Scrutinize that repair rating
Before you plunk down a bundle for a new
or used car, do some legwork to figure out how much you're going to
spend after you buy the vehicle.
This kind of information is readily available online, and what isn't
can be had for free in the magazine section of your local library.
But even if you collect all the information available, you still don't
have a crystal ball.
"I always look up ratings and reliability statistics. However,
these often do not match my experience," says Mike Clark of Iowa
City, Iowa. "The VW I owned was incredible, yet the rating was
poor for reliability.
"My other cars were also exceptions," Clark says.
Wisdom from the Web
If you do have faith in statistics, the Web offers a gold mine of
data on cars.
J.D. Power &
Associates tracks the records of new and used vehicles, ranging
from 1990 cars to 2004 models. Repair and reliability data is more
plentiful for cars that have been on the road for a few years.
In 2003, the organization began looking at three-year horizons for
the first time, so you can see what repairs the owners of 2000 models
have had to contend with.
A quick scroll through JDPower.com will let you see
how your vehicle stacks up.
You can also check out car enthusiast magazine sites, like CarandDriver.com
and Motor Trend.com. They'll give you some pointers on what problems
to look for. Generally, mechanics say, enthusiast magazines will
pick up on repair issues before the research firms -- with their
three- to five-year horizons -- can issue studies on what's wrong.
Another source is Edmunds.com, which has projections of all ownership
costs including repairs and gives you an estimate of maintenance costs.
(Edmunds prepared a special chart for Bankrate.com, listing costs
for models from the past five years.) *SEE ATTACHMENT*
Then there's the respected team at Consumer Reports, which has been
tracking cars and their repair records for decades.
What's behind the ratings
"We have a 327-acre auto test facility in Connecticut, with
18 full-time employees who test and rate cars," says Douglas
Love, a spokesman for Consumer Reports. You can also get car reliability data from Consumerreports.org.
Some of the data is free, and some requires a paid subscription.
"The April auto issue of Consumer Reports, which is cars from
cover to cover, offers a short synopsis of 200 makes and models
plus test data," says Love. Books on individual cars are also
available for sale.
As a nonprofit organization, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer
Reports, does not receive any benefit from touting any particular
For many car buyers, Consumer Reports is the first stop.
"Consumer Reports helped me think through buying a Mazda 323,"
says Tim Bascom, a writer in Newton, Iowa. "It had a good repair
rating. The engine was said to be very sturdy, and proved to be.
"The only concerns were brakes and muffler," Bascom says,
"and that is exactly what I had to work on. I had to replace
the muffler every year or two, but I didn't mind because the car
just kept running and running and running."
"What's more," he adds, "I had a friend who owned
a Mazda 323, and he confirmed that the only thing he had to keep
working on was his muffler."
Get a personal opinion
A quick call or visit to your mechanic can also give you the inside
"As far as the repairs go, I lump Japanese and American cars
in the same boat," says Mitchell Seligson, a mechanic with
16 years of experience and the owner of Masterfix, in Orangeburg,
N.Y. "European cars are more expensive to repair."
There are several reasons why European cars cost more to fix.
"The quality is sometimes a little lacking, parts are expensive
and diagnosing them is expensive," Seligson says. "They
tend to have a more proprietary set-up."
Your insurance agent can also give you a preview of your repair
prospects since the replacement cost of parts is often reflected
in your quote. And searching through Insure.com can give you an
idea of how the insurance industry as a whole views your car choice.
Buying used cars
If you're buying a used car, the online forums at car sites like
Edmunds.com can let you hear what other owners of the cars you're
considering have experienced.
The forums are full of scare stories, but there are some pleasant
Car shoppers like Clark say a combination of research methods increases
the likelihood of a good deal, despite his string of exceptions
to the rule.
He has a detailed research ritual for used-car selection.
"When I buy a car, being on a limited budget, I first search
out the cars that interest me, then the ones that I can afford,
then I search all the periodicals that have an article about the
model," says Clark.
"I then read Car Talk's account of the model, personal reviews
by owners and then Edmunds, Kelly's Blue Book and the Black Book,
which gives me the most accurate price of a particular model,"
He always makes a personal trip to the repair shop. "After
I have located several models, I talk with my mechanic."
A local mechanic can provide feedback on how a car is faring in
your area. He may tell you that the mountains in your area don't
interact kindly with your chosen car, or that the local weather
hurts the vehicle you've had your eye on.
Filter out rumors
One thing mechanics stress is that myths and longstanding reputations
don't mean much when it comes to an individual make and model.
News headlines claimed the Ford Explorer turns over too often. But
Shawn Harris, a mechanic with Overdrive Auto in Iowa City says that
from what he's seen, the model is quite safe, as are most of the
SUVs he's seeing.
With most cars, it's how you take care of it, Harris says. "Cars
are better than they used to be," he says. "Most people
keep their car for at least five years. Ten years ago, they kept
it for less than that."
You can get half-a-million miles out of a Rolls-Royce engine, Harris
says, but with good care you should be able to get well over 130,000
miles out of almost any car's engine.
Watch out for new-feature bloopers
Sometimes a hi-tech car can mean high repair bills.
"One of my concerns relates to the cars with new fantastic
features, like wireless networks," says Seligson. "When
you have lots of features, that means lots of things can go wrong.
If the parts can only come from the dealer, that can be expensive."
Even if the change isn't fancy, it can make it tough for a mechanic
to accurately estimate your repair costs.
Although consumers try to figure out what it will cost to repair
their cars, it's not an easy task, especially because Consumer Reports
and other sources evaluate new cars before they've been on the road
for a while.
"When your car does need a repair, what will it cost? It's
really very difficult to figure that out without consulting a parts
and labor guide," says Seligson.
"As an example, some American cars use a pump that in the aftermarket
costs $80 or $90. Then I had a Buick in with a little section of
pipe that rusted out, which cost almost $300. It looked like a $90
part. So it's hard to guesstimate."
"So when someone asks me, 'Will it cost a lot?' I tell them,
'Can't tell you until I look it up,'" he explains.
He uses the Nichols
Chilton Labor Guide, which gives the estimated labor time
for various repairs.
The feel of a car
Even if a consumer does lots of number crunching to predict repair
costs, that may not be enough to get a total sense of what it will
be like to own the car.
Seligson emphasizes that there's a difference between the numbers
and the actual personality of a car. He also says that models change
every year, so the charts may not really tell you much about your
particular car if it's a new model right after a design change.
How those cars fare on the road will only be obvious a few years
down the line.
-- Updated Jan. 11, 2005