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Modern Cars Are Too Complicated To Own Forever

Illustration for article titled Modern Cars Are Too Complicated To Own Forever

I have a few friends who own old Volvos. Of course, what I really mean by this is: I have a few friends who are constantly asking me for rides home from the local Swedish car repair place.


There's my neighbor, Ward, the proud owner of a 1996 850 sedan, which still includes its original hubcaps, its original license plates, its original dealer badge, and its original odometer, which stopped working about the same time Barry Bonds did.

There's my best friend from high school, Joe, who owns a 2001 V70 that has never stranded him, although I suspect he sometimes wishes it would, considering that the air conditioning doesn't work and the windows don't roll down. And a friend is always telling me about his co-worker, who can't bear to part ways with his beloved 1992 240, even though he's afraid to drive it on the highway.


Interestingly, all three of these people have something in common: they all purchased their Volvo new. Yes, that's right: many years ago, each of these people read various car reviews, and took a series of test drives, and solicited their friends for car advice, and then they ignored all that and bought a Volvo anyway. But it all worked out: in each case, their Volvos have performed faithfully ever since.

I mean, oh, sure, there have been a few small issues: the aforementioned air conditioning failure. The broken odometer. A massive, dangerous shudder above 60 miles per hour that sounds like there's a small animal passing through the transmission. But in general, each of these cars has served its owner for more than a decade, starting up unflinchingly with every twist of the key.

It's really too bad that won't be possible anymore.

The reason I say this is that most modern cars are now too complex to own forever. In the past, "automotive complexity" meant your car had a set of power mirrors that tilted down when you shifted into reverse, and — if you were lucky — tilted back up sometime later. But in today's automotive universe, "complex" is taking on a whole new meaning.


To help explain what I mean, I turn to the all-new 2015 Volvo XC90, a luxury crossover that replaces the current Volvo XC90, which came out three years before Lance Bass. Although Volvo has not yet revealed what the new XC90 will look like, the automaker did announce the powertrain. Have you heard about this yet? If you haven't, get ready, because it's a whopper.

Let's start with the basics: the new XC90 will use a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. That doesn't sound so complicated, right? Only, there's a problem: it also uses a turbocharger. OK, fine, so what? Volvo is a master of turbocharged technology. But there's yet another level of complexity here: the engine also has a supercharger. So now we're dealing with a turbocharged-supercharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder. Manufactured by Volvo.


Unfortunately, it gets even more complicated than that! After going through the process of turbocharging and supercharging this engine, Volvo decided to mate it to a plug-in hybrid drivetrain. So the new XC90 "T8" uses a 2.0-liter turbocharged supercharged plug-in hybrid 4-cylinder that makes an almost insane 400 horsepower and 472 lb-ft of torque. This is a vast departure from, say, the Volvo 240, which also used a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, though it made about the same horsepower as a Roomba.

Of course, Volvo isn't the only automaker who's adding complexity to the modern car. Consider, for a minute, modern infotainment systems. Oh, sure, it's cool to have Pandora and I Heart Radio, and Stitcher, and all sorts of other new technology that no one seems to really use, but everyone wants in their car. But what about in 10 years, when these things aren't cool anymore? "Oh, you have Stitcher?" someone will say, glaring at your pathetically outdated infotainment system. "I stopped using that right about the time the flying iPhone came out!" And then they'll laugh and laugh, and you'll plug in your phone to your hilariously old USB port to charge it, even though all your modern, up-to-date friends charge their shiny new devices by simply licking the screen. Also, your friends can teleport.


And then there are all the modern safety advancements everyone keeps getting so excited about. You know the ones: rear cross-traffic alert. Blind spot warning. Lane keeping assistant. What's going to happen to these features in 10 years? Will they work flawlessly? Or will they fail, one by one, until your dealership service writer calls you and says: "I'm sorry, ma'am, but your Ford Explorer won't move anywhere, because the adaptive cruise control perpetually thinks there's a chicken in the road."

Now, let me be clear: I'm not at all anti-technology. In fact, I happen to love technology, because it allows me to walk around, and take pictures of stuff, and post them on Twitter for everyone to see. And it allows you to reply with various comments insulting my haircut. But with today's push to get so many gadgets into every new car, is it possible to own a modern car forever, like my Volvo-driving friends? I fear the answer might be no. I fear the days of long-term vehicle ownership have come to an end. I fear the idea of a "forever" car might really be over. Because here's the thing: a CarMax warranty doesn't last forever.


@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.

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You sound like my Dad - he opens up the hood on a modern car and says, "what is all this crap? Back in the old days, you could see straight through to the GROUND."


It's the way of the times, and I think you're wrong, DeMuro. Some people will still keep these things forever, but they'll have to have the tools and know-how to do so. Tools won't necessarily be the same as the ones that you use to rebuild a carburetor, but may be a Volvo mechanic's computer program to identify issues. Parts are still parts and while cars are more complicated, they're still inherently repairable machines. What might've seemed crazy and inconceivable to fix in 1960 is pretty easy by today's standards, so you might be able to say the same thing for that new XC90 fifty years from now.

Of course, all the above is moot if you own an old Range Rover.