Will car repairs in the future financially cripple you?

"How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive," by John Muir, helped VW owners everywhere repair their cars themselves. See more classic car pictures.
Courtesy John Muir Publications

By 1969, auto mechanic John Muir was a master at repairing Volkswagen (VW) automobiles. Muir was a former aerospace engineer who'd designed missiles for defense contractor Lockheed. However, he gave up his engineering career, opting for a quiet life as a mechanic to New Mexico's growing counterculture, which embraced Volkswagen as its vehicle of choice.

As his reputation for fixing VWs grew, he was searched out for free advice. Muir apparently had no problem with these solicitations other than they forced him to repeat the same information over and over. His solution was to write a how-to guide for fixing VWs -- "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot."

The book became a cult classic among VW drivers, largely due to Muir's down-to-earth advice. With the book, people found they could repair their own cars, saving money that would've been spent at the repair shop. But as automobile technology has progressed over the last few decades, so, too, has the need for specialized expertise to repair cars.

­For many, the days of do-it-yourself auto repairs are long gone. As a result, the costs associated with fixing cars have gone up. Technicians require more training, which makes them more valuable -- and more expensive. Digital Age cars have parts that are much more costly to replace. And hybrid cars also pose a significant increase in price to repair. Hybrids like the Toyota Prius, for instance, are built with a transmission that's not in wide use yet. Replacement parts aren't built and sold by many companies, as components for more prevalent transmissions are.

This has had a dampening effect on public attitudes toward hybrid cars. Forty-four percent of respondents to a poll by auto analyst Edmunds said they were "extremely concerned" about the expense of hybrid car repairs [source: Weston].

As we progress further into automotive technology, some fear we will find ourselves deeper in debt when these cars break down. Will car repairs in the future financially cripple you? Find out on the next page.

Car Repair Prices: Cutting-edge, Not Cutting Costs

Fiberglass bumpers and fenders, like those shown at a Honda factory in Indonesia in 2007, are lightweight and increase fuel efficiency, but often require repairs after a collision.
Fiberglass bumpers and fenders, like those shown at a Honda factory in Indonesia in 2007, are lightweight and increase fuel efficiency, but often require repairs after a collision.
Dimas Ardian/Getty Images

In May 2008, Forbes Magazine released a list of the most expensive cars to repair. It's not surprising that luxury cars were at the top of the list. We accept that luxury cars cost more and that their repairs are pricier, too. But why should that be?

The answer is because luxury cars boast more advanced features. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHA), the cost to fix a crumpled front corner bumper on a 2007 Hyundai Sonata following a 6 mph collision was $739 [source: IIHA]. The same test was conducted by the IIHA on luxury cars. By contrast, the Infiniti G35 racked up $3,544 in repairs for the same damaged front corner the Sonata endured [source: IIHA].

One reason body repairs on today's cars are expensive is the use of composite materials. In other words, as far as body repairs go, they don't make 'em like they used to. Materials like fiberglass make cars lighter, which increases fuel efficiency. But composites don't absorb impacts well, cosmetically speaking.

The high-tech gadgetry found aboard today's luxury cars also explains why high-end cars rack up big bills at the mechanic's garage. For instance, replacing a single Xenon headlight with a wiper system on a 2006 Mercedes C Class can cost $1,644 [source: BankRate]. The rearview camera (that helps you see what's behind you when you back up) installed on a 2004 Cadillac Escalade costs $4,217 to replace when it goes on the fritz [source: Weston]. Even the brakes on luxury cars can cost more to repair. Audis' brakes include adjusting sensors which have to be removed, complicating the brake replacement and driving up labor costs [source: Forbes].

Hybrid cars, too, are often more expensive to repair than a conventional car of a similar price class. In a hybrid vehicle, a conventional gasoline engine works in conjunction with an electric motor, or both can work independently of one another. This is a huge departure from conventional cars, whose power trains are driven exclusively by energy created from a conventional combustion engine. Hybrids are even different from all-electric cars, which run exclusively on batteries. Gas-electric hybrids require a special transmission -- the most predominant is the continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Due to a continuously variable transmission's unique design, replacement can be much more expensive than replacing an automatic or manual transmission on a conventional car. A new CVT on a 2001 to 2003 Toyota Prius, for instance, can cost around $8,695 [source: Consumer Guide Automotive].

Both hybrids and luxury cars represent the potential future of automotives. Since the repairs associated with these future-tech cars are pretty steep for those who can afford them, will future car repair bills be as high for the rest of us when we can afford these cars? Maybe not. Find out why on the next page.

Economics and the Future of Car Repair

Economic theory says that as the supply of Priuses becomes more abundant (like the 2008 model shown in a Tokyo showroom), the costs associated with repairing its uncommon transmission should decrease.
Economic theory says that as the supply of Priuses becomes more abundant (like the 2008 model shown in a Tokyo showroom), the costs associated with repairing its uncommon transmission should decrease.
Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

When the Sony Corporation introduced the CDP-101 in 1982, it was the first mass-produced compact disc (CD) player available to the general public. It was a big, bulky component that accepted one CD at a time, but it represented the cutting edge of home audio. The price of this new technology reflected that uncommon status; each sold for about $700 [source: Nathan]. By 2008, you could purchase a Sony CD player that includes a five-disc changer for about $150 [source: Sony Style].

You'll notice that with Sony's CD players something strange happened. As the technology grew more desirable (for example, a CD player that could hold one disc versus models that can hold five), the price decreased rather than increased. This seems a bit counterintuitive, but it's actually based on a basic economic principle: supply and demand. When the supply of a product exceeds demands for it, the product's cost generally goes down. And when demand is greater than the supply, manufacturers and suppliers can raise the price. It gets a little more complicated when several manufacturers start making different versions of the same product. This leads to competition.

But competition also fosters affordability. With more suppliers of a similar product come more options for a consumer. One way to get a consumer to choose one item over another is to offer a lower price. This holds as true for high-tech automobiles as it does for CD players.

Think about it: Hybrid cars are currently more expensive to fix than cars that run on a conventional engine. That's because hybrids are less abundant than regular autos -- demand currently exceeds supply. In 2007, hybrid car sales accounted for just 2.2 percent of all car sales in the United States. While that seems small, the total sales in 2007 represented an increase of 38 percent over the total number sold in 2006. And 51 percent of all those hybrid car sales were Toyota Priuses [source: Associated Press].

So, sticking with our Prius example, if demand for the Prius continues, Toyota could be expected to produce more of the cars. With more people driving the cars, the customer base will expand. More customers needing repairs will attract more mechanics that specialize in fixing Toyota's hybrids. More mechanics trained in the specialized repairs will make the specialization less unique and more affordable.

The same holds true if Prius' most expensive component to repair -- the continuously variable transmission (CVT) -- is adopted by other car manufacturers. The system will be in plentiful supply, so the availability of parts will increase, which should cause the price to decrease. And this doesn't just apply to hybrid cars. It also applies to those Xenon headlights with built-in windshield wipers. Once they trickle down from the world of luxury automobiles to become a standard feature on mass-produced vehicles, the cost to repair and replace them will decrease, too.

In other words, as the future of automotive technology becomes the present, what's expensive now will decrease in price as the technology becomes less high-tech and more standardized. So while repairs for early adopters of futuristic cars may be a blow to budgets now, in the future, they should be a little easier to swallow.

For more information on automobiles and other related topics, visit the next page.

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