Modern cars have made our lives easier in a lot of ways. They have better gas 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. Have new cars left the realm of DIY repair ability?
New cars are certainly harder to work on for the DIY mechanic. New cars are decentralized electronically, they have more electronic components, and are therefore more complicated. This makes new car maintenance difficult for DIYers without electronic diagnostic equipment and knowledge on how to use it.
Lets take a look at why cars have become more difficult for DIYers to work on. Lets also look at what you can do as a DIYer to continue to save money on car repair and fix some of these problems yourself.
How are cars harder to work on?
Advanced electronics are no longer solely a province of luxury vehicles. You can find things such as seat warmers, active steering assist, complicated navigation systems, smart braking systems and adaptive cruise controls on any new car whether it is a 2021 BMW or a 2021 Honda Civic.
Simple tasks such as changing a battery in a modern BMW necessitates a trip to the dealership to have the computer recalibrated. Water pumps today are often electronic instead of mechanic and are not even driven by the serpentine belt. Even a simple headlight can require that you remove the headlight assembly and bulbs can cost more than $100 if your particular vehicle requires specialty HID Bulbs.
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 independent mechanic may not even be able to fix it. I have personally had this issue in the context of a BMW because the independent mechanic did not have the flashing equipment to reset the ECU after replacing the anti-theft module.
Going back in the past to vehicles produced as recently as the late 1990s and early 2000s cars had far fewer bells and whistles that the DIYer had to contend with. You still needed a scan tool, but you could get away with owning a cheap $20-$40 tool and it would do everything that you needed it to. In fact, the vast majority of repairs I have had to perform on 90s BMWs did not even require that I crank out a code scanner.
The CAN BUS System
The CAN Bus system allows all of the sensors in a car to communicate with each other without having to use the main ECU every time. This system is extremely important to modern cars because without it you would have to have each wire connect from the ECU to the sensor and back. With CAN Bus you can save an enormous amount on wiring inside of the car.
The CAN Bus system not only saves on manufacturing cost but it also has allowed manufacturers to install more bells and whistles in cars without having to add considerably more wiring. The CAN Bus system is also why most modern cars have dozens of computers.
The CAN Bus system has its benefits but it has also contributed to the increasing complexity of modern cars and the difficulty that DIY mechanics face in diagnosing problems. At this point it is nearly impossible to diagnose a problem with a sensor or car computer without some electronic diagnostic equipment.
Why have new cars become harder to work on?
It’s clear that cars have become harder for the DIYer to work on, but why have car manufacturers universally moved in this direction toward ever more complex systems and technology?
Car manufacturers don’t have a lot of incentive to make DIY 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.
Unfortunately for us DIYers the vast majority of people don’t consider ease of repair as an important factor in selecting a new car. Many people may buy Hondas or Toyotas because of their reputation for reliability, but most people don’t consider how easy it will be to fix problems as they arise.
Intuitively, this makes sense because most car owners nowadays don’t replace much more than windshield wipers and seat covers. Car manufacturers don’t have a lot of incentive to make vehicles that are easy to work on. They are much more concerned with bells and whistles, interior comfort, exterior styling, gas mileage, and driver assist technology. Luxury car manufacturers can focus even less on ease of repair because most people driving new BMWs are not interested in fixing it themselves anyways.
Not only do manufacturers not have a lot of incentive to make DIY-friendly cars. They have some incentive to make cars less DIY-friendly. If car manufacturers strove to make the perfect car that the average sixteen year old could rebuild they would never earn another dime from dealership service departments. Dealership servicing is a big business for car manufacturers and no one would take their cars to the dealership if they didn’t have to. Here are some examples of what you get when manufacturers have no incentive to make DIY-friendly cars:
- On Mercedes Benz E-Class 2010-2016: To replace a headlight, not a headlight assembly, just a regular old headlight you have to remove the wheel well liner and move around some components to gain access to the headlight bulb!
- Ford Duratec V6: To replace the spark plugs on front-wheel drive models you must remove the manifold, along with all of the hoses and wiring that attaches to the manifold.
Consumers want more bells and whistles
Modern car owners love bells and whistles. Reverse cameras, entertainment centers, push to start ignition, heated massage seats, I could go on for days about the latest technologies that are being thrown into vehicles. It seems like every year now something new is coming into the market. The problem is that each new sensor that a manufacturer throws into a car makes the vehicle more inaccessible for DIYers. One example that shocked me is that apparently there is more computer code in a modern Mercedes S Class than in a Boeing Dreamliner.
What can you do if you are a DIYer?
All is not lost, I still take a stab at most problems on the modern cars that my family owns, although my diagnosing procedure is certainly different than what I do with my older BMWs.
Modern cars still have lots of the same components
Brake pads, water pumps, radiators, spark plugs, mass air flow, idle control valve, throttle body, coolant hoses, what do all of these components have in common? You can find them on any car from the 1990s, but you can also find them on any new car.
The more things change the more they remain the same. Yes, new cars have changed a lot but there are a lot of components that are the same. Brake pads usually do not require any specialty equipment whether the car is a 2020 or a 1995. Despite the increasing complexity of cars, there are still lots of repairs that a DIY mechanic can diagnose and repair with relative ease.
Get a scan tool
Scan tools are an absolute most for the modern DIYer if you want to do more than change the brake pads or spark plugs. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on the latest software and electronic equipment, but the days of buying a $25 OBD 2 scanner are behind us. Cheap generic scan tools are not utterly useless, but you would be amazed with how much you can do with a higher end scan tool.
$100-$300 on a scan tool sounds like a lot of money, but with mechanics frequently charging $100 or more an hour for labor you really want to give yourself the option to fix a lot of this stuff yourself.
You can check out one of my favorite scan tools here.
There are a lot more resources available
The modern era brings along a lot of pluses and minuses, but one of the biggest pluses is the mass availability of free video resources. YouTube is an absolute goldmine and it is so helpful that we sometimes overlook the fact that it is still a relatively new resource. YouTube is absolutely packed with thousands of resources for automotive DIYers. Use YouTube to your advantage and remember that if you have a problem with your car, chances are that someone else has and it has been uploaded to YouTube.
Stay away from new cars that have been in wrecks
I mentioned the CAN Bus system earlier, but one of the disadvantages of it is that it makes wrecked vehicles even more undesirable. With more than seventy on board computers it can be nearly impossible to locate exactly which ones have been damaged after a vehicle collision. This is one of the reasons why cars are so much more frequently marked as totaled after car accidents than they used to be.
It’s just not worth it to buy a newer discounted car that was in a wreck. You will likely drive yourself bananas trying to find which electronics are damaged.
Be aware that some cars are less DIY-friendly than others
You should also be aware that not all vehicles are equally as difficult on DIYers. Luxury vehicles such as Mercedes Benz, BMW, and Audi have long held a reputation for being hard to work on. American and Japanese car manufactures do not have that reputation, although Japanese cars have long been considered more reliable.
If you want to perform most of the maintenance on your new car, I recommend that you research what the DIY forums say about the vehicle. You will get a better impression of what you are in for by seeing what other people have to say about the ease of repair.
Will new cars get more difficult to work on?
If current trends in vehicles continue, I suspect that automotive DIYers will be a very rare breed within the next ten to fifteen years. A 1996 BMW is light years behind a 2020 BMW in complexity, cost of maintenance, and difficulty of repair, and this has made DIYers an ever rarer group among BMW owners. The same fate is likely to awaits other car manufacturers if trends continue.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to pick the brain of an old school mechanic. When I mentioned that I was tacitly considering opening a mechanic shop when I moved back to my hometown, his grin quickly turned to a frown. “Stay out of this industry, with the way cars are changing today, and the rising cost of various diagnostic equipment and scan tools, the dealerships are going to run everyone out of business eventually.”
There is no denying the fact that new cars are becoming more complex and less DIY friendly. They are faster, more fuel efficient, and have more safety features, but they are also more difficult to repair.
While it’s true that new cars are more difficult to repair, I believe that a motivated DIYer with a good quality scan tool can still save lots of money and perform most of the repairs himself. I still maintain my family’s personal fleet of vehicles and they range in age from 1996-2019. With the enormous amount of resources available and relatively inexpensive diagnostic equipment I believe that there is still some room for the DIYer!