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Just wanna help
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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Mechanic’s Tale: New Kid on the Block
by Douglas Flint (2005-04-04)

You hear a lot of commentary about the perils of buying a "first-year car." There may be some wisdom behind the warnings; however, it must be weighed against other factors.

First of all, what is a first-year car? I would define it as a new model in which many if not all the major systems are new. Not many vehicles fit into this category.

The '55 Chevy certainly fit into this category with a new engine, new body and frame and a new 12-volt electrical system, and it's considered one of the greatest successes of all times.

The Chevy Corvair was also a completely new car with an air-cooled rear engine, and in spite of Ralph Nader's accusations of dangerous handling, was a fairly reliable, roadworthy car. The Chevy Vega on the other hand, also a new model with a radical new engine manufacturing process, was a complete disaster, with the most fatal flaw a car can have: a bad engine.

Often new sheetmetal is wrapped around an already existing platform. A good example of this would be the Chrysler PT Cruiser, which looked radically new but utilized most of its components from existing Chrysler products and had little or no teething trouble. Sometimes a car known to be reliable has a major system change, and the result is that this year's model looks the same as last year's but has problems the old car didn't.

There were a lot of truly new cars released in the Eighties because the Big Three (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) were downsizing their cars and switching from traditional rear-wheel-drive platforms to front-wheel-drive platforms that required a lot of component shrinking, compacting, and reconfiguring. In 1981 Chrysler, in the depths of financial crisis, released its K-Car (Dodge Aries, Plymouth Reliant), a relatively popular and successful car, not plagued with major defects. I don't believe you would have been much better off waiting until 1983 to buy the same car.

Chevy released the front-wheel-drive Citation in 1980. Rather bland in appearance without any particularly good or bad points, it was neither any better nor worse when it was killed off as a model in 1985.

The most successful new model release in the Eighties was the Ford Taurus in 1986. Style sells cars and the Taurus, with its futuristic rounded look, had it. Being practical helps too - and being offered as either a sedan or wagon it could accommodate anyone's needs. I happened to work in Ford Service during that era, and though there were quite a few recalls and tech bulletins, overall none of them were severe enough to stop Taurus's meteoric rise to the Number One slot where it stayed for many years, in spite of many critics including myself. People just wanted that car.

The waiting Game
On the other hand sometimes it pays to wait. That year was also the year Hyundai, the Korean carmaker, entered the U.S. market. They seemed to be good little cars, but it soon became apparent they were of extremely low quality. Hyundai floundered for many years trying to make a name for themselves, and they've only recently started to emerge from their funk.

The Dodge Neon was a pretty classic new-car disaster. Released in 1995, it had a strange bug-eyed styling that set it apart from the other small cars of its time. It had a good power-to-weight ratio, making it very zippy. Cute looks and zippy engine equals good sales. But the new engine and the new engine control system were plagued with problems not helped by overall low quality. Leaking head gaskets, blown engines, check-engine lights endlessly popping on: fatal flaws. In any case, it was not helped by taillights that filled with water and an overwhelming number of squeaks, squeals, groans, and grinds. The car quickly gained a reputation as a lemon and the problems were not corrected quickly (if they ever were). Thus the Neon could only sell based on low price - a hole it has never climbed out of.

So what is the answer? Buying a new car is not entirely - or even mostly - a rational decision. If it were, nobody would ever buy a new car; they would buy a two-year-old used car where someone else had taken the big financial hit. Or better yet, they would fix whatever was wrong with their old car, which in the long run is always cheaper than carrying a car note and it enriches me to boot.

So why do people buy new cars? There is definitely a great emotional satisfaction in owning a new car, especially a real eye-catcher of a car. I felt it when I bought my LeBaron convertible. I still love that car. Some years ago my father drove a hot-off-the-line (when they were brand-spanking new) screaming yellow Volkswagen Beetle down from New York . That car got more looks, waves, and smiles than any car he or I have ever seen, and that includes a lot of really high-end cars.

Would it be worth putting up with the quality issues that car had, to be the first kid on the block to own one? I'd have to say yes.

If you are a single mother with two kids, buy a tried-and-true Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. Otherwise, buy the car that really grabs you, new model or not. Quality control is way better than it was even five years ago, and you only live once.

4,601 Posts
Hmmm.. Interesting article. He doesn't mention the high number of engine failures in the early Taurus, or the rear windows blowing out in the winter on the wagon. It opened and had a steel frame around it for support. In really cold weather, you got it, the steel contracted. Then turn on the rear defroster to clear the glass and you heated it, expanding the glass, in the smaller frame...

Poor drivers would be going along and BOOM, the rear window would shatter.

It was a fleet car at HP, so they saw all the common problems, having thousands of them.

I think the Murano's lucky as Nissan probably spent a bit of extra time on it, making sure the CVT and associated systems are reliable.

And the engine, we all know about the engine..:D
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