Considering the amount of recalls that have hit the auto industry in the last few years (read: there was a record high in 2014 with nearly 600 recall notices in Canada alone, and 8 million vehicles affected by faulty ignition switches and airbags), it’s no wonder people are skeptical on the reliability of modern cars.
But just how unreliable are they? Car guru, writer at Toronto Star and Autofocus, as well as the woman behind WomanonWheels.ca, Jil McIntosh shares some of her expertise.
“Manufacturers are relying more and more frequently on single sources, such as Takata, for safety devices like airbags, seatbelts and so on,” McIntosh explains. “So, if a problem ever comes up, it spans multiple model years, makes and manufacturers.”
Which is why it looks like cars these days are less safe than they used to be, but according to McIntosh, it’s really all a numbers game with outsourcing. As she says, “the parts are outsourced to big companies, relied upon by multiple manufacturers, so safety recalls are able to affect more vehicles.”
Record Recall Numbers: What Do They Really Mean?
The recent Takata airbag disaster has earned the dubious distinction of being the largest recall in the auto industry’s history. Linked to an issue with faulty parts, Takata’s airbags have been deemed responsible for a number of car accidents, injuries and even cases of death.
However, McIntosh says this specific case isn’t a common one. “What’s special about the case of Takata is that it also affected many popular vehicles. A lot of people bought those vehicles, and so a lot of them got involved in the recall.”
Her guess is that, “if it affected slightly less popular vehicles, then it wouldn’t have become such a big problem.”
So, what about all of those J.D. Power dependability studies? Cars with the J.D. stamp of approval sound like a safe bet, but how much do they tell us about the likelihood of a vehicle being recalled?
“J.D. Power is just another tool in the box. Since they look at cars over a very short period of time, it’s very difficult for them to present the most accurate data, which means that these studies can’t really be used to predict recalls.”
She says that it’s a much better idea to use as many different sources as possible for car buying information, instead of just one with a powerful name.
But there are more things to think about than just international recalls. The question of whether to buy a car used or brand new is common and is usually asked because people are curious about the safety differences between old and modern cars.
McIntosh says that it really all depends on how “old” the car really is. “I own antique cars, so when I hear certain enthusiasts say ‘they don’t make ‘em like that anymore,’ all I can say is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“Cars are much safer than they’ve ever been,” she says. “That said, don’t think that a car will be inherently safe just because it’s modern. Things like tires and driver training all play a role when it comes to safety.”
Why Modern Cars Get Recalled
Proper research and knowledge is important in the car buying process, but what explains why modern cars get recalled in the first place?
“Sometimes the manufacturer installs a part incorrectly, which is an easy-to-fix issue, and sometimes something goes wrong with a vehicle’s ECM.” McIntosh says. “There’s never one thing that affects all vehicles equally.”
She also notes that unpredictable conditions can play a role in a car part gone wrong, including things like the weather and even material fatigue over time.
According to McIntosh, some of the more common problems that affect modern cars include electronics issues, “because we never had them before. Mechanical parts have changed too, but not radically. Issues affecting electronics, however, are unique to modern cars.”
Can the Problem Be Fixed?
It’s hard to figure out where to point fingers when things in a vehicle break or cause major issues, especially since so many of those problems are often absent in testing environments.
“Reliability is something that is tough to see, because when we test-drive vehicles, we may not experience all the problems that could arise later on,” McIntosh notes.
“It all comes back to the fact that we don’t get the chance to use vehicles long enough to experience certain issues.”
Ultimately, information (and as much of it as you can get your hands on) is the key to buying a safe vehicle.