Car News: The Great Lie

A weekly guide to all that’s rotten about car ownership, plus some good bits


Modern diagnostics detect faults in a nanosecond, but does the manufacturer avoid them?

The problem lies with most car magazines having morphed into sales rags. Almost all are aimed at boy racers. Their writers might be knowledgeable about how an engine works, and how well a car should hug a corner at speed. but that’s where it ends. On the issue of aesthetics, for example, to cover a lack of design education, the most over-used phrase is, I don’t know if I like it but it will grow on me. Hardly worth paying for a car magazine when the bloody writer doesn’t have an informed opinion.

They are worse when it comes to reliability and durability. Car magazines tell readers they don’t know how dependable a vehicle is until at least a year old. They have no data. This is indolence. They have the manufacturer’s past record of failures. They know which parts of the car broke or wore out in the previous model, and are sure to do the same in the new one. Auto writers do their readers a terrible disservice.

If you buy any of the top selling auto magazines, such as What Car or Top Gear and turn to the back pages you’ll find pithy (or smug) one-line comments about a car’s reliability, and that’s about it. As a guide to buying second-hand you get lines such as “look for leaking radiators and rust on rear wheel arches”. Those are serious flaws – no?

The magazines are too busy telling readers what a wonderful car the new Gomobile is to drive, or a crock of whatsit. I don’t really care if the shut lines, the gaps between doors and panels are wide or imperceptible; I want to know if the car will get me from A to B without failing. We used to be able to turn to the Consumer’s Association research and magazine WHICH? for in-depth analysis of new cars and how they performed and lasted. That venerable institution had its budget slashed years ago, part of the deregulation we are now suffering in everything, from banks to food standards.

Writers in  rags such as Autocar might get as far as mentioning the plastics under a new-style dash are a little hard compared to those on the top, or the sat-nav is confusing to read. You won’t read a word about, say, that shiny new Mercedes costing you £2,000 plus labour when its computer motherboard packs in.

The only brand I can recall that got a kicking whenever a new model appeared was TVR sporstcars. Back then it was difficult to hide the things that went wrong because bits physically fell off test cars. The marque was the butt of car hack jokes and mock disappointment: “This new TVR  Tuscan would be a Porsche beater if only the rear window didn’t blow out at 50 mph”.

A cheap car should not be a pile of bits just because it was assembled to a price. I asked a very talented cabinet maker to make kitchen units for my odd-shaped galley kitchen. I chose pine, all I could afford. The doors arrived with large gaps between mitred corners, this from a skilled restorer of high-end furniture. I was angry. “You chose cheap pine”, he said. His excuse for crap workmanship was the wood was too modest to shape carefully. Suzuki Altos are built in India down to a shaved rupee. They are likely to be the poorest vehicles you’ll ever see outside of a rickshaw. That doesn’t make it an unreliable car. Nor is it a badly screwed together car. Owners swear by their simplicity and dependability. There’s wisdom in simplicity.

Many a car maker produces vehicles with iffy parts, parts they know will wear out in double-quick time, but out of warranty. They have an industry dependent on regular servicing and replacement parts, the equivalent of the hoover vacuum scam where you had to buy their bags to fit their vacuum cleaner.

Auto hacks praise new models because they  don’t want to alienate the manufacturer and be denied a free car for a few months to test. They have a point, just not a good one. Ferrari is infamous for blackmailing writers into giving good reviews or withholding their cars, free trips and slap up meals to their factory in Modena, Italy, to drive their latest creation. The Ferraris I’ve sat in were poorly put together, but this, I was told, is a design feature of a Ferrari to be cherished.

One of the worst cars I ever drove was a Land Rover Discovery. Everything in it failed at one time or another. In the heat of Death Valley the dash top warped and the rear view mirror fell off. This supposedly go-anywhere vehicle had an engine that leaked everywhere. Suspension mounts buckled, doors creaked. The service assistant told me “They’re all like that, sir”. Range Rover has one of the worst records for electric glitches. It lands near the bottom of reliability lists.

An so it continues: Nissan’s Qashqai is the biggest selling SUV, beloved by mums for the school run. There have been issues reported with the Qashqai’s automatic gearbox, a pain in a car that ought to have had teething troubled eradicated years ago. Auto hacks are far too reverential when assessing new vehicles.

The battery died in your air-cooled Porsche 911 if the car was left garaged for more than a few weeks. The culprit was the clock draining the battery. Electric cars should be far less prone to iffy parts. In a Tesla electric car, for example, even the brake disks and pads are designed to last the life of the car.

Franchised cars dealers are supposed to report recurring faults to manufacturers. The engineer who service your car sees faults recurring every day. He tells the dealer’s executives, who send reports to the factory. Nothing gets fixed if manufactures think it will reduce the profit margin. Some faults are lethal, but that’s another story.

Watch out for auto journalists who write, “all versions of this car have a reputation for reliability.” And a few paragraph later, write, “Frequent repair requests concern clutch, gearbox,  and air conditioning, costing £1,000 to £2,000 to put right”. In case you think I made up that example, I’ve just quoted the smarmy Quentin Wilson. In the column next to his waffle was a notice of recalls for the same model citing brake fluid leaks and power steering failure!

You can buy the most expensive car on the block and still find a built-in fault is the Achilles heel. “They all do that, sir.” Many a chocolate engine was stuffed into an expensive car, never improved. We the client pay in repair bills. Call it built in obsolesce or call it lying car hacks.


Corner cutters

Drivers who cut corners make me very angry. To avoid them I find I’m pulling into the left of a road as I reach the junction though I intend to turn right. Why? Because cars entering my street from the main road left will cut the corner as they turn right into my street and into my path. You’re suppose to slow down and take almost a 90 degree turn. Lazy drivers maintain their speed and do a curved entry. If I wait at the junction too close to the right the sods will take out my bumper, headlight and sidelight and ruin my day. And they add to the dangers but turning too fast into my street just as a pedestrian is walking across pavement to pavement. I can’t be the only driver to experience this recklessly lazy trend. Take the goddam corners properly!

Winter tyres

We are due bad winters now that climate trends shift from bad to worse. Right-wing numbskull deniers such as Trump tell us it’s all a load of bull just before, and for some cockamamie reason, often after a Category 5 hurricane wipes out another chunk of Florida. Here I’m talking about snow and ice. Tyre technology has moved on leaps and bounds since Mr Dunlop has the idea of putting rubber on a wheel’s rim. Swedish countries make changing to winter tyres mandatory. We’re still playing catch-up. One of the issues is where to store your summer tyres if you don’t have a garage or shed. My answer on SUVs at least is to use summer-winter tyres, a good compromise. I choose Yokohamas – referred to as ‘Yokos’ in the trade. They have a stickier surface for summer tarmac than other brands. In winter the top tested tyres are made by Continental for keeping you safe and inspiring confident driving in lashing rain and packed ice. The number is Continental TS860. After that try Bridgestone tyres, my next recommendation. Mind you, the best tyres are useless in flash floods, as countries are seeing from Thailand to France and Southern England. Pack an inflatable dinghy for that eventuality.

How much?

In a chat about electric bicycles a friend wondered how much we pay to own and run a car in a single lifetime. I did a quick calculation. Assuming, like me you prefer small, easy on the gas cars, include road tax, MOT’s and depreciation, plus a little for repairs and that burst tyre, and you got your licence at 20 and stopped driving at 70 years of age, it’s a hellova lot of dosh. You might well have averaged over £5,000 annually, and spent over a quarter of a million pounds in those 50 years. A sobering thought, especially if you rent an apartment and can’t make ends meet. It’s enough to drive a person to use buses.


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5 Responses to Car News: The Great Lie

  1. When I was around 18, my friend’s old-man was in the car trade. Lachie, my mate, would appear with a Merc, a A Sovereign, A BMW, or a thing that resembled a spaceship. When we were lucky to drive a used-car from the Car Market in Glasgow’s east-end, he was natural, comfortable and confident behind the wheel of a new or as-new top-range, class car. One day we were sat at a red traffic light, behind a BMW. Back-then, the catchphrase of that marque, emblazoned on a strip across the rear windscreen, was ‘UNBEATABLE BMW’. During a lull in our talk, Lachie quoted it as we waited for the lights to change; “Unbeatable BMW”.. “It’s true – it’s the best car in the world”.. It’s funny, the little things remembered from over 40 years ago. I took note.

    A few years ago, I was in the market for a new (used) car when my old BMW 5 Series was ready to kack-it. I asked my always-busy mechy of many years; “What d’you think I should go for between a BMW and a Merc” he replied; “Nane ae them” and “They don’t build these cars like they used to, they’re no’ the same”..
    I enquired; “What about a Jap car?”.. “Aye, some ae them aren’t bad – but Kia makes the best cars the noo”..

    I’d never considered Audi until I had some friends from Stuttgart (Porsche, Mercedes-Benz) staying with me. We were heading along the M8 and one of them salivated over the big Audi A6 cruising past us; “This is the best car being manufactured at this time, it is the car I dream of”.. I took note.
    In a bar that I frequent, a talkative teetotaler (soft drinks) raved about his Audi A4; “Best car I’ve owned. This is my second A4”.. I took note. That was about 4 years ago, he drives a latest-model Merc now, raves about it.

    I bought a used A4, mainly cuz my old maw can no longer get in and out of my Transit Connect. Her rarely used wheelchair lives in the spacious boot. The Audi is a lovely car, although a little lumpy. Smart and comfortable interior, but the driver’s seat squashes me a little; I prefer the Transit Connect seats.
    I hope my A4 isn’t listening, but it’s not as classy as my old 5-Series.

    Heck. I have work to do and here’s me…

    Good article, GB!

  2. Lanark says:

    Absolutely spot on about the motoring press. I confess to still buying Auto Express most weeks and all you say above applies, also they still eulogise diesels. Grrrr.

  3. Grouse Beater says:

    Auto Express takes a more driver-friendly, down-to-earth, practical attitude to car ownership, though occasionally forced to compete with Autocar’s supercar obsession.

  4. Lanark says:

    Yes Auto Express is certainly more connected to the real world, which is why it is the only one I will read nowadays.

    As I have reached middle age, I find I now prefer older and more “conditionally challenged” cars. So it would be good to see more of a focus on long term ownership occasionally.

    And that’s where this blog comes in!

  5. Grouse Beater says:

    That pleases me, Lanark. I took a bit of a gamble raising car and traffic articles, but as I only have time to write essays for the weekend, it left a gap in the middle of the week, regular readers looking for more material. With franchised columns in the US, writing about the car industry is an easy slot for me. However, to fit in with the blog anything car related has to be political and satirical. Vehicles rule a great deal of our lives, and manufacturers rule government policy, as Brexit illustrates so well.

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