While modern cars are more reliable at first and last longer – for awhile – after about 15 years, when their much more complicated systems begin to reach the end of their useful service life, modern cars become progressively more expensive to keep up and within a few years, uneconomic to keep. If you want to talk about “planned obsolescence,” this is what it’s really all about.
I got into an argument here with another poster about this. I pointed out that a car like my ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am has a very basic drivetrain, the entire thing rebuilt easily and relatively inexpensively. For example, the engine consists of a cast iron lump of metal with a very simple fuel delivery system. There is a cast iron intake manifold (almost indestructible/essentially infinite usable life) and a simple stand-alone fuel mixing device – the carburetor – which can be rebuilt to as-new condition with a simple gasket/seal kit for about $75 if you do the work yourself (well within the capability of a reasonably competent DIY mechanic with a few basic hand tools) or maybe a couple hundred if you turned the job over to a professional rebuilder such as Cliff Ruggles. My old Pontiac’s entire fuel-delivery system can be restored to factory-new condition for a few hundred bucks – and that includes peripherals such as the fuel pump (simple, mechanical, easy to get to and replace). This process can be repeated probably infinitely or at least many, many times, well beyond my own lifetime. My Trans-Am could and probably will be still running 100 years from now.
But a modern car with a fuel-injected engine and computer?
Even if you assume that the often-plastic major components (including the intake manifold itself) don’t deteriorate to the point of requiring replacement after 20-plus years or so, eventually, inevitably, the electrical components – including the computer that controls everything – will fail and will then require replacement. Note: not repair. Electrical components are often not serviceable; you throw them away and replace them with new parts. If you can find new parts… .
And even if the parts are available 20 or 30 or more years down the road, they will be orders of magnitude more expensive than the parts needed to keep an older, pre-electronic car like my Pontiac running – unless there is a miraculous reduction in the cost of these parts in the future. But today, a replacement computer can cost many hundreds of dollars; then there are the multiple sensors necessary for the system to function properly. Each of these little parts has a big price tag. But we haven’t even gotten to the fuel system itself yet. Now we need multiple injectors (most late model cars have one for each cylinder), fuel rails, the wiring harnesses associated with all this… etc.
If you had to replace most of the major components of a late-model fuel-injected car 20 or 30 or more years from now, it is likely you would be spending $1,000 or more just to get the parts – if you can find the parts. (It is very likely that many parts will not be available decades from now – precisely because of the economics. It is cost-sensible to reproduce a $70 rebuild kit for a 1976 Rochester Quadrajet; it is probably not going to be cost-sensible to reproduce a $600 EFI wiring harness for an ’87 IROC-Z.)
Then you’d need a higher order of knowledge/aptitude/skill to actually restore the system. Or you’d have to pay someone who has such to do the work – another big expense.
My friend – the guy who argued with me – said that learning how to competently work on an electronic car is not harder than learning to work on a pre-electronic car. I very much disagree with him. A 16-year-old with a basic socket set can remove the intake manifold from my Trans-Am and reinstall it. The equivalent job on an electronic/EFI car is much more involved, requires more skill and tools. I’ve worked on both, so I’m speaking from experience. The carburetor is a straighforward and basically simple mechanical device; if you have a Holley carb, an extremely simple mechanical device with only a few moving parts that almost anyone can remove/replace/rebuild in literally 15-30 minutes’ time. The equivalent job on a late-model car with a computer and EFI is much more involved, requiring at least a working knowledge of fairly complex electronics as well as specialized tools and diagnostic equipment. Even “trained” technicians often have trouble isolating and dealing with bugs that develop with modern computerized/electronic systems.
The engine itself:
Rebuilding the entire engine to “good as new” is a simple process, involving some light machine work, a set of gaskets/rings/bearings, etc. and about 2-3 hours of assembly time. If I do the work myself, the cost (machining and gaskets/bearings, etc. ) for the entire job is going to be less than $800. That is for a complete tear down and rebuilding to as-new condition – good to go for another 100,000-plus miles.
If I paid to have the engine professionally rebuilt the cost would be about $3,000.
Remember: My engine needs no sensors,no complex wiring or electronics. The whole “works” can be brought back to functionally new condition for an amount of money that’s not only manageable, it’s proportionate to the value of the car itself.
And this is where you get into trouble with a late-model car. Unless it is a desirable collectible and worth a lot of money – and few late model cars will fall into this class 20, 30 or more years from now – the cost to keep it going (let alone restore it) will be out of proportion to the worth of the vehicle itself.
Who is going to put $1,500 into such a car – for anything?
New cars have many virtues, among them “just drive it” reliability for many years from new. But eventually, almost every modern, computer-controlled, EFI-equipped car will reach a point of diminishing returns, a point after which it becomes either cost-prohibitive as such to keep it going – or cost-nonsensical to do so relative to the value of the car itself.
Throw it in the Woods?