Avoiding Maintenance & Repair Nightmares/Headaches When Choosing A Car - I Know It's Not Just Me

We see people asking questions about their cars here frequently who are told, after the fact, that they purchased a car that requires frequent repairs or difficult routine maintenance. Certain cars have timing belts, requiring changes that add to inconvenience and expense. Some don’t. Some have had difficult to access oil filters or shields that have to removed to do simple maintenance. Others don’t.

The manufacturers all have some things on each model that are easy to work on and some things that are much more difficult than they should be. I expect some difficult repairs, but difficult maintenance ? What were they thinking ? They weren’t worried about me.

Some manufacturers have weak dealer support or poor parts supplies (parts must ship from around the world). I would have no dealer support for Asian or European brands where I live, for instance.

Still, other manufacturers have technical service bulletins that are too difficult to use, incomplete, or totally nonexistent. I won’t name names, but some vehicles have service alerts for their products that look like they were written hastily in somebody’s basement, not even clear on what model-years they apply to or what models. Some don’t even give owners an owner’s manual and some don’t offer factory service manuals for purchase.
I have factory owner’s and service manuals for every car in my family fleet.

When purchasing a car, whether new or used, I try and avoid the headaches and I enjoy my sleep. I disqualify cars for most reasons given, above. Before I plunk my money down, I check ratings, complaints, service bulletins, insurance costs, crash ratings, etcetera. I do a little (well, a bunch) homework then to try and avoid a six, eight, or ten year nightmare. I keep 4 or 5 cars on the road, driven easy, but driven long and I don’t need extra inconvenience or hassles if I can minimize them.

However, I also take a good hard, long look under the hood and on my hands and knees (have had dealer lift the car), underneath the car. Does it have a timing belt ? Can I touch the air filter case ? Engine have to come out to replace spark plugs or oil pan gasket ? I pretend I’m changing oil or a serpentine belt or transmission fluid, (all fluids, for that matter), etcetera. If the manufacturer has made this difficult for me then what other surprises lurk ? I will pass on a vehicle that doesn’t pass my ease of routine maintenance and repairs sniff test.

There’s something to be said about larger cars too in this. I like opening the hood and seeing some space between components. Caddyman and OK4450 often recommend Crown Vics, not just because they’re a bargain, simpler and more bulletproof, but because they’re relatively easy to work on and maintain.

So, do you buy a car without considering any/many of the above or do you pay attention to what awaits you at the next oil change, air filter replacement, serpentine belt service, brake pad replacement, transmission fluid check/change, fill in the blank __________, etcetera ?


Good points, csa! Likewise, I shop for the least complicated car that fits my needs. A friend loves gadgets and used to buy top end Cadillacs, and then Jaguars. His wife drives an Acura that is both reliable, long lived and there are several dealers in town here.

For a single guy, a Ford Ranger pickup with minimal extras is about as simple as you can get. When I recommend a familiy car it is ususally a proven 4 cylinder basic or mid level model without the troublesome high end options. My sister has 1997 4 cylinder Camry automatic with only A/C as optional equipment. The dealer is just down the street, and she follows the basic maintenance schedule. The car has performed flawlessly since new.

The rest of my relatives live on farms near small towns, and buy cars that can be serviced locally by a dealer.

CSA, what if you’ve got very limited knowledge of cars? How can you tell how difficult the car will be to repair?
Once we own a car, we always buy the service manual. But, before that- what should I look for? Or better yet, who can I trust to give me that information?

Ncantrell, Good Questions ! I Appreciate Your Concerns And That Was Part Of My Inspiration For Starting This Discussion.

That’s exactly the problem. Some folks don’t find out until after the purchase that they’ve chosen a difficult/expensive to maintain/repair vehicle. Other folks don’t realize that certain manufacturers sell cars that have a “hidden” reputation for these maladies.

I don’t have all the answers to that. I do my own maintenance and most of my own repairs so it’s a little easier for me. I suppose a trusted mechanic at an independent shop or a dealer with a technician that you deal with would be helpful.

Maintenance begins as soon as you buy a car. A mechanic should be able to tell you which ones to avoid.

Repairwise, much depends on how long you keep the cars. Repairs are covered by warranty. Most newer cars seldom need repairs for the first several years. I buy cars with long warranty periods. They’re not all the same.

The internet can be your friend when choosing a car, too. As I said, I don’t have all the answers (I’m not sure anybody can have them all), but let’s see what others have to say on this topic. I’m waiting to learn, too.


I suppose the obvious answer is to buy new or nearly so. Regardless of the car, all need service and will milk you to death if you let a dealer make that decision. Go to bed reading a good book, the maintenance manual according to the manufacturer. Don’t assume you know more than they do. Secondly, the next biggest influence on maintenance is your driving habits. IMHO, some drivers could cut their repair bills dramatically by driving more sanely. So next in line is to buy a used car from a “sane” driver.

Here’s my solution:

  1. Avoid the European brands.
  2. Avoid the models loaded with gadgets.
  3. Avoid the first year or two of a new model.
  4. Avoid models that don’t have a nearby dealership.

Not much technical know-how needed.

If you know nothing about cars, as was the case with a secretary at our office, you first spend $12 or so on a Conumer Reports car guide. This lady had a similar request as OP, and I advised her to look for a reliable rated car within her budget. She went shopping and found a good used Nissan Sentra with minimal equipment and got many years of good, economical service out of it. Almost anyone car fix these cars and parts are widely available.

The important part of this was that she did this all on her own after I got her pointed in the right direction.

As per circuitsmith, never buy a loaded new model from a questionable manufacturer. That’s a sure fire recipe for disaster.

It is unfortunate that manufacturers didn’t think about making vehicles easy to service as the manufacturers came out with new designs. There are some exceptions, however. When Ford products moved the brake master cylinder from under the floorboard to under the hood in 1952, this was great. Not only did it make the brake fluid easy to check because you didn’t have to pull up the floormat and then pull off a plate, but you didn’t have to put the car on a lift to change the master cylinder. In the old days, the heater was a box under the dashboard that contained the heater core and a fan, but this just recirculated the air. However, my 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass that I just sold had the heater core under the hood rather than under the dash. Installing a new heater core was no problem.
I remember when many cars had the windshield wiper motor under the dashboard. Moving the wiper motor under the hood simplified replacing the motor should that become necessary. Changing a sealed beam headlight was really a 5 minute job. Now, the job of changing the headlight bulb can be complicated.
I do think it is easier to change the brake pads on disk brakes as opposed to changing the brake shoes on a drum brake set-up.
All in all, however, it seems to me that for each step forward manufacturers make in making servicing easy, they take two steps backward.

I know a little about car repair. Maybe it’s just me, but I always end up with a car that is difficult to repair. I can’t think of a car that I’ve had since the 1980 Rabbit that was easy to repair. The alternators on my Corsica and Taurus looked easy to remove until I had to do it. The oil pan gasket on my Regal has been leaking a little for 8 years now. But I have to drop the engine to remove the pan. The engine air filter cover on my Accord is difficult to maneuver to get it off, and the low beam headlights are a big head-ache. There is so much stuff under the ever-shrinking hood that I find it hard to believe that any modern car is easy to work on.

Circuitsmith gave a good answer…I would add avoid low production vehicles which usually means hard to get parts…

I don’t check service bulletins, put much faith into most complaints, and don’t take maintenance procedures into account when buying a car. It’s a matter of if I like the car and it checks out fine then I buy it and take care of it, bleeding knuckles or not.

Regarding the thing about complaints, I notice that Consumer’s Guide absolutely ripped the Lincoln Mark VIII up on rear view vision; giving it a 2 out of 10 for lousy rear vision. I don’t know what planet they’re on but rear vision on these cars is excellent. Both side mirrors are fine and looking in the rear view one has to lean way over one way or the other to even get a glimpse of the rear pillars and even that glimpse is near nothing.
In any seating position (forward, rearward or in between) the only thing one sees in the rear view mirror is clear glass and an unobstructed view of the road behind.

There’s definitely a lot of things that I often wonder WTH were they thinking when the car was engineered.
Like putting the fuel filter inside of the right front fender on my Mark and which entails removing the wheel and inner fender to access. There’s plenty of room underneath at the back where most filters are located.
The Lincoln LS did the same thing except they put the filter inside of the left front fender instead of the right.

What I’d like to see is a weekly TV show with automotive engineers being grilled live about why this, that, or the other was done. I’d be jamming the phone lines… :slight_smile:

“What I’d like to see is a weekly TV show with automotive engineers being grilled live about why this, that, or the other was done. I’d be jamming the phone lines… :-)”

OK4450, I’m in. That would be great !

"It’s a matter of if I like the car and it checks out fine then I buy it and take care of it, bleeding knuckles or not."
I hear you. I agree with this philosophy for some of my purchases (otherwise I wouldn’t own 2 Fieros), but trying to keep a small fleet of daily drivers going, I don’t need the abuse. 2 week-ends ago I changed ouil on 3 cars, simultaneously. I don’t need any “WTH were they thinking” hassles for checking or changing fluids, brakes, bulbs, etcetera, outdoors, year-around, above the 45th parallel, 20 miles from town.

I like to tinker on my own time, in the summer, but don’t have the luxury with 5 of my vehicles. We drive too much and the cars don’t even hold still for very long.

Besides that, you were a professional wrench and you probably wouldn’t feel right if everything was easy !


Another quick and easy source of good information is to join/browse a forum or 2 related to the cars you’re thinking aboiu buying. Shouldn’t take too long to figure out if it’s a performance forum or a normal one by the way members have theirs setup.

When someone mentioned the Cx-7 to me as a possible choice for a new vehicle, I joined a forum and started looking around, seeing what problems people had, and just asking questions here and there. When the time came, despite heaering of some of the major problems that plagued earlier models, I still decided to get one. Closest dealership is an hour away, but I still take it to the same place I took my old Civic to for oil changes. If something comes up down the road, I’ll take it to the dealership.

I do agree with Joe_meehan and Triedaq about the headlights, but since my current ones are HIDs, I’ll take a tube of vaseline with me to the dealership when they need replaced. The owner’s manual say to move the front wheels left or right as far as they’ll go, reach up into the wheel well, remove some screws holding the cover in place, then reach into the engine compartment and move a rubber piece, twist and remove the bulb.

I buy what I like, and recommend that others do also, however since I happen to be a reliability freak and look at the data it works out for me. Plain, simple, affordable, and only the necessary doodads. That’s how I roll.

I buy a vehicle that #1 Meets our needs. (Example - I NEED a vehicle that can tow 3500lbs and haul at least 3 people along with other personal possessions). Reliability is next on my list. Followed by Serviceability.

Things like timing belts are NOT a deal breaker for me…but a vehicle that needs $2000 in repairs every year IS. I like to keep my vehicles running for a very very long time. I also put a lot of miles on my vehicles every year. So I’m usually over 250k miles in 7-8 years. My goal is 10 years…which puts me past 300k miles.

There are couple of ways to look at it…

#1 - I’m not going to buy that car because it has a CVT transmission and it’ll cost me THOUSANDS if it breaks.

#2 - I’m not going to buy that car because It’ll cost me THOUSANDS every year in repairs once the warranty wears out.

Unfortunately vehicles are always a compromise. I’ve yet to see the EXACT vehicle I want. I always have to compromise on something. For the most part I’ve been choosing them wisely. There have been exceptions.

I try to buy a car that is more reliable than average. Since I farm out almost everything except basic maintenance, I really only care about the things I work on.

It’s funny you should mention the oil pan gasket, and whether you have to remove the engine to get to it. How often do these gaskets need to be replaced? My car has 213,000 miles on the odometer, and if I replace that gasket now, it will probably be the one time it happens while I own the car. If I had to replace this gasket more than once in the life of my car, I might worry more about it.

The same goes for a timing belt. If I had to replace one every 60,000 miles, I might worry about it, but since I can go 90,000 miles between timing belt changes, I don’t worry about it. It gives me an excuse to have the water pump replaced every 180,000 miles, and that helps ensure my engine won’t overheat.

When I shop for a car the two most important criteria are:

  1. How reliable is it?

  2. Can I afford to drive it? This includes fuel and maintenance costs based on per-mile use.

I would rather have a reliable fuel efficient vehicle than one that is less reliable, less fuel efficient, but is easy to work on.

It’s funny you should mention the oil pan gasket, and whether you have to remove the engine to get to it. How often do these gaskets need to be replaced?

That’s a good point. Why worry about a part that seldom if ever needs replacing. 5 vehicles in the past 25 years and NEVER had to replace a oil-pan gasket.

GM seems to have finally corrected their intake-manifold problem. Now THAT would be something I’d worry about. Very high likely-hood of needing repair within the lifespan of ownership.

I feel since the average consumer is farming out more of their maintenance, service for anyone with a lift has become easier, service from the top is not. Crawling under a car vs standing are two different things and the ability to reach serviceable items is much easier then it use to be…if you can lift it.

The very best car I have ever owned for check fluids and other routine owner service, was my Subaru. Don’t know how the new ones are, but my pre 2000 was great. Because of that, it had the fewest problems of any car I have ever had. Every driver in the family knew what to check. Great for my wife who took it on extended trips without a pretend mechanic on board. I feel that is one key to a long lasting car, regardless of make.