Experience D’Orth



    by bill orth

             Some time ago I compared the costs of maintaining a Ferrari with those of my vacuum cleaner and a cordless drill—on a percentage basis.  Critics cried irrelevance, pointing out that those weren’t even automobiles.  (that wasn’t the point, but never mind)  Well, here’s another lesson in comparative economics that does involve another car:


               We recently took in trade a nice four-year-old example of a respected upper-mainstream car.  Not a Ford, but not a Mercedes 500, either.  Normal folks buy this brand after they have moved up from cars in the $20-30K bracket and can afford double that, largely on the strength of its reputation for style, technology and quality.  By and large, I agree with all those assessments and have personally owned one myself some years ago.  Its brand is irrelevant; I just want to discuss what it can cost to “maintain” it.  After trading it in, since it was not one of our ‘exotic’ used cars that were unsuited to the past six weeks’ snowy weather, I decided to drive it myself for a while.  After a week or so, one day the “check engine” light came on for no apparent reason and with no sign of poor running.  We sent it to the local dealer for a diagnosis and were soon told that it needed a torque converter, and—maybe—an automatic transmission replacement, for several thousand dollars….or more (!).

               Naturally, it was 60 days out of warranty. But it was a one-owner that had been serviced religiously at that same dealer since new.  Asked for help, the manufacturer said 60 days are 60 days and you’re on your own.  Subsequent investigation revealed that a lot of these cars have experienced this problem.  Evidently, the sensor on the torque converter that signals the lock-up mode fails.  They (several knowledgeable sources) also said that often replacing the converter alone won’t turn the light off, and the transmission has to be replaced, too, more than doubling the total cost. And there’s no way to know until you’ve taken it all apart and tried the converter!  But why should a drive-train problem make the “check engine” light come on anyway?  No good reason, but I’m told several other cars also do this when one of the many onboard computers detects a fault of any kind. Basically, they do it because they can.

               Hmmm.  If a person was lucky, and the torque converter actually solved the problem, the repair would only cost an amount that is nearly twenty percent of the car’s retail value.  If you weren’t as fortunate and needed the transmission, too, now you’re looking at an amount closer to 35% of the car’s value.  That would be analogous to spending $35,000 on an average Ferrari to fix a problem that seems to be little more than a blip in an ECU.   Somehow, that ain’t right.

               Well, what if the owner of one of these cars can’t afford to make the repair just now?  It still runs & drives exactly as it always did and the little yellow light could easily be “lived with.”  Maybe if the torque converter really isn’t locking up—NO torque converters did until some smart guy invented the lock-up feature twenty years ago—it may burn a tiny bit more fuel.  However, if the car is due to have its license plates renewed, it will not pass an emission test with the light on!  Therefore, the owner is forced at light-point to spend an inordinate amount of money on his car when he, perhaps, can ill afford it.  And he’s trapped; he certainly can’t get a decent trade-in, since all of his car’s dealers are aware of this dirty little family secret.

               Is there a moral to this story? Well, probably not.  We all must accept that when we buy an out-of-warranty car that we are risking getting whomped with an unexpected repair bill.  But one that eclipses one-third of the car’s value isn’t usually anticipated.  It does pose a thoughtful counterpoint to the layman’s opinion of the “ridiculous” repair/service costs of exotic cars like Ferraris, however.   I have opined before that when the “Miracle of Depreciation” eventually brings a once-glorious automobile down to a price level nearly anyone can afford it can be a recipe for disaster, as even though the car’s value has diminished over time, the costs to maintain its complexity have not.  I’m thinking about cars like the thirty-year-old Mercedes SL450s that pop up for $2500 and the $800 mid-‘80s Audi 5000s that have buried many owners in a landslide of expensive repairs.  But when Mr. & Mrs. Consumer buy a 40,000-mile, late-model, high-prestige car, they generally don’t think they’re gambling with such loaded dice. 



                                                                                                                        -- Bill Orth –