Are newer cars harder to repair?

Thursday July 29 2021
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The 2021 Jaguar.New car maintenance has become difficult for the very many average mechanics without electronic diagnostic equipment and knowledge on how to use it. PHOTOS/INTERNET

By Mustafa Ziraba

The current car imports law states that passenger cars older than 15 years are not allowed.

That said, in 2021, the oldest car import should not be older than 2006. The tax regime heavily penalises older cars with the infamous environmental tax where from a tax standpoint, it’s cheaper to import a newer car. It is expected that this 15 year cut-off shall move to 10 then finally eight years as it is in Kenya. 

This shall force us to keep our old beaters much longer than buy newer, modern cars.

This is a good thing for the consumers is for all intents and purposes as modern cars make our lives easier in a lot of ways.

They have better fuel mileage, more comfort and luxury equipment, they move faster, and brake sooner. But all of these advancements in engineering and technology come at a cost. Reparability.

While many garages and mechanics have moved with the times, upgraded their knowledge through experience, use of diagnostic tools, Internet and outright trial and error, newer cars are certainly harder to work on for the average mechanic.

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Decentralised electronically

New cars are decentralised electronically, they have more electronic components, sensors looking for errors on other sensors. This makes new car maintenance difficult for the very many average mechanics without electronic diagnostic equipment and knowledge on how to use it.

See, advanced electronics are no longer solely a province of luxury cars. You can find things such as seat warmers, active steering assist, passive safety systems, smart braking systems and adaptive cruise controls on any new car whether it is a 2018 Mercedes or a 2018 Toyota Corolla.

For example, simple tasks such as changing a battery in a modern BMW necessitates a trip to the dealership to have the computer recalibrated just to accept the new battery.

Some cars come with electronic water pumps instead of mechanic and are not even driven by the good old belt.

Even a simple headlight can require that you remove the headlight assembly right after removal of the bumper and bulbs can cost thousands if your particular car requires specialty bulbs. Electrical gremlins would require you to refer to wiring diagrams from the manufacturer, an exercise that is not exactly typical.

Mechanics typically begin a repair in a modern car by plugging an expensive diagnostic tool into the OBD port. Depending on the particular problem, your mechanic may not even be able to fix it.

Case of engine control unit

Gonzaga Mukasa from Najjera had this issue with a BMW because the mechanic did not have the flashing equipment to reset the ECU after replacing the anti-theft module.

Going back in the past to cars produced as recently as the late 1990s and early 2000s, cars had far fewer bells and whistles than the average mechanic had to contend with.

You still needed a scan tool, but you could get away with owning a cheap tool if you had to and it would do everything that you needed it to. In fact, the vast majority of repairs one had to perform on cars from the 90s did not even require a code scanner.

So why have new cars become harder to work on?

Why have car manufacturers universally moved in this direction toward ever more complex systems and technology?

Car manufacturers do not have a lot of incentive to make repair-friendly cars. There is a lot of competition within the car manufacturing space.

The most effective way for any business to outcompete their competition in a relatively free market is to respond to their customers, and the automotive industry is no different. And customers typically don’t consider ease of repair as an important factor in selecting a new car.

Many people may buy Toyotas because of their reputation for reliability, but most people do not consider how easy it will be to fix problems as they arise.

Naturally, they are much more concerned with bells and whistles, interior comfort, exterior styling, gas mileage, and driver assist technology.

So reparability outside their sphere of influence like a dealership is really a second class consideration. Some schools of thought swear by the belief that manufacturers make hard car repairs on purpose.

If car manufacturers strove to make the perfect car that anyone off the street could work on them they would never earn another shilling from dealership service departments.

Dealership servicing is big business for car manufacturers and no one would take their cars to the dealership if they didn’t have to.

When I talked to Donald Lule, a senior lecturer with the Nakawa Vocational Institute, he mentioned that some cars are easier and some are harder.

It just depends on the car. Having been trained in Japan, Lule contends that modern cars are, on the contrary, way easier to diagnose and repair than older cars, even for non-professionals.

The easier options

Modifications are easier in his opinion as well.

“We have such a better understanding of technology today than we did just five, 10, 15 years ago. Cars are built so systematically nowadays as well. Some people say that new cars are difficult to work on because everything is cramped and in the way, but things come apart way more easily than they did before. They can build a car in a few hours, and a well-trained technician can fully disassemble one just as quickly,” he says with a smile on his face.

“I will agree with most people that cars are not designed anymore to be easily serviceable, but they are easy to disassemble. You may have to remove more things to access the part you need to get to, but it will not take you all that long to do so,” he concludes.

Indeed, this might be true but he was speaking from the standpoint of a formally trained mechanic who has access to resources both by training and physical tools, access that many mechanics may not have out there.

The fact is, modern cars shall be a problem for the average mechanic. So many things about them require specialised tools, knowledge and most importantly, software expertise to modify or repair.

The standard service parts for the most part are still the same. Things like spark plugs, changing the oil and filter replacement, brake pads and so on.

Basic troubleshooting is still the same as always on the surface, identify the problem, work back from likely culprits. But with modern cars, it’s infinitely more complicated by the interactions of different electronic modules.

I personally believe that a motivated mechanic with a good quality scan tool and willingness to use the enormous amount of resources available online and relatively inexpensive diagnostic equipment today, can step up and manage the newer car repairs.

In future...

The fact is, modern cars shall be a problem for the average mechanic. So many things about them require specialised tools, knowledge and most importantly, software expertise to modify or repair.

The standard service parts for the most part are still the same. Things like spark plugs, changing the oil and filter replacement, brake pads etc.

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