By on October 20, 2015

 

racsim. shutterstock user sebastianosecondi

June writes:

Greetings, editors. I love your website. It has taught me a tremendous amount about cars and the industry. This is my first time writing. I would love to see a piece about auto reliability, perhaps from an insider engineering perspective. What I’d like to see addressed is the question of why some cars and makes are more reliable than others.

I know these issues often result in pissing contests between:

1) those who claim to be “real auto enthusiasts” and would drive nothing less than a German sports car with a stick, despite the verifiable quality control issues that afflicts all the German manufacturers, and,

2) those who value reliability, fewer headaches, fewer trips to the mechanic, and more money saved in the long run, perhaps at the expense of an “emotional” engagement with their car. 

I wonder why it has to be an either-or proposition. Why can’t we have it all? What has happened over the years that has driven down reliability of European and American auto manufacturers from an engineering, design, and manufacturing perspective? Surely, they are capable of producing relatively trouble-free cars. Or are they? If they are, why don’t they? If they’re not, why not?

Conversely, what has led to the Japanese manufacturers producing relatively trouble-free cars? What sorts of engineering, design, and manufacturing processes did they implement to boost quality and reliability?

Are these economic, not engineering issues? (Buying cheaper parts from shitty subcontractors?) Is it good ol’ planned obsolescence at play? Do manufacturers bank on making a lot of money by servicing their trouble-prone cars in the long run? Don’t they care about their reputation for reliability?

Am I asking the proper questions or am I missing something obvious that has been extensively discussed?

I know that I am speaking in broad generalities here, but that’s because I seek broad answers. I hope my questions are not too loaded.

For what it’s worth, I own a Lexus, and I am in the market for an LS460 with the Sport Package. I fucking love cars as much as the next “enthusiast”, but I also love the reliability that my two Lexus models have given me. I’m not a racer. I like pushing it from time to time, but I also highly value refinement, quietness, and a lack of noise and vibration. (Ok, I am getting into middle age, I guess it shows.)

They have not been perfect, by any means. My IS350 had so many recalls that I can’t even recount them. But I have not paid a dime out of pocket for a single repair (other than wear and tear parts like brakes and filters), and I am a good 50K miles beyond the expired warranty period. It’s hard to argue with that.

Thanks in advance for your perspective. I hope you think this is a worthy topic to explore.

Sajeev answers:

An insider engineering perspective?  That’s pretty much impossible via the autoblogosphere, but perhaps we can get to the bottom of all this without all the typical fanboi boosterism and sweeping generalizations.

As suggested in last week’s Piston Slap, we live in a society where cars are too complex, even if they are more reliable then ever. Common sense engineering has partially been left by the wayside. While newer Audis are likely far more reliable than the Audi 90, you could remove the grille and a few other bits to change the timing belt.

 

Getting to the same real estate on a newer model? Just google “Audi Service Position”.

 

So the problem is real. But can you generalize that German cars are unreliable junk and Japanese cars are boring but nearly perfect? There are too many variables, so it’s a pretty bad idea.

Let’s put it another way: Discriminating against a car’s origin is much like stereotyping (or worse) various human races.  The Chapelle’s Show made racial discrimination into an acceptable form of public entertainment, even if the problems are real and really bad stuff goes down because of it. But not all people of one skin color are the same, and cars are just as diverse as the people that drive them.

To wit, I have waaaaay more faith in a zero-option (kinda boring to drive) Audi A4 with over 100,000 miles and a modest service history than I do a late model (verrry fun to drive) Subaru WRX that just ran out of warranty, no service records and a gut feeling (but no proof) that it was modified, returned to stock, and sold.

And consider that Lexus LS 460. How much is a replacement Mark Levinson amp gonna set ya back when the warranty expires? It isn’t available in a wrecked Camry. For what it’s worth, the Levinson amp in my Mother’s ’06 GS was well over two grand and a re-manufactured replacement (of questionable quality) was still a pricey $600. Ouch.

I’m not suggesting issue #1 and #2 in the beginning of your letter are wholly invalid assertions. Stereotypes exist for a reason. But painting such broad strokes and expecting reasons why those lines came to be is beyond corrosive to your car-lovin’ soul. Nobody can manage that burden and come to an honest conclusion. The sheer volume of manufacturer warranty data, personal interviewing and forensic mechanic work would financially and mentally bankrupt anyone.

Because just when you think you got a handle on things, a GM ignition switch, a Ford/Firestone Tire Recall, Takata Airbag or VW Diesel cheating bombshell sends you back to the drawing board.

And if you think my response was a cowardly, chickenshit, cop out waste of bandwidth, I might agree with you.

And with that, it’s all yours Best and Brightest.

Send your queries to [email protected]. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

[Image: Shutterstock user sebastianosecondi]

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104 Comments on “Piston Slap: Does Automotive Racism Exist?...”


  • avatar
    RideHeight

    Oh, dear God.

    I’ll check back after I’ve found an H5N1 mask.
    Mouth-breathers gonna be legion.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    Re: “Audi Service Position”

    Any experienced Audi tech can do that in a few minutes. The techs I know consider it a feature, not a bug. It’s way better than breaking your knuckles trying to access pulleys that have an inch of clearance to a strut tower, or spark plugs that require an hour of intake disassembly to get to, and are jammed against the firewall.

    • 0 avatar
      EAF

      If you are going to compare Audi’s “service position” with other marque, then, you must do so with engines that are also longitudinally placed. You are not making an apples to apples comparison benchmarking Audi’s “service position” with let’s say Acura’s transverse setup.

      Service position is absolutely RETARDED, taking the entire front clip apart is not an advantage LOL! Whether the engine is longitudinal or transverse, Audi / VW are the absolute worst cars to work on and independent garage prices confirm this. These are my opinions.

      Lastly, every single time I’ve had to place an Audi in
      “service position” I’ve had to evacuate the AC system. This alone takes more than a “few minutes.” Sure, I could have pulled on the AC lines and worked around them, but I don’t like to place stress on items needlessly.

      • 0 avatar
        sirwired

        “Lastly, every single time I’ve had to place an Audi in
        “service position” I’ve had to evacuate the AC system. This alone takes more than a “few minutes.” Sure, I could have pulled on the AC lines and worked around them, but I don’t like to place stress on items needlessly.”

        So, what you are saying is not that you “have” to evacuate the AC system, just that you feel like doing so.

        I’ve hung out on PassatWorld for 12 years, seeing hundreds of members post about replacing their timing belts without touching the AC lines, and I don’t remember a single one of them reporting an AC leak from the lines afterwards. (When the A/C leaks (a rare occurrence), it’s usually the evaporator.

        Perhaps you are just making extra work for yourself, and the lines will flex just fine.

        • 0 avatar
          EAF

          If you were a paying customer and I was assigned to your Passat ($hit!), I would be evacuating your a/c. If you were standing in my presence, YOU too would want me evacuating your a/c.

          If I were working on my Passat, in my backyard? Yes, I’d likely hinge the entire support. Maybe unbolt the compressor for slack, maybe separate the radiator and condensor from each other, likely stress the lines gingerly, maybe setup a makeshift jig to hold the counter weight up.

          So yes, it can be done without releasing the lines you are absolutely correct; however, it is much more convenient to do so and some would argue that it is the “right” way.

          I don’t wrench on cars for a living anymore, fortunately! I just wrench for spare change. In VW’s defense the EA888, IMO, is somewhat easier to wrench on over its predecessor. Again, these are my opinions.

    • 0 avatar
      DeadWeight

      Everyone knows that the infamous (as it should be) “Audi Service Position” refers to the customer standing, pants & underwear down, bent over, elbows on table.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    Audi gets a lot of flack for that “service position”. For starters, the front end does NOT have to be removed for this, unlike the picture; it just has to slide forward a few inches. (And the end-result is MUCH better access to the t-belt than most cars provide.)

    Second, the front end is explicitly designed for this process. You pull the grille, undo a couple fasteners in the fender liner, insert a threaded rod, remove six bolts, and it slides forward as a unit. (and rests on those threaded rods.) It takes about 10 minutes in either direction if you’ve watched a YouTube video ahead of time showing you what to do.

    If you like, you can pivot the whole assembly to the side and rest it on something. (You disconnect the radiator hoses for this, but this is not as big of a deal as it sounds since most people do a water pump when doing the t-belt, which means the coolant is coming out anyway.)

  • avatar

    OH YES – Indeed it does…

  • avatar
    tonycd

    June, two books to get you started: The Machine That Changed The World (about Japanese production methods), and The Reckoning by David Halberstam. Also seek out a career bio of W. Edwards Deming, the legendary quality guru who dealt with both American and Japanese automakers.

    • 0 avatar
      RideHeight

      Ditto. Especially the 2nd edition of Machine.

    • 0 avatar
      87 Morgan

      Deming…proudly representing the university of Wyoming. And many others, but everyone has to start somewhere.

    • 0 avatar

      I also recommend Machine that Changed the World. Basically, the Japanese–well, Toyota and Honda early on, put value on the workers by giving them responsibilities (including the power to stop the assembly line if they saw anything amiss) and by valuing them.

      • 0 avatar
        PalestinianChicken

        Both are fine books, but let’s not overstate the value of Deming. Bill Tsutsui argues in his “Manufacturing Ideology,” that Japanese quality control actually has its roots in the transfer of Taylorism ideas back tin the 1920s and 1930s, then developed by Japanese engineers. Deming helped, but his real value to the postwar Japanese was as a symbol for Japanese engineers to emphasize the importance of QC to their managers. If you actually examine the amount of Deming’s ideas that actually gained support in Japan, it was quite little compared to other foreign QC theorists and/or Japanese theorists.

    • 0 avatar
      Junes

      Thanks Tony, and all the rest of you, for the suggested reading and general feedback. (I’ve been traveling and just noticed that Sajeev responded to my query!)

  • avatar
    319583076

    Look. Here’s a little bit of industrial grade truth – most people are incompetent. Regardless of education, qualification, certification, or whatever regulatory process governs – the majority of us are not good at what we do.

    Whether this is ameliorated or exacerbated by design teams and committees isn’t clear, but the point is, we’re lucky anything works, let alone works most of the time.

    • 0 avatar
      jdowmiller

      +1 to 319583076

    • 0 avatar
      RideHeight

      A grapefruit could manage a better answer.

      She’s basically asking about the significance of Japanese lean production and tonycd pointed her in the right direction.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Fruitist.

      • 0 avatar
        319583076

        Where’s your analysis, grapefruit?

        Here’s an analogy. Many Americans enjoy watching NFL football. The level of skill is impressive, in some cases, inspiring. There are 1696 men on NFL rosters during a season. That is 0.0005% of the US population, or 1 in about 190,000 people that are skilled enough to make an NFL roster.

        One level below the NFL resides NCAA Division 1 schools. There are 10,880 men on NCAA D1 rosters in a season. That is 0.003% of the US population, or about 1 in 30,000 people that are skilled enough to make an NCAA D1 roster.

        Unlike athletic talent, mental or academic talent isn’t always obvious and isn’t clearly tied to success. By analogy, if GM employs 30,000 engineers – one of those engineers is the most talented and far more talented than the average engineer. Do you imagine that the population of GM engineers “starts” this engineer? Of course not, GM’s engineering team is made up of this individual, a few more varsity starters, a few more varsity backups, a lot more junior varsity players, and a heck of a lot of people that have never even strapped on a helmet. The heck of a lot of people steer the ship, because they are the majority. Most of these engineers cannot recognize elite skill in part because they don’t have elite skill (Dunning-Kruger Effect). But, they have a diploma and maybe even a PE, just like everyone else. So we’re all equals, the paperwork says so!

        Whether it’s engineering, HR, production, accounting, management, whatever – the song remains the same. Most people aren’t very good at their chosen profession, but they comprise the majority, so the world is constrained to their abilities.

    • 0 avatar

      Half of everybody is stupid and the other half of humanity is responsible for the worst ideas in history.

    • 0 avatar
      brn

      “most people are incompetent”

      I grow tired of internal hatred. The truth is quite the opposite of what you claim. Most things work as well as they do, because people are generally competent. If one screws up, those around him/her are paying attention and catch it.

      I’m generally amazed as to how well things work. When you take a step back, you realize it’s because most people do have a clue.

      • 0 avatar
        319583076

        From the bottom, it looks like a steep incline
        From the top, another downhill slope of mine
        But I know, the equilibrium’s there.

        The lay of the land depends on where you stand.

        And in the engineering world, things generally work because they are massively over-designed, which are costs that we all pay, every hour of every day.

        • 0 avatar
          rpn453

          Indecision often clouds my vision when I’m doing engineering work.

          • 0 avatar
            dolorean

            Isn’t the definition of the Peter Principle that we all rise to the level of our own incompetence? A few Historical examples:

            Socrates, great philosopher, terrible defense lawyer.

            Ulysses Grant, fairly competent General, most blantantly corrupt U.S. Presidency.

            MC Hammer, record holding genie pants, amazingly incompetent business man.

            You get the idea.

          • 0 avatar
            Erikstrawn

            But no one listens because I’m somewhere in between my love and my agony.

    • 0 avatar
      KixStart

      319583076: “Look. Here’s a little bit of industrial grade truth – most people are incompetent.”

      Not at all. Most people are satisfactorily competent over a range of activities. I’m perfectly competent at quite a few things, just don’t ask me to rebuild your transmission and I don’t try to play NFL football.

  • avatar
    PeterKK

    I always thought one of those triangles was in effect. The pick two things?

    Price – Reliability – Performance

    Pick two.

    So most german imports (since they have to ship them across the ocean at a fair price already) opt to send their pricy performance models seaward. I always heard that is what happens in Europe. But secondhand info with no sources is what it is.

    I have also seen graphs that suggest this triangle to me. But they are somewhat dubious consumer reports data, so yeah.

    My father and I have basically come to the conclusion that all manufacturers are pretty much in lock step these days. The difference between 3 cars a million and 10 cars a million looks big by comparison, but not in comparison with the million, but then is that the real story? I don’t know.

    This is the kind of thing that ends up being fun to talk about but for which there is little real evidence to draw conclusions from. Though mabe I’m just ignorant of that info. Maybe We could ask Sajeev for a list of actual data points on car reliability?

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      If that were true, I’d expect expensive cars to be reliable cars — since you get ta pick two, or throw money at the problem.

      I haven’t gotten the impression than this is the case.

      I consider paying extra for an heirloom quality car. But, the expensive cars e looked at are either lease queens, or Teslas. If I want to drive a car and ditch it after 3 years, I can do that cheaper with a used Ford than I can with a BMW…

      Back to the heirloom car thing: If I want to buy a car that my 5 son year old can take to college, buying high end is a liability.

      It looks to me like price does not correlate with reliability. Which p!sses me off, because I wish there were genuinely aspirational owner’s cars.

      My best bets for an heirloom car are probably either a Prius (because it’s a cockroach) or a Wrangler (because it’s timeless and has a strong technical owners community).

    • 0 avatar
      kuman

      I think there are certain points where the increased price will provide best performance vs reliability, and after those points are passed, increase in price is accompanied by less and less increase in reliability or performance.

      Being at the bleeding edge of everything, cars included incurs heavy overhead in every aspect.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    Great questions asked, with not a lot of quality answers.

    From my own experience I have not had a car that provided me with a lot of issues since high school. I do not consider the classic car that ussually occupies a garage stall as that is always self induced brain damage. That is an article for another day.

    The only major brand I have yet to own is Toyota. Ford (4), C/J/D (one of each), Subaru, Mazda, Chevrolet (4) Nissan (3),Honda, Infiniti, VW (3), Morgan have all spent time in my care. Oddly for me, the ones with the least amount of repairs and were owned for the longest duration were the Chrysler and dodge. Nissan and Subaru have not been kind to me, Morgan is kind to NO ONE. The subie was bought new and dumped at 9k miles as I was tired of going back to the dealer for work and was by far the most problematic of any modern car I have owned where I paid significant dollars for. I don’t count my HS and college cars, what do you expect when you pay $980 for a car?

    I do believe that for the most part the Japanese manufactures have a higher level of detail put into what others would consider to be minutia. Allowing for the sum of the parts to equal to the whole in terms of quality and concede that perhaps the Germans put more thought into what you see than what you don’t. Problem is, finding and repairing what you don’t see is a pain in the arse.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    I think the definition of reliability varies a lot by region.

    Europeans pay a lot for their cars. They generally don’t mind paying to maintain them if it means they won’t have to buy a new one.

    Japanese customers don’t keep their cars very long. JDM cars get exported to third world markets when they are 4 or 5 years old. That means Japanese cars are designed to work perfectly for 5 years, and then to be maintained cheaply afterwards. The interior will fall apart (and most third world countries have thriving automotive upholstery shops), the paint will flake off, everything will shake, but the car will keep running as long as you keep it away from salt.

    American cars are very cheap to buy, compared to the rest of the world, and that means that Americans can trade-in at the first sign of trouble. Their cars aren’t exported outside the country, they lead a second life surviving on cheap aftermarket parts, always on the cusp of going off to the junk yard. You can replace a 10-year-ols American car for less than the price of a set of tires and a brake job.

    There’s pros and cons to all three philosophies, but they each make sense in their own cultural and economic context.

    • 0 avatar
      hubcap

      This is purely anecdotal but from my experience, the Japanese cars I’ve owned, Acura, Honda, Mazda had more resilient interiors than the German ones. In fact, it seems that V.W. and Audi interiors deteriorate if you look at them too long though they were the more plush … until they weren’t.

    • 0 avatar
      wumpus

      This assumes a few things.

      That the resale value of Japanese cars filters back to the car buyers. It might (and may well matter more to the dealers. Are Japanese dealers “the customer” of JDM cars? The only time I heard of it (during the 1980s “yellow peril rerun”), Japanese retail was mom and pop and pretty weird.

      I’m even less sure about Euro disregard for maintenance. My understanding is that in Germany, cars are mandated to meet all inspections all the time and simply can not be “worked” on by anything less than a master mechanic (scare quotes around “worked” as the work is likely done by a Turkish underling why said Master Mechanic drinks bier in the back). The context was why German cars had such long maintenance (read oil change) intervals, and the reason was it took a master mechanic…

      Personally, I suspect the engineering culture grew first (after being scarred by German mechanical engineering design, I can attest that a German engineer can’t help but make *everything* super complicated), then the laws were simply enacted as a protectionist barrier to expect cars designer more like home grown items.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        German cars have long maintenance intervals due the large numbers of company-owned cars. Fleet managers look at TCO, and a slightly lower TCO due to a couple fewer oil changes can mean the difference between making a sale or not. Another factor is the Europeans really do buy into the whole “Green” environmental thing, and longer intervals mean less oil wasted.

        In the US “Free Maintenance” is another reason to extend the service intervals.

        I find it amusing that in the US BMW has backed off from the really long intervals. It is now “when the computer says, but with a hard stop at 1yr or 10K” whichever comes first. I have no doubt this is just to shut people up about it, rather than for actual engineering reasons.

  • avatar
    Frownsworth

    The German culture seems to value industrial engineering. If you take apart their cars of the last decade from the Mk4 VW/Audis to the Mk7 of current model year, you’ll notice that there are lots of details underneath the rather plain skin. For example, you can appreciate the solid front rebar, which is nearly twice the weight of that of the equivalent year Civic’s (not sure about the latest Mk7 vs. new Civic). The doors, when you remove that inner decorative skin, you get double sided doors that aren’t stamped one piece with a thin anti-intrusion beam inside the door. This makes for much better sound proofing, and somewhat increased crash protection as well as a proper baffle for the speakers. This is one reason why many base model Japanese compact/subcompacts have terrible sounding stereo systems compared to the base model VWs, for example.

    While I haven’t taken apart a Civic’s roof, you can tap on it and see/hear it vibrate like a tin-can. You won’t get that special effect with a German entry-level automobile. I think it was last year’s IIHS statistics that pointed out the Civics between 2009 to 2011 are one of the deadliest cars of any class, despite them passing the crash test of that era with flying colors. I think the difference is in how the Japanese excels at passing the test vs. real world crashes. On the other hand, the Audi A4, from those same years, in the same study, had zero reported deaths at the IIHS. To wit, the Audi A4 of those years weighed ~500 lbs (depending on comparison trim levels) more than the Civics. You don’t see that sort of engineering on the surface. Look at the sizes of the control arms and bushings of those years’ VW/Audis vs. Hondas, and you don’t even need to take apart things to appreciate the differences in philosophy between the Japanese and German manufacturers.

    The Kaizen approach of the Japanese leads to gradual refinement of their products. This approach quickly settles on tried and true designs and produces extremely reliable products after a few iterations. The Germans favor bigger risks and bigger rewards with each generation going forward and do not seem to spend as much time on a “Kaizen”-like approach. So your shiny new 1.4T/1.8T/diesels is going to have all the newest features like DI, integrated manifolds with heat exchangers for quick warm up in the winter and cooling of the turbo charged air, piezoelectric injectors, etc, but don’t think for a second that this design has had years and years of Kaizen associated with it.

    My 2 cents.

    • 0 avatar
      Fordson

      I think this is a very good analysis.

      As to the question of automotive racism..yes. And TTAC is a hotbed of it.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      To be fair, Audi A4 drivers are older, more affluent, and less prone to doing stupid things than Honda Civic drivers. The impulse control that allows one to move up in life to the A4 price point tends to be associated with safer driving.

      • 0 avatar
        Frownsworth

        Sure. I agree that there is certainly more than one factor in the safety discrepancy. You can’t argue against that there are lot of used Audi A4s, not sold to affluent buyers (affluent buyers are not very well known for being gentle on their vehicles and I think, they often lease) and that there are structural differences between the Honda Civics and the Audi A4s which play a big role in the real world safety of each vehicle.

        To get a better idea, you can probably talk to the auto body specialists to get an idea what the inside of these structures look like when you peel away that thin outer veneer of styling. My words are just from my collective experiences dealing with Civics and German cars.

    • 0 avatar
      rocketrodeo

      This same kaizen process is why domestic pickups dominate the full size market. Toyota is beginning to settle down and refine their basic design, rather than going with a redo each generation. Think of the jumps between the T100s and the first two Tundras–stretched Hilux to midsize to fullsize. Meanwhile the F-series is in its, what, 13th generation?

      • 0 avatar
        Drzhivago138

        To be fair, the F-Series wasn’t completely overhauled with every generation either. The ’57s used the same ’53 frame. From 1965, the refreshed frame of the ’61 model underpinned every truck until ’80, and the 1980 truck was used until ’97.

      • 0 avatar
        Frownsworth

        Interesting observation. I am unfortunately not as familiar with pickup trucks. The F-series seems to have taken quite a bit of a leap lately with turbo chargers, aluminum bodies and whatever else I can not remember at the moment.

    • 0 avatar
      thornmark

      Seems the new Civic may have leapfrogged VW.

      “Honda Redefines The Small Car With All-New 2016 Civic”.

      VW was my first car purchase and it was so dire I made a promise “never again”. Honda watched VW fail w/ DI and double clutch transmissions. To their credit.

      • 0 avatar
        Frownsworth

        It seems to be a great car so far. Honda has not spearheaded any serious engine technologies since the VTEC of decades ago. They are being very cautious in a conservative way to watch what others have done then Kaizen it. The double clutch transmission with a torque converter design is a testament, as is their CVT tuning and general sportiness (they benchmarked the new Fit on VW’s Polo).

        I think they have caught up quite a bit and may be the more reliable choice for those who buy and keep instead of lease and return.

  • avatar
    turf3

    I worked 20 years in the automotive industry, for a Japanese company, supplying Japanese, US, and European auto manufacturers.

    People at the Japanese manufacturers have internalized the concept of doing production processes right, and driving variation out of all processes. When they find a problem they work to eliminate it, and to prevent it from happening again. If there’s not a problem they work on further reducing variation or making other types of continuous improvement.

    Some of the American manufacturers have implemented lip service to these concepts, by importing the forms and documentation, but it is eyewash and the underlying philosophy is still that if it falls within the spec limits it’s OK, and even if it isn’t we need to figure out how to ship it anyway. The Japanese companies don’t need or use the huge bureaucracy of forms and procedures, because they think in a framework of continuous improvement and “total quality management” from the beginning.

    My experience with the European manufacturers is more limited, but it seems that they are too caught up in designing complexity to focus on reliability. Further, the incredible arrogance makes it very difficult for them to learn from people who are doing things better. We Americans have plenty of that, too, but it’s subtly different. I think the European university system is somehow implicated: “I am a Herr Dr.-Ing. so I know what is right!” vs. “We don’t need any foreigners to show us how to do mass production, we invented it!”

    An example of the US vs. Japan style of automotive engineering came when Chrysler introduced the “JA” cars (Cirrus/Stratus) which were basically cheap, tinny, poorly made pieces of doo doo. But they offered 5 (!) different engine options. Most of which were brand new. By contrast, at roughly the same time Toyota introduced a new Camry. With probably 3-5 times the production volume, they offered 2 engines – the 4 and the 6. And the 4 was essentially the same engine they had been producing for 10 years. Which engine was more likely to have troubles, the Toyota 4 in production for many years, with continuous improvement and refinement, or one of the 5 different Xler JA engines? And if you’re not spending budget on developing a zillion new engine options you don’t need, you can spend some of the budget on things like NVH reduction; or making the condenser/radiator pack big enough, or managing engine cooling properly. (This car is the only medium size pass-car I have ever seen with cooling problems so severe that it required a POWER STEERING COOLER!)

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Great post, very detailed.

    • 0 avatar
      RideHeight

      ZOMG

    • 0 avatar
      andyinatl

      I agree with pretty much everything, but respectfully, i don’t think all Europeans are into designing complexity. I think Swedes can be safely excluded from this race to the most complex vehicle. At least their cars don’t have components that fail as fast as Germans do, and what does fail due to wear and tear, or even to malfunction is miles easier to replace than BMW/MB/Audi

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        I’d say those latest Volvo motors are as complex as anything the Germans currently offer, if not more so. The days of the Volvo 240/740/940 are long past.

        • 0 avatar
          andyinatl

          They are technologically complex, no question, but they are a lot more serviceable and don’t have as many reliability issues (not yet anyway as they’re fairly “young”). There is 1 foot of space between radiator grille and radiator and as much space between radiator and engine, in the new XC90. Recent examples of S80, S60, V70 with their ubiquitous 5-cyl engines have very good reputation as well.

    • 0 avatar
      baconator

      So exciting to see a post that has real information, from someone who might actually know! Thanks for posting.

    • 0 avatar
      claytori

      Every car I have owned that had power steering has had some form of fluid cooler for the PS fluid. This usually consists of a long steel tube running across and back the bottom of the front cross member. That steel tube sometimes rusts out, dumping the fluid on the ground. I have changed those coolers in my driveway. So I don’t think that is an unusual feature. That being said, I do think that one of the key factors to a reliable engine is properly sorting out the coolant passages, pump, and radiator.

      • 0 avatar
        tresmonos

        This is the truth. Ironically, turf3’s powersteering system on that Chrysler product was from a full service Japanese Tier 1 supplier. The package constraints required the cooler.

        Power steering steel line is usually coated with a hot dip (galfan) or some zinc phosphate coating. There is only one tube extruder left in the US that supplies most of the domestically used steel tube. It is CNC bent or Power-Hydraulically bent. Chrysler uses hot dip galfan plus (Since Fiat ownership) powder coating. So it’s very over engineered. FCA still utilizes dual electric and hydraulic assist (again – very over engineered). FCA is the only OEM that I currently know of that powdercoats their steel and its a vanity thing that assists in corrosion protection. Those lines will outlast the car on every single FCA product that uses them.

        So let’s all just bask in this knowledge for a bit. Does it change the ‘racism’ that turf3 portrayed originally? He clearly didn’t know his anecdotal evidence was in fact designed and manufactured by the Japanese. The cooler itself is Tier 2 China, FYI. They are piles of junk.

        • 0 avatar
          RideHeight

          So how’d that power steering system work out even with the package restraints?

          Nothing either of you’ve said so far has indicated it was a disaster, only that it needed a cooler.

          • 0 avatar
            tresmonos

            I’m just pointing out his lack of knowledge of what he’s talking about. A cooler is utilized if the steel tubing doesn’t sufficiently cool the hydraulic fluid if the couplings are in close proximity to the pump. It may even be a simple NVH issue. It could be due to the supplier of the pump. It could be a complex Hitachi pump or some old screw based TRW cold war beast in a Econoline. There are so many factors that could have brought Chrysler and the full service supplier to that application that we don’t know about.

            You’re mind is already made up, I was merely shooting holes in his racist post.

          • 0 avatar
            RideHeight

            I’m confusing comments and answers here…

            Whatever, I’ll always read anything you write!

          • 0 avatar
            tresmonos

            The B&B makes me hate myself and wonder why I reply and share my otherwise useless automotive knowledge.

        • 0 avatar
          turf3

          Actually, you don’t know what you are talking about.

          The cooling package was developed and manufactured by Valeo, not a Japanese company. The condenser, radiator, and PS cooler (not a single long line, an actual heat exchanger, sorry, I didn’t observe it closely enough and it’s been some years, so I don’t remember the exact configuration of the cooler) were all supplied as a single integrated package for simplicity of installation.

          The underlying problem was not, however, in the design of the PS system (yes, the pump and rack were probably from Denso), nor the design of the cooling package from Valeo. The problem was bad air flow management under the hood. The V-6 was crammed so tightly against the rear of the radiator that cooling air could not flow properly through the cooling package. The Chrysler thermal systems engineers were unable to diagnose the problem. The Valeo engineer in attendance and I diagnosed the problem.

          Were you on the hot soak pad at the Arizona Proving Grounds that summer? I was. I know what I saw.

          • 0 avatar
            turf3

            Oh, one other point – the comparable Honda and Toyota vehicles, (Accord, Camry) offered V-6 engines, and they had basically the same layout, yet NVH performance was far superior, and they did not use power steering coolers. Were you under all three cars on a lift during their development times? I was.

          • 0 avatar
            tresmonos

            touche – I am mixing up hydraulic line product – but the line and the cooler are integrated. Valeo is a Tier 1. Yokohama / Cooper / Coupled Products would have been the tier 2 depending on vintage of Chrysler product. If the P/S lines plug into that cooler, it was likely designed by the tier 2 or tier 3.

            Regardless, packaging constraints yielded the design configuration (like I mentioned). Your bias is evident and your expertise wasn’t clearly evident – so I apologize for the jabs.

            In any case, my experience doesn’t align with yours. As a quality engineer, I can definitely tell you that customer quality is correlated with integrity. Every damned manufacturing plant I’ve been in has almost the same QOS. Culture drives it to be effective.

            Your experiences on proving grounds doesn’t mean sh1t in terms of knowing production quality. You probably have a vastly more comprehensive integration viewpoint – but manufacturing and explicit component design is probably not something you should portray yourself as an expert. (edit: I made and ass out of you and me and just assumed this – you were talking integration – sorry again)

            Last point – with such a diverse, shared supply base, most OEM’s ‘customer’ product quality lies in their integration. NVH nuisances, early recalls and product longevity usually stem from the integration. This isn’t quality covered by SC’s, CC’s, poka yokes and inline EOL production cycle testing. Death and severe injury usually stems from component failure. This is the quality that I’m familiar with. The Japanese are literally like the scene from fight club where they will crunch the numbers to see if a known defect population will yield a significant enough financial burden rather than do the right thing and issue a campaign to recall and retrofit suspect vehicles. The US based Tier 1 I worked for did not operate in this manner.

            I’ve been a quality engineer at the production floor and a quality engineer driving program integration (OEM side) and analyzing pre production fleets. Being a tier 1 supplier QE on the floor is a draining job which made me lose absolutely every ounce of trust for the Japanese business culture. YMMV and maybe I worked for a bad apple but the more I network, the more I know I wasn’t alone in my experiences.

            If you worked for valeo, god rest your soul. I detested working with our Tier 1 partner plants.

            Interesting tidbit – there is no longer any US based automotive extruded hose manufacturer besides Cooper Industries and Fluid Routing Systems even though it was originally a US based technology. Anchor Swan / Mark IV Automotive had a Bucyrus plant that supplied Honda back in the 1980’s. Honda required AS to open their process books to ensure top notch customer quality. Rubber manufacturing is like baking a cake prior to extrusion – the recipe is pretty sacred. Well, Honda gave that recipe to SAS. Anchor Swan now makes f*cking garden hose. SAS makes rubber extruded hose to most Japanese OEM’s. It’s a stolen technology made with a stolen process. Same god d*mned hose that was made in the 80’s. I worked with the Americans who developed these hoses. These guys are about to retire and with them will go some of the best quality engineers the rubber hose industry will ever see. SAS cannot sufficiently analyze every production imperfection nor do they understand some of the vulcanization processes that they mimicked. From my OEM experience analyzing warranty, this is evident. That or they are playing dumb to avoid control plan costs.

            Every culture has their strengths and weaknesses. Manufacturing really brings out the best in everyone*

    • 0 avatar
      tresmonos

      “Some of the American manufacturers have implemented lip service to these concepts, by importing the forms and documentation, but it is eyewash and the underlying philosophy is still that if it falls within the spec limits it’s OK, and even if it isn’t we need to figure out how to ship it anyway. The Japanese companies don’t need or use the huge bureaucracy of forms and procedures, because they think in a framework of continuous improvement and “total quality management” from the beginning.”

      I only have 10 years in, but I think your entire statement is ‘automotive racism.’ I’ve worked for one US based supplier, one major Japanese supplier and one US OEM. You may still be tinted from the 90’s and 80’s, but this is my experience with the Japanese: One interesting thing I’ve learned is how devious the Japanese business culture is. IP content is robbed via forced opening of the books. Don’t get me started on avoidance of recalls by communicating issues through known approved channels where it is likely that the non conformance will be lost by the customer. Up front quality has better PR, issue resolution is swift, but business is the same.

      I can’t count how many fudged Gage R&R’s or Capability Analyses I’ve done. When the results didn’t align with the business objective, I was instructed to re-do them as my results were surely erroneous. Just because the SPC exists doesn’t mean anything. The Japanese way is very much passive aggression. It’s akin to walking into your HR manager’s office and realizing that everything that could be used in your quest as a Quality Engineer isn’t on record, nor will it ever be and the only thing that matters is what you put on record and that result directly correlates with your continued employment.

      Your post does not align with my experiences at all.

      • 0 avatar
        hgrunt

        tresmonos, your assessment of Japanese business culture is fairly spot on. A friend of mine works for a Japanese robotics company and has stories of dealing with Japanese business culture and bureaucracy with his HQ in Japan. Similar stories from friends who’ve worked for, or with a giant Japanese company. There’s also a general unwillingness to question or deviate internally, even if it’s not the best way to go about doing it.

        I do want to thank you for your deep insight into the automotive industry, and enjoy reading your comments when you do post!

    • 0 avatar
      tresmonos

      Also, look on the roll stamped coupling of your power steering line. Look on the lay line of the laser extruded rubber hose. What does it say on it? Does it say ‘Chrysler’ or does it give you the company of the full service supplier who designed and manufactured it? This is way too damned easy to discredit you. All you would have had to do is not be such an automotive bigot and open your god d*amned mouth.

      Look at what you’ve done – all those B&B that are piling onto your hive mind racism. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    • 0 avatar
      brn

      I don’t like it when arguments use models of specific brands to represent an entire country. I guess that’s the definition of racism.

      Toyota Camry vs Dodge Stratus? Japan looks good.

      Ford Taurus vs Suzuki anything? Japan doesn’t look good.

    • 0 avatar
      Junes

      Thanks, Turf. Great comments, very helpful.

  • avatar
    andyinatl

    One of the days i sat down and counted 52 cars that i have owned in 20 years. That’s a lot of automotive depreciation on some of them, good profit on others, and just a complete loss on yet few others.

    I’ve had 2 SAABs, 5 VWs, 3 Hondas (1 current Civic that’s my daily commuter), 1 Lexus (LX470 that my wife drives), 1 Dodge (lesson learned), 5 Volvos (my favorite cars overall), several Chevy/GMC trucks, and as i’m getting tired of thinking of others i’ll stop right there. I haven’t had a single car that i would say was riddled with issues, but then i rarely owned a car more than few months at a time as i tended to get bored rather quickly with cars. If i had to rack my brain, there was a 2000 VW Passat V6 that had few issues, but even that car never left me stranded.

    Thankfully i wised up and had my current vehicles for about 2 years each with no plans on getting rid of them. Between Civic and LX470, the Lexus gave me couple repairs that were due to wear and tear (CV boots, crumbling speakers) but the prices were reasonable at independent mechanic and parts prices were good too. I originally was looking for Landcruiser but those are more expensive used than LX470, which was more expensive then LC when new, so i “settled” for Lexus. Everything on this Lexus is super beafy, and having driven 20K on it now, up to 140K on odometer, it’s just as tight and squeak/rattle free as when it was new.

    In few more years, when it’s time to give up my Civic to my then driving age kid, i’ll likely get my wife a Volvo via OSD (2 free tickets to Sweden, yo!) and take over the LX470 as my daily driver.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    “What has happened over the years that has driven down reliability of European and American auto manufacturers from an engineering, design, and manufacturing perspective?”

    It has been the opposite. Reliability has improved over time.

    Toyota and Honda lead the pack with reliability because of lean production. As noted, read James Womack’s The Machine That Changed the World to learn more about it (although the book is a bit too fawning.)

    The reality is that American cars were never particularly reliable, but with the market long dominated by the “Big Three”, there was no basis for comparison. Once the Japanese began to make inroads in the US during the 1970s, it became apparent to more consumers that the domestics weren’t all that good, after all.

    • 0 avatar
      RideHeight

      “the book is a bit too fawning”

      The 2nd ed. dials-down the evangelical gleam a mite.

    • 0 avatar
      tresmonos

      Here is the first post that I can get on board with. I maintain that there may be a shred of advantage to the Japanese culture, and that isn’t because of process but because of OEM / supplier collusion – the QOS of every supplier I’ve worked for is almost identical. APQP, TS, ISO is all driven top down.

      Your major advantages of quality really lie in the organization culture. And that varies regardless of nationality.

  • avatar
    Mr. Orange

    Am I incorrect with the assumption that cars today are generally the most reliable cars have ever been.

    Your average Chevy or Ford is the most reliable it has ever been. The milestone of reaching 100,000 miles is not seen automatically as the end but somewhere in the middle or about 1/3 of a vehicles expected lifespan. Tune up intervals are the longest they have ever been.

    The idea that the body or frame (exception Freestar, Tacoma and Mazda) rust would prematurely end the life of your car is no longer the norm in most of the US.

    The fact that the average US fleet is the oldest it has ever been should also support that cars are the most reliable compared to any point in the past.

    And when people say “Japanese cars” are more reliable, Mazda, Mitsubishi, and formerly Suzuki always got to ride on the coat tails of Toyota and Honda.

    • 0 avatar
      econobiker

      Both reliable and -additionally- far more rust free which enhances reliabiltiy because your car’s floor pans don’t rust out before the rest of the mechancical systems give up catastophicaly.
      For example, if VW Beetles had been built with better rust protection millions would still be on the roads today.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    The only one I’m truly biased against is the Brits. Jaguar and Land Rover build some appealing vehicles but I’m not brave enough to pull the trigger on owning one.

    • 0 avatar
      Mr. Orange

      I am.

      I’m seriously considering an 04-06 Jaguar XKR or an 05- 08 Jaguar S-Type R. For reasons I can’t understand. I am in love with the hood vents on the Jaguar XKR. Especially in the winter, how steam would just rise out of it.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Check and make sure the transmission of the supercharged variant holds up well vs the N/A. I seem to recall the much earlier XKR/XJR using the same ZF unit as the N/A and it didn’t hold up as well to the additional power over time. Same as the GM 4T65-E and the L67 3800 vs the L36.

        • 0 avatar
          Mr. Orange

          Thanks.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Np. It appears in the X350 (later XJ8/XJR) a single six speed ZF was used in all models inc diesel. Wiki is not as forthcoming on the XK8.

            “Transmission[edit]
            All models use the same ZF six-speed automatic transmission, XJ6 petrol versions have a lower final drive ratio”

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaguar_XJ_(X350)

      • 0 avatar
        DeadWeight

        A former boss’s 2004 Jaguar XJR V8 (Supercharged!) was one of the nicest vehicles I’ve ever experienced – and for some reasons that aren’t easy to identify or articulate/communicate.

        If I ever go Full Retard, I may try and hunt down a low mileage, lightly used example of that car in a moderate climate state seeing no salt on roads, and try and snag one.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          The X350/X358 is aluminum bodied. The X351 (current XJ) appears to be as well. I think I’d rather look for a July 2000-2002 X308 or failing that a 95-97 X300 with the old I6. All are going to be tough finds, they where ghettosized quickly.

        • 0 avatar
          tresmonos

          I have a close college friend with a pristine version of what you just described. Don’t do it. You will be car poor. Even after he redid the chain tensioners and all the head garbage that is needed to make it reliable, it still strands him.

          Great 2nd car, though.

    • 0 avatar
      mchan1

      One of my parents owned a Land Rover Freelander (IIRC) a few years back.

      It was tough and drove well in bad weather.
      But some of the plastic interior was cheap, noisy, cramp for taller people >6′, relatively expensive, didn’t have much tech and it SUCKED gas!

      The vehicle started having “issues” after the first year and the repairs become VERY expensive after the warranty ended!

      The vehicle was traded in as the repairs costs and gas costs increased.

      Own if you money and time to maintain the vehicle and to feed its thirst for gas!

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    The problem is philosophy. Sometime in the late 1970s, the CEOs of American companies, especially in the manufacturing segment, were infected with an outbreak of cutthroat aggressiveness toward the harvesting of companies for the money that kept them going. Companies which had been solidly profitable for decades were suddenly ripped open and their infrastructure torn out and taken for executive benefits. Research and development was slashed, salaries cut, company-funded pension plans were scrapped for employee-funded 401Ks, secretaries were replaced with IBM personal computers, numbers of employees were cut to the bone, and pressure was put on managers to do dramatically more with considerably less.
    Some of this was a reaction to decades of complacency and was actually needed. But a little needed reform became a raid by the Huns, Vandals and Mongol hordes.
    One example from the non-automotive segment.
    Maytag had built the best washers and dryers in the industry for decades and was rewarded with high sales and customer loyalty. Then a new management team took over. They designed an all new washer with all kinds of new technology, the Neptune. It was supposed to redefine the company and industry. It did. The Neptune was designed to slash manufacturing costs and this became its reason for being, not the improvement of the product as had been Maytag’s goal up to then. Bottom line- the Neptune was a nightmare, unreliable, expensive to repair, and a total flop. Maytag lost a fortune, went bankrupt, and was purchased by Whirlpool.
    This is just an example and illustrates why a car guy like me drives a Toyota Sienna for my daily driver.
    Hat tip to Turf3 for a great post

    • 0 avatar
      319583076

      I worked with a former Maytag-employed Mechanical Engineer, he was there during the Neptune and he might even have his name on a patent or two. Your analysis jives with the stories he told me. After the Neptune, the company was gutted, by consequence or by design. He loved that job and missed it, but he also understood that the job he loved disappeared before he was let go.

      Anyway, I agree with you 100%. Corporate and business ethics have been sacrificed to profit. Caveat emptor.

  • avatar
    George B

    The American automotive market is full of the equivalent to immigrant Americans and mixed-race cars. Cars with foreign ancestry and name that grew once they moved to the US. The 9th generation Accord from Ohio drives like a big Civic, but it has grown and adapted to the land of the Impala. The current generation Ford Fusion has lots of recent European immigrant in the family tree while prior generations were part Japanese via Mazda. The Toyota Tundra has more in common with the Ford F-150 than any JDM Toyota.

    When Americans say a car is “reliable”, they mean it didn’t cost them much money, time, and aggravation with maintenance and repairs. An objectively mediocre car with excellent warranty coverage, minimal required part replacement, and good parts availability is “reliable” while an otherwise excellent car that sits at the dealer waiting on expensive parts and service is “unreliable”. Give Americans a free loaner car while you install a new transmission for free under warranty and they’ll give you a pass, but force them to pay to have timing belts replaced and they’ll ding you. It’s my opinion that the major Japanese brands made an effort to understand the American consumer while the German brands still don’t get the maintenance money, time, and aggravation factor.

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    Yes, off course automotive racism exists. And there are a lot of differences between countries, management, philosophies and proposed market share/customer group, that make it some times true .
    Someone mentioned something similar as the triangle of ‘cheap-good-fast , pick two’ And that is the quick explanation. R&D and design are most likely the largest part of the budget when making a new car model, so the manufacturer have to make a choice what to prioritize. For instance, Mercedes will use more money on design, veersatility and gadgets than Lexus (ok, Lexus has hired a designer some time around 2010, but he’s still a bit inexperienced), so they will have less to spend on reliability. The only way to make a car that is good at everything is to make it more expensive, but to come close to perfection you are making a car that is so expensive that either no one will be able to buy it, or you will have to sell it at a loss.
    The ‘best’ (YMMV) cars made did not make their manufacturers any money directly through sales, but some may have had an effect as halo-cars. (959, Veyron, Integra Type-R etc.)

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    My $.02.

    I think the reality is in the middle. Most Japanese cars are not as reliable as people think they are (especially if you live where they are subject to a salt brine bath 4-5 months a year), nor are European cars as unreliable as people think they are. ESPECIALLY today, where effectively all cars are from Lake Woebegone. I’ve owned a ton of old and now newer European cars, and friends and family have owned plenty of Japanese cars for me to have a fair basis of comparison. ALL cars have their quirks and built-in issues. Even a Corolla is expensive to have the dealer work on. But certainly simpler cars have less to go wrong – you will never have to fix the air suspension on a Corolla. You WILL have to fix the air suspension on a Lexus eventually, and it will cost a fortune when you do.

    So ultimately I continue to drive European cars knowing full well that the TCO will probably be higher. In exchange, I drive cars that I WANT to drive.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Automotive racism? Maybe automotive nationalism?

    I’d like VW to explain their definition of “German Engineering”, and why it’s better than French engineering, American engineering, Japanese engineering, or Korean engineering.

    Personally, I prefer Korean engineering.

  • avatar

    I’d phrase the question differently. Are their cultural differences in approaches to engineering and design?

    Of course there are. Can you not tell the difference between Tudor and French Provincial architecture?

    Is it not obvious which vehicles from Japanese brands are designed back home and which ones come out of their California studios? The Lexus IS has very good proportions and general lines but up close looks a bit insectoid.

    Engineering approaches can differ from culture to culture. When I was a teen and young adult, in the space of about 10 years I’d worked on American, German and British cars. The Americans then did absolutely nothing unusual. If the Germans did something unusual, there was a reason for it. The British just did things weird.

    Then there is the consumer side, ethnic and cultural differences among consumers. Why don’t Americans buy hatchbacks? Why do large black men drive mid ’90s Impala SSs? Jews didn’t buy Fords until the 1970s. I get the impression that Korean-Americans favor Hyundais and Kias.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    Ill admit to having some racism against Toyonda, theyve made great cars but the owners can be a bit much.

    Otherwise after owning several Euro cars, Domestics, Japanese cars, Im pretty neuteral.

    Pick your battle:

    Fighting Japans rust acne
    Dealing with European Electronics
    Negotiating rushed American engineering

  • avatar
    theoldguard

    I have thought that the Ford Crown Vic must be a very durable car given the millions of miles the taxi and police fleets put on them. No turbos or timing belts, just push rods. Does old tech last longer?

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