Motoring: Driven by guinea-pigs

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The Independent Online
Contrary to what the makers say, cars are not becoming more reliable. James Ruppert reports on a survey that suggests we, the drivers,

effectively 'debug' new models

Cars are getting better all the time, or so we are told - safer, more environment-friendly, with better fuel consumption, higher build quality - and, of course, they are more reliable than ever.

Well, maybe not. The jury is very much out on that last point because, according to a reliability survey by Lex, the chances of breaking down in your company car this year are currently one in four. If you think that is worrying, back in 1997 it was only a one-in-five chance. That now poses the question of just why cars seem to be getting more unreliable.

The report makes fascinating reading, based as it is on assessing the mechanical reliability of Lex Vehicle Leasing's 88,048 strong fleet. Over a 12-month period Lex drivers experienced 21,620 mechanical faults. That is an average of 24.5 breakdowns per 100 vehicles.

All driver-induced faults - such as flat batteries and road traffic accidents, plus alarm/ immobiliser faults - were taken out of the statistics. Only manufacturers with more than 300 vehicles on the Lex fleet were included. Looking at the winners and losers in this survey, the initial conclusion would be that if you are behind the wheel of a Japanese or a German car, the chances of coming to an unscheduled stop are reassuringly remote. Mitsubishi comes out top, with just 5.8 breakdowns per 100 vehicles. Astonishingly, Jaguar comes second with 7 breakdowns, followed by all the usual ultra- reliable suspects: BMW (8.2), Honda (9.7) and Audi (10). Another big surprise was Fiat's showing of 11 breakdowns in 100. But probably the main area of interest to every driver and customer is just how badly certain volume and prestige manufacturers did. Ford scored a lowly 31.9, Vauxhall did even worse, at 32.2, and Rover, which, let's not forget, is now a BMW subsidiary, chalked up a truly terrible average of 34.7. And the German company's off-road operation Land Rover performed just as poorly, at 25.8, the abysmal Discovery accounting for the majority of breakdowns.

Yet those traditional bastions of build quality Volvo (21.3) and Mercedes (13.4) were adjudged to have performed less than brilliantly. Whilst Mercedes's now obsolete 190 has been the model of reliability, its successor, the C class, has encountered all sorts of niggly problems. So what is going on? Or rather, going wrong? A good place to start would be the manufacturers.

Black marks for Rover and Land Rover, who both failed to get back to me. I can't help wondering whether their tardiness in telephone etiquette has some connection with the quality of their products. Over at Volvo a spokeswoman said: "The results do not reflect our own findings. We can point to the 1997 car quality summary report which covered cars up to two years old, and Volvo customers were more satisfied than they have ever been. The Lex survey was based on high-mileage business users, not the typical Volvo driver."

Mercedes had a similar line: "Our findings do not show that cars are becoming worse. Just look at the service intervals for our vehicles, which has been extended from 6,000 to 9,000 miles, and now the computer tells you when it needs servicing, which potentially means a 12,000 to 15,000 window.

"And anyway, the Lex survey included commercial vehicles, which work much harder than passenger cars. We make vans, BMW and Jaguar don't."

Obviously manufacturers don't like this sort of survey, but it is the rescue services that have to pick up the pieces. At the RAC, Peter Brill had an interesting statistic of his own. "Our volume of breakdowns never reduces. We deal with 3 million a year, and our findings suggest that mechanically, cars are in fact much more reliable. The majority of breakdowns are caused by failure of consumable items, such as tyres and batteries, or can be traced to driver error. In fact our number one call out is a flat battery, followed by alternators, and then wheel changes."

The AA says that increasingly complex alarm and electrical systems, and even the pressures of modern living, contribute to breakdowns. Michael Harlow, managing director of ABS, a company that inspects and values used cars, says: "I don't think that cars in themselves are getting any less reliable, but there must be a human element, in that people become over- confident and expect their cars to run faultlessly."

But Mr Harlow has evidence that the 16-valve engines fitted to Vauxhalls are causing trouble.

"Vectra, Corsa, Astra and Tigra engines have insufficient inlet valve clearance," he claims, "which is a pretty fundamental oversight in the design. In my opinion, the car-buying public is carrying out around 5 to 10 per cent of the manufacturer's development work. In the first few years of a new model's life, most customers are simply debugging them." Manufacturers may not think that their cars are becoming any less reliable. However, the driving public may be reaching a different conclusion.

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