Reader Question: The 90k Time Bomb?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply! 

David asks: I read that you think the new cars will be financial disasters at 90,000 miles. Is this true and why?

My reply: Well, I never specified when, exactly. But – yes – new cars have become so complex that they are becoming unrepairable. Not in the it-can’t-be-done sense. In the it’s-too-expensive-to-be-worth-doing sense. I’ll give you an example:

I have an ’02 Nissan Frontier. It has a five speed manual transmission; the parts needed to rebuild it (if it ever needs to be rebuilt) cost a few hundred bucks. It has no electronic parts, so it doesn’t have many expensive or especially complicated parts. The labor to replace the old bearings and so on – if you need to  pay someone to do the work – adds maybe $1,000 depending on the shop. If I needed to rebuild my truck’s transmission, it would be well worth doing, relative to the value of the truck itself.

Now, a modern car’s electronically controlled automatic transmission (and they are almost all automatic now) is a massively complicated piece of technology. Many are not rebuildable and the cost to replace can and does routinely exceed $4,000. Would you spend $4k to replace the transmission in a ten-year-old vehicle worth $15k? How about when it is fifteen and worth $8k?

But it’s not just specific repair costs. Some parts – specific electronic ones – are sometimes very hard to find and very expensive to get after the factory no longer “supports” them. And there is the general problem of all those myriad wires/connectors/sensors and so on deteriorating and – inevitably – reaching a point after which the car becomes serially unreliable and a constant drain on your finances.

I do not say it happens at 90k. Most modern cars are extremely dependable for a long time – and longer than 90k. But unlike the cars of the past, which could be kept going almost forever if you were willing to do repairs every now and then, as needed  – and which you could often do yourself or afford to pay someone else to do – modern cars reach a point of sudden cardiac arrest that often just sort of sneaks up on you. This problem grows worse as new cars grow almost unimaginably complex, with partially-electric drivetrains and electronic systems that make the Apollo landers seem like kids’ toys in comparison.

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