) as well as most of the really over-the-top “safety” stuff, such as automated emergency braking, lane keep assist and the uber-creepy facial recognition stuff in the latest Subarus (more is coming).
If your current Odyssey is sound – and from your description, it sounds as though that’s the case – I would continue to drive it and take care of it for as long as it holds up (don’t sweat the miles or the age; if it runs well, keep on running!) while at the same time also beginning my search for its replacement. You may have five or six years life (or more) left in the current Odyssey.
Honda’s V6 is exceptionally durable; the same engine in the Accord often goes for 300,000 miles. The weaker link is the transmission – but even if it does go, replacing it might well be worth doing if it means getting another 2-3 years of service out of the vehicle.
It’s what I’d do, assuming the vehicle was otherwise still sound.
Meanwhile, you’ll have the incomparable luxury of time to find your back-up Odyssey (or similar). Because you’re not pressured to find one right now, you can be choosy. And the used market is pretty quiescent … for now.
If all goes to plan, you’ll be able to drive your current Odyssey for many more years – and then be in a position to drive the “new” one for at least ten more.
I suspect that will be long enough to get you – and hopefully many others who proactively do the same – through the storm that’s coming.
. . .
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