(Please extend the usual sullen Riverside Green welcome to returning contributor Michael Briskie — JB)
It was snowing outside the dealership, and the sales staff were busy running around cleaning cars on the lot. “They don’t make them like they used to,” said an aging customer wandering around the showroom. He was admiring an immaculate 1960’s Beetle, occupying prime real estate just inside the front doors, juxtaposed against the new cars on display. I hesitated before asking what he meant by that, recognizing the likelihood of a long conversation stuffed with foggy nostalgia.
“We used to drive an old Beetle through the snow like it was nobody’s business,” he said. “You couldn’t break it if you tried.”
Given his fondness for the good old days, I wondered why he even bothered to come look at new cars on this slippery morning. He could instead buy that very Beetle, perfectly restored, for less than ten grand. He was right though. Air cooled Beetles conquered everything from winter storms to Baja desert racing. Many still do. 50 years later, tens of thousands of these things just keep on going, probably because they’re just so easy to fix.
People buy cars around their perceived notions of reliability all the time. In fact, there is no other reason I can use to explain the volume of Corolla sales. It all got me thinking: Do automakers REALLY care about the lifespan of their cars? And like that Bug, fifty years from now, will we see anything at all on the road from 2018? With that, let’s dig into the ideas of planned obsolescence, lifecycle management, and mainly, whether or not any car companies give a damn about how a car ages.
First of all, automakers aren’t in the business of selling used cars. What could be in it for them to build cars that substantially outlast their first owner or two? Especially in an era where leasing represents over 60% of sales for many brands, why build a car that lasts 10, 20, or even 30 years?
Product planners are thinking about this. Honda and Subaru are just two automakers shortening lifecycles to five quick years, or maybe even four if the product is a dud (hello, last gen Civic!). Over a five year lifecycle, the mid-cycle refresh now happens at the start of year three, conveniently the length of the average lease. Almost all lessees return to find a nicer, newer car at the dealership upon turn-in, and they are relieved to find out that the $500 disposition fee they had forgotten about is waived if they purchase or lease another vehicle from the same brand.
So it’s no surprise that manufacturers like to lease. But the average age of all vehicles on the road in the US is 11 years, so plenty of people are buying used or hanging on for the long haul. For those buy-and-hold folks, quality matters.
Quality, at least at vehicle launch, has very little to do with reliability or durability – unless of course, the companies in question are Alfa Romeo or Tesla. But typically, quality at launch is all about fit and finish, material selection, and some mushy stuff about the way a car feels. Sure, there is a thing called “Initial Quality,” which is a joke worth telling in a different article. The thing is, almost everything works for the first few months of ownership. It’s safe to assume most new cars hold together pretty well for three years minimum, suffering no major failures, otherwise automakers would have a hard time earning that profitable lease-cycle business and they would be paying out expensive warranty claims.
It stands to reason that beyond that warranty period, some sort of reputable survey or award could be helpful for consumers interested in true long term quality; the sort of quality people associate with cars that run, look, and feel great after 100,000 miles or more. But where can we find that?
JD Power, the most common name in vehicle awards (much less well known for their OEM-pay-to-play business scheme), offers their “Dependability Study,” which gives readers the impression of knowing which cars will last the longest. The time frame for this study? Three years of ownership. Three years! It feels okay to state the obvious here: That is not old. What else is out there? Consumer Reports does a decent job of polling their subscribers on vehicles dating back to Model Year 2000, but still has problems with skewed data (over-reporting by people with problems, under-reporting those with none), sampling from subscribers only, and confirmation bias in their predictive ratings. Despite its many faults, CR provides the most accurate information available on reliability, but still leaves room for vast improvement. Without any good long term ownership metrics, all that is left are popularity contests.
At this point, we have to ask what the difference is between Reliability and Durability. Reliability, like performance, can mean different things to different people. Does it mean more cars on the road with over 100k miles than any other brand? That’s an easy claim when you also happen to sell the most cars (ahem, Toyota, ahem). Should it be measured by number of breakdowns? If so, how would you get that data? When automakers look at reliability, they estimate something called Total Cost of Ownership, which is measured in terms of dollars per mile over a period of X miles. 10,000 mile oil changes, 100k spark plug intervals, and timing chains instead of belts all factor into the equation. This calculation would make a great reliability metric for customers, because it includes the costs of repairs AND maintenance over the lifespan of a vehicle; but of course, car companies would be crazy to publish this. That means accurate cost of ownership data remains a mystery.
If we have come up with a plausible definition of reliability, then what the heck is durability? Perhaps durability is how well a car endures, or in other words, its ability to stay with the times. Is the car still relevant despite its age? After ten years, how timeless are its lines? How functional is the infotainment system? We all know that Honda K-Series motors can run without oil at 8000rpm for 5 minutes, and the Lexus LS400 can be a comfortable million mile car (almost). But have the seats discolored or ripped from regular use? Is the body still solid, or is it perforated with rust? Is the powertrain still capable of keeping up with traffic, or bringing joy into the lives of their drivers? These details are what can make a car more than the sum of its parts and maybe even worth loving many years later, even when parked next to its more modern siblings.
Separating these two concepts of Reliability and Durability sheds a harsh light on the longevity issue. There’s no doubt that reliability is increasing; that 11 year average age is going up. But I’m not so sure about durability. Perhaps automakers are inadvertently killing durability by focusing too much on the new and the trendy. It’s hard to imagine today’s plastic bumpers, plastic seats, and plastic dashboards (and plastic oil pans, plastic intake manifolds… I could go on) looking great inside and out a couple of decades from now. It’s much harder to imagine the technology in the center stack being relevant.
Let’s talk about tech specifically for a minute. A navigation screen from five years ago looks downright ancient in a 2018 model. I’ll posit the idea that cars sold now are aging more rapidly than cars of the past. The march of digital progress has infiltrated just about every new car on sale, and the Silicon Valley presence in your dashboard (and do-everything-by-wire systems) is undeniable. Now with over-the-air updates, it seems every model year some fancy gadget makes the previous one a dinosaur. Classic cars with designs full of character and recognizable materials have a timelessness missing from the gaping grills and digitized controls of today’s cars SUVs.
The villain inside me notes that since automakers have profit-sharing arrangements as part of their dealer franchise agreements, they would benefit drastically from independent shops struggling to fix complex items like adaptive suspensions, semi-autonomous sensors, and the slew of items that trigger warning lights and spur a customer to the shop. For OEM’s, its good business if the always-profitable service desk is the only hope a customer has of fixing their car. For proof of this, a consortium of independent mechanics recently filed lawsuits against automakers for withholding vital repair information from the shops on the basis of intellectual property rights. Without the info, private shops have no hope of fixing today’s complex vehicle systems.
I suppose it is hard to imagine automakers engineering a car with systems complex enough to stump shade tree mechanics, but reliable enough to pull through the warranty period unfazed, yet consistently breakable so that they can drive customers to their own service lanes. If that sounds too much like a conspiracy theory, I would like to direct your attention to Apple’s recent apology. We now know Apple has been slowing down customer phones for years, but you have to wonder before that happened, how many trips to the genius bar could someone take before caving in and buying a shiny brand new phone? Oh, did I say buy? I meant lease. We are leasing phones now, and the service plan is required as terms of the lease! That’s a business model OEM’s are looking to get behind. It is only a matter of time.
That means we are faced with a paradox. Cars are gaining complexity, yet becoming more reliable. This is good news, until eventually the dealer is the only one able to fix it. Who will care for the cars of today like people did for the Beetles of yesterday? It will be impossible to keep them on the road without extreme costs, like how the McLaren F1 can only be serviced by a few specialized people who still know how to use 1990’s Dell computers running ancient software.
I don’t expect many classics from today in the future. The old man was right, they don’t make them like they used to. Even though our cars today have impossible luxuries by comparison, their long term staying power will never match those from previous eras. We are quickly approaching a time where it will be just as crazy to buy an older “high-tech” car as it would be to buy a first generation Blackberry today. I sure hope you like leasing.