Saturday March 2, 2013

Would you drive a car without seat belts? Given the choice, most people would not. Hard core car guys have proven by their actions that certain "amenities" aren’t even optional in their minds. Middle aged guys are buying the cars of their youth right now ... ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s automobiles they remember from high school and college. A lot of these hard core car people want the look of their youth, but they don’t want clunky drum brakes, poor handling, bias ply tires, and the things that help to make automobiles and trucks unsafe to drive. That’s why a lot of serious car people are building "restomods." A restomod is a restored older car that has been upgraded and modified with up to date suspension, brakes, tires, and yes, even safety equipment. When a person gets out of their new car with ABS, ASC, air bags and seat belts, and then step into say, a stock restored 1932 Ford coupe, the differences are incredible. You are guaranteed to really feel vulnerable in that old car. What we want is to have our cake and eat it, too, and what’s the point of cake if you can’t eat it?

This brings up the point that tough economic times have forced many of us to hang on to our cars far longer than originally anticipated. The average automobile in the American fleet is older than ten years.


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In those ten years we’ve seen some very big changes in safety equipment, fuel efficiency, and sophisticated electronics that help us control our cars in emergency situations. If you’ve been driving a small SUV that’s ten years old, it isn’t getting great fuel mileage compared to the small SUV’s of today. In a skid, it probably has ABS, but it doesn’t have ASC, or "automatic stability control." This feature is standard on all 2012 and newer cars. If you’ve driven one of the new ASC equipped vehicles enough, you know how effective it is. I went in to a low speed corner in a snowstorm a couple of weeks ago and I was simply going too fast. By the time I realized that I had overcooked the corner, the ASC had already kicked in, automatically braking the wheels that were losing traction, thus stabilizing the car and making up for my over zealousness. Miraculous!

For me, electronics in cars are both a blessing and a curse. It almost makes no sense to own a car that has old electronics in it. The older the electronics, the less reliable your car becomes. Twice I have tried to own one of the most beautifully styled cars ever, the Cadillac Eldorados from the mid-’90s. Twice I felt thwarted by the unreliable electronics. When an older car’s electronics force you to take it to the dealer it is going to cost you to have it fixed. Lower cost independent repair shops can’t always fix these things. From the late ‘80s to about six years ago, would you really want one of these things to have to repair? You can’t work on it yourself without some very expensive diagnostic equipment. What is easy for the dealership is practically impossible for the do-it-yourselfer. While this may be the price we pay for progress, we need to be vigilant about what the manufacturers are doing in Washington to push through legislation that helps them while hindering the average consumer who still wants a little control over his automobiles’ mechanicals. We may have thought that the manufacturers were moving away from planned obsolescence, but electronics are the new frontier in forcing us to buy vehicles more frequently than we really want to. If you feel as though you can never win, you’re probably right.

In the end, it’s all a trade off. This spring, a potential record number of Americans are going to be replacing their old iron. This automotive upgrade is going to come with more safety features than they had on their older cars. More air bags, more electronics, overall better engineering. Beyond that, most newer vehicles are getting far better gas mileage. If I were a car salesman, I’d be singing a happy song right about now. Most people realize the benefits of going newer from both an efficiency and safety point of view. However, your new 2013 car may be an electronic nightmare to repair when it gets older unless you take it to the dealer. While dealers need to make a living too, they don’t make enough on the sale of a new car to sustain their businesses. Whose fault is that? I lay it on the manufacturers. The deck is always stacked in their favor. Regardless, sooner or later the majority of us are going to have to upgrade. These new vehicles are pretty miraculous in so many ways, and rather than styling changes, you will be getting more value for your money than ever before, so I guess its a wash. This time around it’s going to be a revolutionary upgrade.

Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.