Don’t worry, this is not a rant about there being physically too many cars on the road, but it is about too many car choice or types. Is this a Luddite reaction to choice and progress? Possibly so, but there are some interesting underlying trends that underlie the reliability and longevity of the cars you buy.
So let’s state the obvious first – car makers, and by this I mean every single car maker – are making more different types of cars. So many that in fact, we appear to have reached a point where the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Some of those selfsame car makers are now starting to admit that there is now too much choice within brands, so much choice in fact that customers are starting to become bewildered and are putting off purchasing until they have found something simpler to understand.
Too much choice?
To understand why the car industry suddenly found itself making too many different cars, we have to travel to a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Cork, in the 1970s to be exact and the Ford factory down on Boreenmanna Road. Now, quite apart from this being the first ever Ford factory located outside of North America, the Cork Plant had another distinguishing feature – it was doing everything wrong. Well, it was doing everything wrong because it was building Transits, Escorts, Cortinas and, just before the closure came about, early-build Sierras, all on the same production line. OK, they were only make from kits of parts, but the rest of the industry cried foul – one line, one type of car was the mantra.
Fast forward a couple of decades now, with the Cork Plant long moribund and the Volkswagen Group facing something of a dilemma. It has to make four new cars for four brands and wants to keep the costs down. The solution should be simple, staring them in the face, but no-one else has tried it for some time – share the parts. Make four cars that all look different but which are fundamentally the same underneath. It’s now called platform sharing, and almost every car we buy today shares its oily and metallic bits with at least one other car. VW initially spun the Golf, the Skoda Octavia, the Audi A3 and the Seat Leon off the same platform and more and more followed. Nowadays, every car factory is like the old Cork Plant – multiple models and variants, all sharing the same basic structure and engines, rolling off the same line. Cork was ahead of its time and just didn’t know it.
So what does this all mean for us, the end consumer? Well, first off it was good news – choice became cheaper. Car makers could make different cars from the same basic recipe, and make more body styles, more options for us to pick from. We have gone a long, long way from the majority of car makers having a simple lineup of a hatchback, a saloon, a bigger saloon, an estate and some kind of 4x4. Now there are niches within niches and even BMW is making people carriers.
Effects of too much choice
So it’s bewildering, but we can muddle through, right? Nothing here a bit of research and homework won’t sort out, right?
Yes, that’s true but there is another issue, and a potentially more troubling one. Reliability. According to research undertaken by industry analysts Frost & Sullivan, car makers are ‘biting off more than they can chew’ when it comes to designing, engineering and selling all these extra models.
“All… car makers offer more and more innovative features in their vehicles, especially with electronic interfaces or controls to improve safety, convenience and driving dynamics. The system manufacturers generally push the limits of technology to provide an innovative offering, which tends be more complex and may require a span of its life cycle attain sufficient maturity” said Frost & Sulliven’s Kamalesh Mohanarangam. “The need to stay ahead of rivals drives them to introduce innovative technologies that justify the premium price commanded by their vehicles. However, sometimes in the fervent rush to stay ahead of the curve, some tend to bite more than they can chew. For instance, in the early 2000’s, a German car maker had launched a new type of electrically actuated brake system. After the launch, complaints started pouring in from its customers regarding undesirable braking response. Analysis revealed that software failure led to system malfunction.”
We’re seeing the fallout from this kind of engineering over-reaching more and more these days. And endless cycle of recalls and ‘service advisories.’ Cars that should be perfectly good and solidly made turning out to have significant problems that should have been addressed before they went on sale, not after. And not trivial problems either – brake failures, dangerous airbags, ignition switches that disable key safety systems. All of this is a classic sign of engineering departments that are being asked to do too much, too quickly. Car makers are pumping new models out as fast as they can be created, worried that the public will become too quickly jaded with what’s on sale. Platform sharing allows them the economy of scale to do that, but whereas manufacturers boast of quick-turnaround model design times, perhaps they should re-assess. Once, designing a new car from scratch and bringing it to the market could take four or five years. Some makers now do the same work compressed into 24-months. No wonder corners are cut and key issues missed.
So what can we do as punters and car buyers? Tread carefully is the answer. In the immediate term, make sure that you know every last shred of the history of any car you’re about to buy. That way you can be certain that key serving demands have been met and any recall work been carried out promptly by the former owner. If there are gaps in the history, walk away.
Further down the line, keep an eye on the industry cycles by reading the papers and the specialist magazines and websites. Perhaps it would be prudent to buy cars only from those car makers that seem to take their own sweet time developing a new model, or from those that have smaller and simpler model ranges.