Ask Bark: Old Vs. New Tech - Which Is More Reliable?

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
by Mark "Bark M." Baruth

Matt writes:

I am anticipating that my 1997 Subaru Legacy wagon, with 210,000+ miles on the clock, will need replacing soon. I’m lucky in that my wagon is a five-speed manual with the 2.2-liter EJ motor, so has been fairly bulletproof. In the last 19 years, it has needed only minimal work besides regular maintenance and wear items (brakes, clutch, tires), aside from the occasional axle or other random parts (i.e. alternator). I’ve been looking around at affordable commuter 5-door hatchbacks (Mazda3, Impreza, Focus, etc.) as it must fit multiple kids, sports gear, and I need a daily driver for work (~45 miles round trip).

Here’s my question: I would like something a little sporty as more than half of my commute is on fun twisty back roads. I keep going back and forth on whether or not to go for a naturally aspirated or turbo engine, followed by trying to decide between auto or manual. I feel like my five-speed-manual Subaru skewed my perception to believe a naturally aspirated engine and manual transmission is a much more sturdy, robust and reliable setup that’s less prone to breaking and needing repairs (fewer parts to fail) than a turbo and/or automatic.

Am I wrong?

The other half of my commute in bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go traffic makes me want to ditch the manual, but curvy roads make me want to go with a turbo manual. My wallet and the fact that I’ve always driven cars into the ground (180K+ miles) makes me think N/A and a manual transmission will be more reliable, cheaper and safer in the long run.

Am I totally off base? Is this true for current, late model cars?

Thank you,


Hey! I used to have one of those Legacy Wagons. I wish you’d written to tell me about that axle thing a year ago — I might still have one if you had!

As far as your question goes, the answer is simple: yes and no.

I don’t think there’s any real reason to suspect modern automatic transmissions as less reliable than modern manuals. In fact, based on how quickly OEMs are running away from manuals for any “non-performance car,” there may not be many manuals left for us to buy in the near future. The question may become moot. There are still examples of notoriously unreliable autos (the wretched FCA nine-speed and, yes, Ford Fiesta autos come to mind), but, as a whole, I think that the industry has gotten the automatic transmission thing figured out.

That doesn’t mean automatics in the C segment cars you mentioned are any fun to drive. Far from it. I think the cheapest car with an automatic transmission one might describe as “fun” would be the GTI with the DSG option.

Turbos? Eh, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. When Caroline Ellis looked at buying a Sonic hatchback two years ago, I advised her to get the naturally aspirated 1.8-liter Ecotec motor over the 1.4-liter turbo because I wasn’t convinced that the latter was durable over the long haul. I still think that was solid advice, but we’ll never know because a flood totaled her car. Sad trombone.

For your specific situation, I share your concern about the long-term reliability of turbocharged, smaller motors. I had no problem getting a turbo motor in my Fiesta ST, because I was only doing a 24-month lease, and the car would be under warranty the entire time. My next car purchase is likely a turbo boosted to high-heavens — but, again, I don’t typically keep cars more than 3-4 years at the most.

I also think that you’ll be somewhat disappointed by the fuel mileage you’ll get out of most of these little turbos. Your commute isn’t too bad at 45 miles round trip, but you mentioned a fair amount of stop and go traffic. That’s not awesome for turbo gas mileage. Combine that with the hooning you’ll likely do in the curvy section of the trip and you’ll probably experience fuel mileage that can best be described as “Barkish.” (I’m notorious for getting much-worse-than-EPA fuel mileage in every car I drive. Heavy right foot, even for a size 8 1/2.)

So based on your unique set of circumstances, I think the right car for you is a Mazda3 hatch with a manual. I’d love to recommend a Focus ST here, but you’ll get a disturbingly large number of hits if you do a search on any ST forum for “turbo failure.” And when turbos fail on a FoST, they tend to do nasty things to the rest of the motor too if you don’t catch it in time. If you wanted a 36 month lease, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend one, but I can’t see you driving a FoST for 19 years. As long as the notorious Mazda rust issues are resolved in the current gen, I think you’ll be happy behind the wheel of a manual Mazda3 for decades to come.

Remember, if you want some advice regarding a car purchase, email me at or DM me at @barkm302 in the Twittersphere.

[Image: Electric Turbocharger, Valeo]

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
Mark "Bark M." Baruth

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2 of 85 comments
  • AK AK on May 11, 2016

    Focus ST's have a handful of issues (mine is in for the 5th time this year with cold start misfires), but bad turbos isn't a widespread issue. I wouldn't worry about the turbo. Ford's overall build quality is much more alarming than a few people early on that had a bad turbo.

  • Ponyboy69 Ponyboy69 on May 14, 2016

    VW TDI owner here. No idea what you guys are talking about, turbos are super reliable. Door handles, though, those'll kill you.

  • FreedMike Needs MOOAAARRR POWER.
  • Mgh57 I should just buy an old car where everything is analog.
  • FreedMike You mean, the "Hellcat all the things" plan failed?
  • Fred I've only had it for about 7 months and I like it. Mostly because I have a hard time seeing my phone screen. So even tho my Honda's screen is 6" it's a lot easier to see than my phone.
  • Cha65697928 I'm 48. Both our cars have it, I'm never going back. Being able to activate calls, messages, music, nav, opening/closing garage doors all via voice command is awesome. Now if Audi would just allow Google maps to mirror in the middle of the driver's display instead of only allowing the native nav...