Tuesday, May 21, 2024
HomeCulture WarBeware the money-eaters in modern cars

Beware the money-eaters in modern cars


WHILE queueing to pay my £165 bill for an interim car service (an amount I had agreed in advance and haggled over), I overheard the chap in front of me settling a bill for £4,326.55. I winced.

When the customer had left the showroom, I asked the service agent: ‘What did you do to his car? A complete engine rebuild?’ The agent replied that it was a problem with the engine management / emissions control systems. After a little more chitchat, he confirmed that repair bills above £2,000 are quite common, and £4,000+ not unusual at all.

Over the past few decades we have seen so many improvements made to vehicles, many implemented to improve environmental credentials, reduce fuel consumption or emissions. Other improvements have zero environmental benefit and are purely for convenience or security, but may spell the end of a vehicle’s life when they fail.

The inability to repair any product economically, thereby resulting in its premature disposal perhaps only halfway through its reasonable life, is simply not sound environmental practice.  

I have detailed below many of the relatively recent technological innovations which may be acceptable to have in a new car (as long as it is under warranty or on some sort of contract plan) but, if you are the fourth owner of a car which has done 80,000 miles, you can find yourself having to make the difficult decision of whether to repair or scrap the vehicle on cost grounds. Think of the environmental impact of that!

Dual Mass Flywheel or DMF

Rather than the flywheel being a single disc of metal, a DMF is made of two flywheels with springs between. The DMF will help reduce torque loads on components and vibration. At high mileages it starts to rattle and can eventually break up making the car undriveable. Repair cost: £1,000.

Diesel particulate filter or DPF

This horror sits in the exhaust system, capturing all the soot as you drive around town. It then burns the soot off when you drive at higher speeds for prolonged periods, eg on a motorway. (This self-cleaning action is known as ‘regeneration’.) DPFs block up, won’t regenerate, the sensors fail, the car fails its MoT and eventually won’t even work. Repair cost: £2,000.

Wet timing belt / belt in oil

 Here is my previous TCW article on this.


A liquid that you put in a tank under the bonnet (or wherever else they hide it). It is injected into the exhaust to reduce emissions. When this system fails, your wallet will emit vast numbers of £.

Engine Management Light or EML (check engine light)

This one makes my heart sink every time it comes on. It signals that something may be wrong and my bank account is about to be emptied. It may be something minor or an impending /actual catastrophic failure. The dealer will charge a fee just to plug the car in and tell you, for example: ‘It’s throwing up a P0238’ (a fault code).  You must have complete trust in them at this stage. It could be anything or nothing. The actual diagnosis of what’s wrong and repair bill follows.

Tyre pressure sensors (TPS)

I detest this one. What is wrong with checking our own tyres with a £10 tyre pressure gauge once in a while? Instead we have sensors within the tyres which are expected to whizz round at hundreds of RPM, up kerbs, over speed bumps, through potholes etc while surviving the experience . . . and they don’t.  If not working, they are an MoT failure. Replacement is often not expensive, but we often hear: ‘We can’t get the parts. They are on order, but it might take more than five weeks.’

Remote control central locking and a plippy key fob thingy (or even worse – keyless entry)

What was wrong with a good old key which you put in the door and turn? Once inside, you reached over and pulled up the knobble to let the passenger in. The plippy key fob thingy costs hundreds to replace when you lose it in the mud at the country park. Whereas the key on my old Allegro (remember them?) costs a tenner. The keyless things are even worse, a complete nightmare scenario. My daughter’s car unilaterally decided it would no longer recognise the keyless thing and immobilised itself, never to run again. An otherwise perfectly usable car which might have run for years more was scrapped as it was uneconomical to repair.

Electronic and remote boot lid / hatchback

Why? You waggle your foot under the bumper and the hatchback opens. Yes, very flash when you are in Morrisons with an armful of shopping. Not so flash when it fails on a hot day with the dog panting in the boot and the breakdown bloke jemmies your boot open to get Fido out while a group of teenagers are filming with their iPhones, waiting to put the footage on YouTube. Repair cost: I dread to think.

LCD / touch screen displays

These originally appeared with just the satnav on them. Now a touch screen display can control everything from the radio through to a wide range of other essential items. When it fails, you can’t use it.  What was wrong with a round knob with white markings, or those red and blue slider things, and a tape / CD player? Repair cost: £1,000.

Electric heated and automatically folding wing mirrors

I was gutted for the owner of a great big crossover vehicle which I was following along a country lane. It had its automatically folding, heated wing mirror smashed to smithereens after it kissed a Unimog coming in the opposite direction. Nobody stopped. Repair cost:  I expect it was hundreds (possibly thousands) to fix. Mirrors often get broken. A basic mirror would have been far cheaper to replace.

Electronic modules

These can control all sorts of things from how the lights turn on and off to how the gears change or how the engine runs / emissions.  Each module is a little computer. When they fail, something won’t work. Sometimes the whole car won’t work. Modern cars can have dozens of them fitted, ranging in price from less than £100 to over £1,000 each.  We expect them to work day in and day out for years, but you wouldn’t expect your laptop to last very long if you kept it in the garden in a biscuit tin. I have personal experience of this, when a colleague spent £7,000 trying to have a fault cured on his 4×4. The dealer replaced module after module, trying to get to the bottom of the fault. At £7,000 the exasperated customer gave up and sold the car.

There are dozens more of these horrors waiting to get us drivers of older cars. I have covered only a few here.

So, what do I long for in a vehicle? Simplicity, reduced built-in obsolescence, a long product life and:

·       Ideally, none of the items on my list above;

·       Manual, wind-up windows that go up and down when you turn the handle, rather than controlled by an electric motor;

·       Controls that are actually connected to the car directly by cables, rods and hydraulics rather than via wires and a computer;

·        An exhaust pipe that vents to the air, rather than the gases going via recirculation valves, sensors, filters and other fuel guzzling, strangulating devices;

·        A simple heater, rather than multizone ‘climate control’.

Can I buy a brand-new car with this spec? The answer is no. It wouldn’t be allowed by law. However, I am convinced that if one manufacturer took the risk and designed a vehicle with no unnecessary equipment, easy and cheap to repair, at a reasonable price, they would not be able to make them fast enough to satisfy demand.

Would you buy one?

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Matt Terry
Matt Terry
Matt Terry is a lecturer specialising in safety / environmental law, environmental science and wider environmental issues.

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