Cars are a suck

“At what point does your car become so defect prone and unreliable that you just want to trade it in for any price short of theft?  Millions of consumers face this exact scenario every year: Some cars are simply worth more dead than alive, while others have issues so expensive and complex that you can’t even find a willing buyer who will remove it from your life.”

Steven Lang
June 10, 2014

I’m 0 for the last 2 cars.  

The last one I bought looked fabulous.  Wet with the falling rain, the blue-green finish sparked.  It occupied a primo place by itself on the lot, as if on display.  The hook was set.  Used, as all my cars always are, with high miles.  Assurance from one online resource was all I needed… I thought.  Turns out, it wasn’t enough information.  It’s a troubled car.

The one before was one of those car buys made while backed into a corner.  Family responsibilities; stuff going on at work; that kind of thing  The car it replaced had been totaled after a low-speed collision.  Pressed for a quick solution, I sought out a near-duplicate.  The devil you know, as it were.  Paid for it twice; five grand to buy it, another five to repair it.  Should have walked away.  

Buying used cars used to be different.  There might be a road test in a back issue of one of the car magazines.  But mostly it was an attempt to read the karma of the car itself.  What kind of life had it lived?  Were previous owners good to it?  Was it a member of the family?  Was it a happy car?  Or had it been ridden hard and put up wet?  Sad from neglect?

There used to be a mental list of thing I’d look for, in an attempt to get the car to open up, to speak to me.  Check the seams between the doors, hood and trunk, to learn if the car had been crashed or poorly repaired.  Put a newspaper under the engine while it was running, to see if the car leaked oil.  Put the palm of my hand close to the tailpipe, to feel the pulses of exhaust which should be uniform and regular.  Look at the color and texture of the engine oil on the dipstick.  Pull the cap off the crankcase breather; check the smell.  Check the coolant for rust.  Listen for rattles, odd noises, loose things that shouldn’t be loose.  Compare the mileage on the odometer to the general wear and condition of the interior (rumpled, worn upholstery and low mileage don’t tell the same story; one of them is lying).

Surprising how many used cars checked in this way turned out well, gave good service, could be counted on to start every time they were asked, never refused to bring me home from wherever I drove them.  With few exceptions, they made me feel good about owning them.  

Then two things happened.  

Cars got complicated.  The last one I was able to work on myself was a 1970 model.  Electronic ignition replaced breaker points.  Fuel injection replaced carburetors.  Sensors and actuators got attached to everything.  Computers now measure input data and make changes to systems on the fly.  That stuff is a complete mystery to me.

Car research changed.  The internet happened.  Opinions, rants, raves, bias, credible knowledge, useful information, as well as public displays of blatant lunacy, are available at a touch.  The word miasma comes to mind.   

The cars parked in front of my house do seem to be part of a trend.  And credible sources of information seem to support it.  As cars have become more complicated, they seem to have become less reliable.  With age and mileage, the sensors, actuators, computers and all the other technology don’t play well together anymore.  I’ve been researching the solution to CE lights and the fault codes they represent.  Both cars suffer.  A search for answers to a P0300 misfire code for the most recent car led me to multiple Google hits.  While many described the exact conditions of my car, many hits described the same thing but for other makes and models.  A 2004 Mazda and a 2004 Subaru, with the same fault code and the exact same driveability symptoms?

But here’s the thing.  None of the hits I’ve read have included a definitive identification of the problem, pinpointed the defective parts or systems, or the needed repair.  Doesn’t matter which fault code, aberrant symptom or performance glitch.  The information is always of a “this, but maybe that” quality.  It’s like no one knows how to fix these.

I’ve been researching this for over a year, becoming more and more convinced that there’s an epidemic of used cars, all with essentially the same level of technology, which have “…become so defect prone and unreliable that you just want to trade it in for any price”.  Or leave the keys in the ignition, with the signed-off title on the seat and the door unlocked.  

The guy who told me is a mechanic, so he should know.  Cars are a suck.

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