A reader email arrived from Matt Lynch who noted that, weekly, I provide some insight into a particular used vehicle by way of a “used-car review.”
With these, I compile information from a network of service advisors and auto repair techs, as well as information from model-specific online owner forums, to provide readers with some useful checks and tips to consider before they buy a given used car.
Usually, these used car reviews centre around cars that are four to eight years old.
Mr. Lynch assumed that I may have created hundreds of used car reviews (which is correct) and that in the process, I’d have compiled a mental list of common modern-car problems that pop up frequently, across multiple makes and models (also correct).
“What are the general concerns with buying a newer used car? Not specific to a certain make or model per se, but rather, across the industry, as a whole, in your opinion?” he asked.
It’s a tricky question to answer, given that vehicle reliability is subject to many factors and that nobody goes onto the web, or to their dealer service centre to report that their vehicle worked flawlessly. Still, several issues pop up, time and again, across many vehicles. Below, I’ll highlight four of the most common I’ve come across in recent years.
Note that information below is based largely on reports by owners in online forums specific to particular vehicles and that for every owner reporting a problem online, dozens more have not. Further, some publications assign poor reliability ratings across the full production of a certain vehicle even when just a fraction of owners have reported the same problem, and even if that problem is caused by poor maintenance, or a misunderstanding of how the vehicle works, or needs to be cared for.
Take any and all reliability reports you read and, especially those that assign a reliability rating across an entire model’s production, with a grain of salt. Also note that maintenance and upkeep by former owners is typically a better predictor of long-term reliability than the badge on that vehicle’s hood, or the country it was built in.
The gist? Your single best defence against buying an unreliable used car is not online reliability reports but, rather, a full inspection by a factory-trained technician ahead of your purchase.
So, Mr. Lynch, here’s a list of the most common issues I see with modern used cars across all makes and models:
Harsh shifting, slipping, clumsiness and awkward or unpredictable behaviour from the automatic transmission are reported somewhat frequently across many models and these sensations can feel alarming from the driver’s seat.
But fear not, in the very vast majority of cases I encounter, the fix is to have a dealer install new or updated software to the transmission’s computer brain.
Just like your laptop, software sometimes gets corrupted or compromised, though a simple software update is typically all that’s required to set things straight.
Direct injection gunk
Today’s common direct injection engines may be prone to harmful gunk buildup on their intake valves. Left unattended this can eventually cause poor fuel economy, engine problems and diminished performance.
Any engine can have intake valve gunk problems, though these are well documented as being more common in direct injected engines because of their design.
Typically, ensuring you strictly follow all instructions around oil changes, fuel type and grade, and spark-plug / air filter changes is sufficient to keep valve gunk at bay for the life of an engine, though many owners fail to properly maintain their vehicles, which can rapidly make this problem worse. The design of direct injected engines, coupled with the tendency of most drivers to skip or stretch maintenance intervals, has made this a well-documented issue in many modern cars.
Mystery battery drain / random electronics problems
Regardless of make or model, new vehicles are harder on their batteries then ever and with increasing levels of complex electronics on board, weak or dying batteries can wreak havoc at random with a multitude of vehicle functions. Without sufficient voltage, modern vehicle electronics can act up, sometimes seriously.
Many owners take to the web to complain of electrical gremlins and annoying problems across multiple systems, blaming new vehicles for being too complicated. Thing is, the fix is almost always a very simple one: get a new battery.
Lately, it seems like oil consumption is becoming a bigger issue than ever. Owners are noting what they consider to be “excessive” oil consumption on more and more newer vehicles, possibly related to the use of new, lower-viscosity engine oils to help achieve better fuel mileage.
Some manufacturers have replaced defective engines and parts, though the vast majority tend to claim that oil consumption is “normal,” even if it falls into a range that the customer deems excessive.
This is a tricky problem with no easily-identifiable cause or solution, but many owners, and this writer, are keeping an eye on it.