Friday, March 02, 2007

Expensive collision repair part of the give and take

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently released the results of testing that found that low speed collisions create more expensive damage to bumpers than occurred to cars of yesteryear.

Testing for the first time by the Virginia-based Institute found that only three midsize vehicles — the Mitsubishi Galant, Toyota Camry and Mazda 6 — sustained less than $1,500 in repairs from each of the four crash tests.


"The cars with the lowest repair bills after our new bumper tests still sustained much more damage than they should have in some of the tests," said Adrian Lund, the Institute's president. "We got crumpled grilles and headlights plus buckled fenders in impacts at speeds equivalent to an average person walking fast."

The Institute conducted tests on 17 midsize cars in low-speed tests. In one test of the front-end at 6 mph, four vehicles — the Nissan Maxima, Volkswagen Passat, Pontiac G6, and Hyundai Sonata — had damages of more than $4,000.

By comparison, the Institute conducted similar tests on a 1981 Ford Escort and found the front-end test only caused $86 in damages. They said it highlighted federal requirements that were in effect until 1982 that required bumpers to keep damage away from vehicle safety equipment and sheet metal parts in crashes of up to 5 mph.

I'm actually having trouble narrowing this down to just one topic to discuss, so I'm going to handle several things separately.

First, as you place more expensive, higher performance parts/components/treatments in vehicles, the repair costs for that area of a vehicle are going to get more expensive as well. The molded fenders on today's vehicles are generally not repairable. If you buckle, puncture, crack, or otherwise significantly damage the fender, you have to replace it and have the new fender painted. The metal fenders like those on the old 1981 Ford could not only withstand more impact, but they could be fixed rather than completely replaced. In some cases, headlights are even worse. If a damaged vehicle has Xenon headlights, you are going to pay through the nose for new ones because they just aren't cheap. Even the paint is more expensive. Next time you get the chance, compare the paints on cars from the early 1980's to the paints on cars today. The paints today are more attractive than the fairly flat paints of 25 plus years ago, but they cost more, too.

Second, your car isn't designed to be a Sherman tank anymore. Safety standards and CAFE requirements have had a lot to do with that. Those older, cheaper to repair vehicles were heavier, stiffer vehicles. When it came to repairing it after a collision, that was a good thing. Body shops could very easily work with the metal to return to you a car that was, while not quite as strong as it had been, still quite strong and which looked like new. Today, manufacturers are working with more plastics and with lighter metals to meet CAFE standards, and vehicles are designed to absorb more of an impact. The plus to this is better gas mileage and crashes which impart less of the impact to the occupants. Unfortunately, plastics have to be replaced instead of repaired, which is more costly, and lighter metals tend to be more difficult to work with and repair to a safe strength, particularly if a pull must be made to the frame of the car. Over the past 30 years, cars have become safer and more gas efficient, but the trade off is the changes have also made it much more expensive to repair those new materials.

Third, there is no incentive for manufacturers to pour millions of dollars into finding a way to make your car safer, more gas efficient, and also to hold down collision repair costs. Some might say that the manufacturers are intentionally trying to make disposable cars that are easily totaled, requiring more car purchases. I don't buy that because the manufacturers can make money on the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) replacement parts used in repairs at quality body shops. At the same time, they sure as hell aren't going to pour money into making cars more repairable after collisions because the return is just not high enough.

Getting upset with the auto manufacturers, as I'm sure more than a few will after reading the article, is a waste. For the most part, the driving experience is much better today than it was 30 years ago (with some exceptions). Unfortunately, some of the changes that led to that improvement also make your car more expensive to repair. Our driving experience will continue to get better and better, especially if the auto industry moves to a 42 volt system, but the repairs, collision and mechanical, will continue to get more expensive as well.

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