Many advances in automotive engineering are turning out to be burdens in car-repair shops, according to a national survey of mechanics.
In that light, the quality of new cars has declined rather than improved, according to the survey conducted this year by HBM/Kramer Research, a Boston-based marketing research firm.
HBM/Kramer's controversial study was commissioned by Arrow Automotive Industries Inc., a major auto parts remanufacturer in Framingham, Mass., that disassembles and reconditions original car parts for resale to auto service shops nationwide.
Approximately 220 auto mechanics were interviewed in the survey; of those, 83 percent said "today's cars are harder to repair because it's more difficult to determine what's wrong" with them, the survey said.
The overall quality of today's domestic and foreign cars is lower than it was 10 years ago, most of the mechanics said in the poll.
That finding flies in the face of numerous other reports commissioned by auto makers and produced by independent research companies, such as J.D. Power and Associates in Westlake Village, Calif., and Integrated Automotive Resources in Wayne, Pa.
The conflicting studies bring into focus an issue that has been simmering in the background for more than a decade. The issue is: What constitutes "quality"? Is it a car that gets 20 miles per gallon and costs $100 to fix, or is it one that gets 50 mpg but costs $500 when something goes wrong?
The auto makers and their researchers are looking at quality from the wrong side of the wrench, said Arrow President Harry A. Holzwasser. "Quality is more than how a car looks, drives and handles," Holzwasser said. "Quality also includes serviceability." Based on that measure, many of today's cars are lemons, Holzwasser said.
"Car makers are telling consumers that their cars are getting better. But the best judges, the mechanics, aren't buying that story," Holzwasser said.
Onboard computer systems used to regulate a car's engine functions and fuel-injection systems designed to meter the amount of fuel flowing to engine cylinders are among the most difficult for mechanics, according to the HBM/Kramer survey. Often, the solution involves tossing out one computer module and replacing it with another, according to some mechanics interviewed in the survey.
Routine maintenance checks "are now major jobs for mechanics," the survey said.
Not true, say critics of the HBM/Kramer report. The problem isn't the new technology on the cars. It is the widening gulf between the skills required to fix the machines and the skills on hand to do the job correctly, critics say.
"The quality of all cars is increasing substantially and very quickly. But the ordinary private garage is finding it very difficult to handle those cars," said Thomas O'Grady, president of Integrated Automotive Resources, an auto industry consulting firm.
"Some new-car dealerships are finding it difficult to train people to repair these cars, too," O'Grady said.
Bill Kersten, vice president for technical services at the Reston-based National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, agrees that poor training is a problem affecting the serviceability of newer cars. But the mechanics and their bosses should not bear all the blame, Kersten said. "The blame is on both the hands of the manufacturer and the repair shop," said Kersten, whose 13-year-old organization tests and certifies 19,000 auto mechanics annually.
Changes are coming so quickly, particularly in the area of automotive electronics, it is hard for many repair shops to keep up with them, Kersten said.
"If the cars would change every two or three years, you could train people to keep up with that. But the cars are changing every year, with whole new electronic systems coming in every year. People simply don't have the time to get caught up on this," Kersten said.
Adding to the difficulties are the changing dimensions of cars, most of which are shrinking. But as the cars are getting smaller, companies are stuffing increasingly complicated engines into them, adding myriad electronic components and making routine jobs, such as changing an oil filter or replacing a backup light, into major operations, Kersten said.
Small and medium-sized repair shops often can't afford to allow a $40-an-hour mechanic to take several weeks off to bone up on the latest technology. But such training is necessary to keep the repair shops competitive, Kersten said.
Manufacturers say they are trying to help by subsidizing training programs for their dealers. But they also are putting tremendous pressure on dealerships to keep up with the rapidly changing pace -- or face the possibility of losing new-car franchises.
A trip to a convention of the National Automobile Dealers Association, which represents some 20,000 franchised new-car dealerships in the United States, is instructive.
The NADA meetings usually involve dealers jockeying for new-car lines, such as the Acura Legend produced by Honda's upscale Acura Division. Also attending the meetings are numerous sellers of the latest computerized diagnostic equipment, which can cost as much as $40,000 per item.
For the auto makers and equipment sellers, the conventions are a bit of a picnic. Dealers wanting cars with the latest technology often are told they cannot have them unless they invest in the training and service equipment needed to keep the cars on the road. Partly as a result, in recent years the service-equipment booths at the NADA meetings have been hosting overflow crowds.
The pressure is largely unavoidable, "because automotive technology has changed tremendously in the last decade," said Geoff Pohanka, president and chief operating officer of the Pohanka Automotive Group, which owns nine dealerships in the Washington area. "Before we get the cars, we have to train the service people and have the equipment," said Pohanka, who is expecting a shipment of four-wheel-steer Honda Preludes later this year.
"We're like any other business affected by technological change," said Pohanka. "We no longer look for the lumbering mechanic who can lift heavy pieces. We look for the person who is skilled in electronics and customer communications. The service technician's job is now more of a thinking job than a physical job," Pohanka said.