Although car reliability is better than ever, when modern motors do break down, their electrical complexity seems to be stumping breakdown services. So, can your car be fixed by the side of the road?
We tested a couple of electric cars recently and both of them broke down. This came as a shock (if you’ll pardon the pun) to all of us at Which? Car. It seems we’re just not used to cars breaking down any more.
It wasn’t always this way. When Which? conducted its first car tests 49 years ago, four out of the eight cars tested broke down within a year – some repeatedly. In fact, our Austin Mini was so unreliable that we sent it back and asked for another.
Compare that to our latest Which? Car Survey – just 15% of survey respondents called out a breakdown service last year – and that covers cars of all ages. Had we undertaken the same study in 1962, that figure undoubtedly would have been closer to 100%.
Breakdown services flummoxed
This vast improvement in car reliability is a good thing. Despite what a spanner-wielding member of the MG owners’ club might tell you, the possibility of a blown head gasket or seized piston does not turn a journey into an “adventure”. It just makes it more stressful and potentially wastes a lot of time. And I speak as somebody who’s owned plenty of temperamental old cars.
However, there is a downside to clockwork reliability. Of the 7,366 cars in our survey that left their owners stranded, less than two-thirds (61%) could be repaired at the roadside by a breakdown mechanic. Apparently a can of WD40 and a swift blow with a mallet will no longer suffice – modern cars are just too complicated.
Electronics are largely responsible for making cars more dependable and safer, so nobody is advocating a return to carburettors or binning anti-lock brakes. But much of the tech on modern cars is just window-dressing that adds complexity and weight. I don’t need to select from four suspension settings or switch between eco and sport modes – just set the car up properly in the first place.
Too complicated to repair?
Electrical systems account for by far the largest number of faults in the Which? Car Survey, yet it’s perfectly possible to build simple, reliable cars that don’t need expensive diagnostic equipment to be repaired.
My colleague Rob Hull has already bemoaned the fact that modern cars are so complicated that maintaining them is basically out of our reach – but this also affects breakdown services.
If this sounds like a rant about electrics (and, by extension, electric cars) it isn’t. I just think that sometimes technology can cause as many problems as it solves. And if cars can’t be fixed at the roadside, it makes breakdowns a major inconvenience when they do occur. So are breakdown services fit for purpose in a world of cars full of complex electrics?