I’m asking such a funny question today and I will try to answer it myself the best I can. People always refer to one car as better than another. Nowadays a lot of people even say that European cars are much better than American. First of all, how do we define the word better? Is a better car the one with the most features and electronics? Or is it the one most reliable? Or is it the fastest?
Quite recently me and my girlfriend began discussing this topic in the car and several interesting points came up. I consider myself a competent person to talk about this topic since I have owned American cars and a modern European car, but I ofcourse have many friends with all sorts of cars that they have told me about. I also have a huge background in aviation which means that I know how aircraft are built and I must say, these pieces of equipment are pretty much the best the engineers can come up with today.
Car Industry in Europe
Although the first cars were really built in USA, Europe has a car history nearly just as long. I don’t want to get into the history of cars since that’s not the topic of today’s post, but I still need to mention a few things. European cars used to be somewhat similar to American cars back in the 80’s and before. Then the Europeans began pushing the limits in all the areas of an automobile and that’s when the today’s common understanding of “American cars are worse than European” really started to spread across the world.
Let’s talk about some modern European executive cars like BMW 5-series, Mercedes E-class and Audi A6. Nobody really considers them bad cars since they are full of modern electronics, they behave perfectly on every road surface, they are safe, quiet and economical. These cars also look very nice and appeal to anyone who can afford them. You are paying loads of money to get all that, plus you are paying a remarkable amount to own the brand. Just like with any other expensive products (Rolex, Breitling, Christian Dior, Chanel) you are paying for the quality, the experience and most importantly, the brand itself. European cars are built like clothes – you wear them for 5 years and you are generally very satisfied with the product throughout this period. However, what happens afterwards is no concern of the manufacturer anymore since you have most likely already upgraded to a new fresh model. What I have noticed is that European car manufacturers pay almost no attention to the long term reliability of their automobiles which is really a shame. If we even get to the Green Thinking topic, the most important thing is to waste as little as possible and re-use produced things as long as we can. How can European automanufacturers call themselves greenthinkers if they produce short lasting vehicles which are no good after 5, max. 10 years?
The engines Europeans use on their cars are nowadays as small as possible. Yes, this results in lower fuel consumption for the owner and often still results in pretty good performance. The main reason they produce economical cars is not to think green – it’s a marketing feature like electric windows, four wheel drive or satnav. The one and only concern for the manufacturers is the first user of the car who buys it from the dealership and drives it for 5 years. Yes, the engine generally lasts this period without issues if maintained properly. However, these small economical engines run at twice the RPM of traditional American engines and this makes its components wear out twice faster. This means a lot of headache for the used car buyer. It is amazing to watch the used car market here in Estonia – Audis, Mercs and BMWs are flowing in on trailers like crazy from Western Europe, all of them are 3-5 years old. Estonians buy them no questions asked because they get a nice executive car with lots of features and good fuel economy. But after a couple of years these cars begin to cause trouble, a lot of trouble. The main components wear out after 200 000 km, means replacement of wheel bearings, chain tensioners, suspension components, different electronics within the engine and sometimes even the transmissions begin to mess up already. All this equals a lot of Euros. I’ve heard from car salesmen that 80% of Estonians buying the executive cars do not realize or do not ask anything about the possible maintenance costs in the next years. However, if you look at the recommended used Audi, BMW and Mercedes maintenance tasks to do every year or two years, the list is quite scary. In addition to regular oil changes and filters, you should change oil in the front and rear axles every year, change automatic transmission oil every 60 000 km which is almost my yearly score, coolant, brake fluid and power steering fluid every two years. All of those liquids together with the work shop hours cost remarkable amount of money, but I know the factory suggested transmission oil for the Audi A6 costs around 50-70 EUR per litre and you need at least 10 litres of it. Alright, if those were the only things you need to do in addition to the regular oil changes, I would be OK to do it. However, the parts you will need for these cars every year cost a fortune. Oh and don’t even get into the adjustable air suspension talk, I hope you don’t have that if you own an European car without factory warranty.
So how do the Europeans pull it all off without major hit to the particular car brand? That’s a good question. Probably a sample from fashion brands is again useful here – even if your Armani suit wears out quicker than expected, you buy a new one because you want to wear Armani. Perhaps you spread the word to your friends that the expensive suit began to loose its shine too quickly but in the end those who can afford it, will buy it. That’s simply the fact. It’s the same deal with cars, those who buy used Audis and other expensive brand cars simply want to own the brand and don’t take the possible expenses into account. They are so blinded by the cool car that they forget all the rest.
Car Industry in United States
Since the 60’s and 70’s all the major American car brands have been developing their mainstream engines which are partially still in production even today. Since the beginning the Americans have been fond of big engines. There’s a good reason for that. Whatever it is, the larger the thing, the easier it is to produce long lasting components. USA is known for worldwide recognized brands and American people are very attached to certain brands. Those guys who have been Ford guys since the 70’s, haven’t changed their mind to this day. Car brands in USA have been building up a certain image since the beginning and they have never let themselves down by producing extremely unreliable vehicles and bad engines. In today’s American cars a lot of the same technology can be found which was already used in the 70’s. The engines, the suspension, the axles and so on – everything is similar to those cars built 30 years ago. Why is it so? Are the Americans so lazy to figure out something new? A lot of people think so, but that’s not true. It has taken them dozens of years to find what works the best and build vehicles which are recognized as reliable and strong for years to come. It seems like Americans have never really built cars to last just five years but their aim has been to produce as reliable vehicles as possible in order to maintain the brand’s good image. If you look at the Chevy engines, the same engine blocks are still in use after 30 years. These same engines have been improved by adding new cylinder heads, fuel injection and stuff like that. While Europeans keep inventing completely new engines, Americans improve what has already been proved to be working. That’s the method I personally prefer – why always invent something if you already have a perfectly working system? And that’s the reason why there really isn’t such a thing in the American car history (or it’s really rare) that a certain engine on a certain vehicle is considered very unreliable and expensive to repair. Whenever you talk about an European car, people will begin telling you that the 3.0 Litre diesel is good, run like hell from the 2.5 TDI and become poor again by purchasing the W12 by Volkswagen.
Ok, that’s about the engine. But what about the suspension of American cars and the interiors? Yes, US cars have always been known as too soft in suspension, poor handling on curvy roads and having bad brakes. It all comes to customers needs. In America the roads are different than in Europe and American drivers prefer ride comfort to good street performance. I don’t understand people who buy those sports Audi and BMW coupe’s here in Estonia for daily use – the roads here are so bumpy and awful that you will break your teeth and the car’s suspension every year just by driving to work and back home. Drive an American car on Estonian roads and you feel like the roads aren’t that bad after all…
American car interiors are often made out of cheaper materials and don’t have that much equipment on them. But keep in mind that American made cars are often much cheaper than the European rivals. And since a car is generally still a workhorse, not a toy, it all begins to make sense. I must say that the plastic in my Suburban is a lot stronger taking hits and scratches than the Audi interior. It’s really easy to damage an European car interior or get it so dirty it will be impossible to clean properly anymore. While you can easily see after years that an European car is driven like hell, you can’t really recognize it that well on an American car.
The Relationship Between American Cars and Aircraft
Having spent years messing around with general aviation aircraft and flying them, I would say that most of the aircraft are more like American than any other cars. One reason ofcourse being that most of the airplanes are in fact produced in the USA, still the similarities to American cars can be also met on European aircraft. The main goal in aircraft production is safety and reliability – pretty much what all automobile producers also aim for. But do they?
Automobile companies sell a lot more of their cars simply because people crash them for whatever reason and get new ones again. Whether the reason of the crash was technical or human factor related, nobody cares in the end. Car crashes don’t get such investigations as aircraft accidents, therefore most of the times the real causes are left unknown. We don’t know if car factories actually produce some parts to last only for a certain period simply to sell more replacement parts, but I’m quite confident that aircraft factories don’t. They simply can’t afford a mishap. And talking totally from my personal experience, many American cars represent the same values as aircraft factories do – safety, ease of use and long-lasting durability. Let’s take a Chevy truck – it can be “too simple by today’s standards” and the interior is made out of plastic but when you drive it and own one for years, you see how much effort has been put into the reliability and durability of the vehicle. It’s hard to feel it with a new European car. All aircraft are AS SIMPLE AS POSSIBLE! It’s always safer this way but can make the pilot’s life harder. Complex things have been implemented mostly to reduce pilots workload, improve overall safety (considering that all of those complex systems work!) and achieve better “mileage”.
Talking about complex implementations, aircraft producers test every system very carefully and all such systems are always backed up by another similar system in case the main one fails. With cars the story is totally different. There are just a few complex systems like ESP which have been invented because of safety. All of the others are mainly for driver and passengers comfort and luxury. This means that the car brands are competing with each other on every step and always try to be ahead of the competition. This won’t leave enough time for thorough testing and therefore systems are put into cars which can last for a few years and then cause the owner a lot of headache together with serious money loss.
Personally, I like the way how American car manufacturers build their vehicles. And I’m talking about the real stuff like trucks, sportscars and full size cars, not the Chevrolet-Daewoo; Chrysler-Mercedes-Italian boat diesels kind of crap. I hope that Americans continue with their style where they carefully add new features to the cars to stay up with the technology while still maintaining the long-proven durability and performance we have all seen. My opinion is that it’s too hard to answer the question which cars are better but taking into consideration mainly the reliability and owner expenses, I’d say that real American cars are still somewhat better to own. Having said all that, I certainly don’t say that I will never buy a German car again – I just want it to be a brand new one and cool looking.
Beamer fans – please don’t kill me!