Stephen Fry wrote once that the world is divided into two groups of people. There are those who divide the world into two groups of people and those who don’t. Fry said that he belonged to the latter.
I believe the world to be divided in lots of ways. One of those divisions is the one separating people who only ever drive a new car and those who only ever drive something pre-loved. Another subdivision is being a journalist or not. Using just two parameters (new/used and journalist/non-journalist) we can create an exciting four way matrix of combinations.
The corner of this matrix I will look at first is the distinction journalist/new-car and journalist/used car. I notice that many of the cars that have had very rosy receptions as new cars have had problematic second lives as used cars. The S-class and its peers are only wonderful when brand new and thereafter are worthless albatrosses, for example. All Audis and BMWs in the US are landfill once the warranty expires. As new cars they are in the drivers’ top tens but as used car they are in the bin.
Have you noticed that for most of a car’s life the owner is not the first owner? Despite this, the automotive press is written as if the car remains perpetually new and just home from the show room. The opinion of the car offered is based not only the car being fresh out of the box but in many cases but also being driven in nice, foreign climes where the only objective is to
hoon about in the car and occasionally listen to deadening presentations on jounce characteristics and final drive ratios. This is a world away from the situation where the car is eight years old and is vitally necessary for a work-related drive to Cleveland on a foul wintery day when the service engine soon light is blinking and you are worried the second gear is beginning to slip. Yet it’s the same car.
The car you read about and bought (used) was tested in and around Alicante on a wonderful spring morning; breakfast in the Del Sol Hotel achieved dizzying heights of deliciousness; the afternoon offered a great chance to drive back to a nice little village in the hills where the writer had a super lunch when the Opel Sintra was launched. The car you are driving is on its third owner. You think they changed the timing belt but you are not sure.
An article at the user forum hinted that the weird change in the engine character might have something to do with the valve seals – or was it the gasket on early 1.6 litre non-turbo models? Is that the time? You have 148 miles to cover in two and half hours. The car you are in is now utterly unlike the shining example that made the cover of AutoMonth in June 2006. You are in a secondhand car with all the problems that entails. You are a mortal, a mere mortal.
The best response to this is to ask what else are journalists supposed to do? Wait eight years before testing models? The new car test course is a level playing field; all cars are tested under the same sorts of highly favourable, wine-drenched, luxury hotel conditions and if a car slips up when it’s a lovely day in Lanzarote and there is no pressure on the writer, then it means it will surely be a disaster in month 72 of its life in rain-swept Vienna in March.
The practical response is to treat new car reviews as entertainment or tests of Platonic models of the real car. They point out the areas of the car that, as designed, could be better or worse: the boot volume, the heater controls, the gearbox character, the rear leg room. The rest is impossible to know. Not even the manufacturer knows what will break or when. Nobody can say if the secondhand car you buy will succumb to known faults (“Avoid them, mate, the torsion bars always fail”) or if the reputation the car has is wildly pessimistic (“Avoid them mate, nothing but trouble”).
Life in secondhand cars is pretty much all of us know but the compensation is that you learn to live with the fear and put it in perspective. The people who insist on a new car are really no safer than those of us in well-maintained older models. The cost of dealing with an annoying breakdown is vastly less than buying a brand new car; I’d say keeping half a grand in your bank account will always be enough to get you and the car home and quite possibly take a taxi the rest of the way if all comes to all.
Secondhand: it’s not so bad.