Nine Troublesome High-Tech Features

Here is some of the current road-going technologies that owners say is proving to be troublesome.

They say there’s no such thing as a bad car anymore. But consider this: the dependability scores of new vehicles are not as lofty as they used to be, according to Consumer Reports and J.D. Power, whose most recent market research has sounded the alarm over declining quality and higher incidents of mechanical flubs.

Consumers are reporting drivability problems attributed to increasingly complex turbocharged engines, overelaborate automatic transmissions and unreliable high-tech gear. Add to that the baffling infotainment interfaces that require an engineering degree just to change the radio station, and vehicle buyers aren’t as happy as they used to be.

There’s something to be said for a basic model with a manual transmission and three knobs to control the cabin environment. By contrast, when today’s convoluted drivetrains and sophisticated electronics fail, a $130/hour technician has to be engaged to diagnose the problem. Here is some of the road-going technology that owners say is proving to be troublesome.

Tire pressure monitors

You can blame /thank the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire debacle for the tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) that became mandatory in the U.S. in 2008. Chronically under-inflated tires led to blowouts and rollovers of older Explorer SUVs, resulting in fatalities and injuries. Beyond Firestone, it was estimated that one-quarter of all tires on the road were under-inflated. To address the hazard, not to mention higher fuel usage, TPMS was designed to relay real-time tire pressure information to drivers via a pictogram or low-pressure warning lamp on the instrument panel.

There are two types of TPMS technology in use: (1) indirect systems rely on the wheel-speed sensors already employed by antilock brakes to compare rotation speeds of each tire – when one spins more than the others, the system identifies it as under-inflated; (2) direct systems use battery-powered senders mounted inside each tire, communicating wirelessly with the TPMS via an antenna inside each wheel well. The senders are typically incorporated into the tire valve and are made of lightweight material to minimize balancing issues. Unfortunately, the systems are prone to giving false readings and warnings, and fussy sensors add complexity during seasonal tire changes. Regardless, TPMS is here to stay.

Dual-clutch automatic transmissions are gaining favour with automakers as they look for more efficient ways of transferring an engine’s power and torque to the drive wheels. These automated transmissions basically use two separate clutches, one handling the even-number gear sets and the other managing the odd sets in a six-speed transmission, for example. Despite the presence of clutches, the machinery is operated electro-mechanically so there’s no clutch pedal to operate. The benefits include faster gear changes for quicker acceleration, as well as more efficient fuel usage since the gearbox negates the need for a power-sapping torque converter.

Volkswagen’s DSG dual-clutch transmission has been popular in Europe, while North American motorists find that the shifting is not as smooth as they’re accustomed to with a conventional automatic. Ford’s Powershift DCT, found in the Fiesta and Focus models, has been roundly criticized for being “jerky” and unreliable. Hyundai introduced a troublesome dual-clutch automated transmission with its 1.6L turbocharged engine powering the Tucson crossover. The technology will benefit from further development, but some motorists are steering clear for now.

Navigation systems

You can thank the late U.S. president Ronald Reagan for your pizza arriving on time. Following the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983, Reagan issued a directive making the U.S. military’s global positioning system (GPS) available for civilian use to help keep commercial aircraft from straying into unsafe airspace. Today, the technology – which seeks out the microwave transmissions of at least four satellites to calculate the receiver’s exact position – is used by factory and aftermarket navigation devices, as well as smartphones. Yet despite decades of refinement, GPS systems aren’t always flawless.

According to J.D. Power, motorists report an average of 3.5 problems with their car’s built-in navigation systems, with issues ranging from not being able to find an address to difficulty in getting the voice recognition to work. Problems often stem from an outdated database stored in the unit. Signals in dense urban areas are sometimes spotty. Voice recognition software remains in its infancy, leaving many users frustrated with the experience (Ford earned some disastrous satisfaction scores with the first iteration of its SYNC system). Expensive factory navigation systems can contribute poorly to the ownership experience, while low-cost aftermarket GPS units are often a welcome alternative.

 

Power sliding doors

Minivan buyers haven’t had much to look forward to beyond the vans’ slick sliding doors, so the power-assisted option has become a crowd favourite. The obvious appeal is that the doors can be opened with a click of the key fob, allowing a package-laden shopper to set down her bags inside the van without fumbling with the door handles. A more recent twist on the innovation adds a power-operated liftgate, which can open and close with a push of a button or with a foot sensor and proximity key that makes opening a heavy liftgate an entirely hands-free operation.

Servo motors lessen the drudgery of life’s daily chores – until they fail. The mechanisms that make sliding doors work are notorious for grinding to a halt, regardless of the manufacturer. Chrysler, GM, Ford, Toyota and Honda vans are all known for their truculent power doors, often traced to a binding cable, burned-out motor or sensor issues. Repairs can run up to $2,000 to replace the thin cable that typically cracks and frays before snapping at an inopportune time. If you don’t welcome the headaches and the expense, stick with the traditional manual sliding doors.

Turbochargers

Pre-Owned Review: 2012-2015 Honda Civic a Familiar, Reliable Ride

Turbo technology is back in fashion as an effective way to extract more power from smaller engines in the pursuit of better fuel efficiency. A turbine inside the exhaust system is spun by escaping gasses, which turns a compressor located in the intake, gulping down more air into the engine. Forced induction, combined with fuel, creates more horsepower when the driver steps on it. Turbos first became commonplace in the 1980s, but unreliable engine management systems, low compression, high heat and poor oil circulation contributed to a mountain of wrecked engines at the time.

Fast forward 30 years and turbos are making a comeback, thanks to smarter electronic controls, direct gasoline injection and improved metallurgy. Oil changes do need to be done religiously, as turbocharger bearings require a constant supply of clean, synthetic oil at full oil pressure. Unfortunately, one survey found only 30 per cent of owners followed the strict maintenance intervals required by their turbocharged vehicle. That suggests there will be problems down the road inherited by the second owner. For this reason, turbo engines are still viewed suspiciously by cautious buyers.

Run-flat tires

Run-flat tires are usually the biggest source of complaints among motorists whose vehicles come equipped with them. Run-flats incorporate very stiff sidewalls, strong enough so that if the tire is punctured, the sidewalls will support the weight of the car. This can prevent loss of control caused by a blowout, and allows for uninterrupted driving until a repair can be made. Manufacturers often specify run-flats when space is at a premium, such as in sports cars and all-wheel-drive vehicles that can’t accommodate a spare tire in the floorpan.

On the down side the stiff sidewalls can contribute to a jarring ride even when the tires are fully inflated, since they don’t flex the way conventional sidewalls do. When they do go flat due to a puncture or failure, there’s a limited distance the tire can travel safely, typically 160 km, which means a road trip will invariably end at a garage for a replacement (run-flats should not be repaired). Unfortunately, not many shops stock run-flats in the size you need, which may bring your vacation to an unceremonious end. Run-flats are also very expensive to replace and don’t last nearly as long as conventional tires.

Multi-panel sunroofs

Canadians don’t always get enough sun, so a feature that floods our automobiles with warm radiation on a frigid winter day is a welcome distraction from the dreariness of the darkest season. And if one sunroof isn’t enough, manufacturers are more than happy to provide us with more glass. Multi-panel or panoramic sunroofs are designed to enlighten both front and rear passengers using two or more glass panels that work together on a common track. Multiple pieces of glass that slide or tilt to provide ventilation and access to the sun’s rays make for an inviting interior environment.

However, multi-panel sunroofs rely on a complex system of seals and gaskets to keep the wind and rain from infiltrating the cabin. When they don’t work right, wet carpets and seats, even mould and mildew, are sometimes the result. Air conditioning systems may also be overworked and fail. Some panoramic roofs are notorious for shattering unprovoked, the result of manufacturing errors stressing the tempered glass. It’s a problem seen in various models, regardless of the maker. Consumers are better off sticking with single-panel sunroofs to retain their sunny outlook, although no sunroof is immune to spontaneously shattering.

CVT transmissions

Continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) have been used in motor scooters, snowmobiles, lawn tractors and other low-power applications for decades. A CVT replaces the gears of a conventional automatic transmission with two variable-diameter pulleys that resemble cones, with a metallic belt or chain running between them. By constantly changing the gear ratios seamlessly, a CVT saves fuel by keeping the engine within its most efficient operating range. On the downside, a CVT sounds and acts strangely according to some, rather like a slipping clutch in a manual gearbox. However, the transmission is ultimately a smooth operator that delivers tangible fuel savings.

Early examples were restricted to mini cars like the Subaru Justy, where less mass and low power output put little strain on CVT components. Virtually every hybrid model on the market uses a CVT as part of its energy-efficient drivetrain. Still, early adopters did run into trouble with broken belts. Suppliers like Nissan’s Jatco have worked hard to perfect the belts and other components to make the transmission as durable as any other, and boosted their warranties to allay consumers’ fears. For some motorists, however, the long-term durability of CVTs has yet to be proven, especially in larger vehicles.

Adaptive cruise control

Adaptive cruise control is part of a suite of technologies that will soon make fully autonomous vehicles possible. This one is key in that it automatically adjusts the vehicle’s speed to maintain a safe distance from vehicles ahead using information gathered from radar or laser sensors mounted up front. If traffic slows, the car’s computer will adjust the throttle and even apply the brakes to maintain a safe distance, then speed up again to the set speed when the traffic accelerates. Newer systems can even bring the automobile to a full stop if conditions require it.

Adaptive cruise control is a beneficial driver’s aid that can reduce collisions in adverse weather, heavy traffic and on long stretches of highway where motorists may become fatigued. However, the critical sensors can be fooled when driving directly into strong sunshine, heavy snow or rain, or conditions that throw up a lot of dust. Typically, the system will power down when the sensors become obscured. Laser-based systems may not detect vehicles in bad weather conditions, while radar-based systems work better, especially when they incorporate more than one sensor. Owners also have reported the brakes kicking in abruptly due to false inputs – which, ironically, could cause a collision instead of preventing one.

10 Ways to Boost Your Car’s Longevity

Pre-Owned Review: 2012-2015 Honda Civic a Familiar, Reliable Ride

Power sliding doors

Minivan buyers haven’t had much to look forward to beyond the vans’ slick sliding doors, so the power-assisted option has become a crowd favourite. The obvious appeal is that the doors can be opened with a click of the key fob, allowing a package-laden shopper to set down her bags inside the van without fumbling with the door handles. A more recent twist on the innovation adds a power-operated liftgate, which can open and close with a push of a button or with a foot sensor and proximity key that makes opening a heavy liftgate an entirely hands-free operation.

Pre-Owned Review: 2012-2015 Honda Civic a Familiar, Reliable Ride

Power sliding doors

Servo motors lessen the drudgery of life’s daily chores – until they fail. The mechanisms that make sliding doors work are notorious for grinding to a halt, regardless of the manufacturer. Chrysler, GM, Ford, Toyota and Honda vans are all known for their truculent power doors, often traced to a binding cable, burned-out motor or sensor issues. Repairs can run up to $2,000 to replace the thin cable that typically cracks and frays before snapping at an inopportune time. If you don’t welcome the headaches and the expense, stick with the traditional manual sliding doors.

Turbochargers

Pre-Owned Review: 2012-2015 Honda Civic a Familiar, Reliable Ride

Turbo technology is back in fashion as an effective way to extract more power from smaller engines in the pursuit of better fuel efficiency. A turbine inside the exhaust system is spun by escaping gasses, which turns a compressor located in the intake, gulping down more air into the engine. Forced induction, combined with fuel, creates more horsepower when the driver steps on it. Turbos first became commonplace in the 1980s, but unreliable engine management systems, low compression, high heat and poor oil circulation contributed to a mountain of wrecked engines at the time.

Fast forward 30 years and turbos are making a comeback, thanks to smarter electronic controls, direct gasoline injection and improved metallurgy. Oil changes do need to be done religiously, as turbocharger bearings require a constant supply of clean, synthetic oil at full oil pressure. Unfortunately, one survey found only 30 per cent of owners followed the strict maintenance intervals required by their turbocharged vehicle. That suggests there will be problems down the road inherited by the second owner. For this reason, turbo engines are still viewed suspiciously by cautious buyers.

Run-flat tires

Run-flat tires are usually the biggest source of complaints among motorists whose vehicles come equipped with them. Run-flats incorporate very stiff sidewalls, strong enough so that if the tire is punctured, the sidewalls will support the weight of the car. This can prevent loss of control caused by a blowout, and allows for uninterrupted driving until a repair can be made. Manufacturers often specify run-flats when space is at a premium, such as in sports cars and all-wheel-drive vehicles that can’t accommodate a spare tire in the floorpan.

On the down side the stiff sidewalls can contribute to a jarring ride even when the tires are fully inflated, since they don’t flex the way conventional sidewalls do. When they do go flat due to a puncture or failure, there’s a limited distance the tire can travel safely, typically 160 km, which means a road trip will invariably end at a garage for a replacement (run-flats should not be repaired). Unfortunately, not many shops stock run-flats in the size you need, which may bring your vacation to an unceremonious end. Run-flats are also very expensive to replace and don’t last nearly as long as conventional tires.

Multi-panel sunroofs

Canadians don’t always get enough sun, so a feature that floods our automobiles with warm radiation on a frigid winter day is a welcome distraction from the dreariness of the darkest season. And if one sunroof isn’t enough, manufacturers are more than happy to provide us with more glass. Multi-panel or panoramic sunroofs are designed to enlighten both front and rear passengers using two or more glass panels that work together on a common track. Multiple pieces of glass that slide or tilt to provide ventilation and access to the sun’s rays make for an inviting interior environment.

However, multi-panel sunroofs rely on a complex system of seals and gaskets to keep the wind and rain from infiltrating the cabin. When they don’t work right, wet carpets and seats, even mould and mildew, are sometimes the result. Air conditioning systems may also be overworked and fail. Some panoramic roofs are notorious for shattering unprovoked, the result of manufacturing errors stressing the tempered glass. It’s a problem seen in various models, regardless of the maker. Consumers are better off sticking with single-panel sunroofs to retain their sunny outlook, although no sunroof is immune to spontaneously shattering.

CVT transmissions

Continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) have been used in motor scooters, snowmobiles, lawn tractors and other low-power applications for decades. A CVT replaces the gears of a conventional automatic transmission with two variable-diameter pulleys that resemble cones, with a metallic belt or chain running between them. By constantly changing the gear ratios seamlessly, a CVT saves fuel by keeping the engine within its most efficient operating range. On the downside, a CVT sounds and acts strangely according to some, rather like a slipping clutch in a manual gearbox. However, the transmission is ultimately a smooth operator that delivers tangible fuel savings.

Early examples were restricted to mini cars like the Subaru Justy, where less mass and low power output put little strain on CVT components. Virtually every hybrid model on the market uses a CVT as part of its energy-efficient drivetrain. Still, early adopters did run into trouble with broken belts. Suppliers like Nissan’s Jatco have worked hard to perfect the belts and other components to make the transmission as durable as any other, and boosted their warranties to allay consumers’ fears. For some motorists, however, the long-term durability of CVTs has yet to be proven, especially in larger vehicles.

Adaptive cruise control

Adaptive cruise control is part of a suite of technologies that will soon make fully autonomous vehicles possible. This one is key in that it automatically adjusts the vehicle’s speed to maintain a safe distance from vehicles ahead using information gathered from radar or laser sensors mounted up front. If traffic slows, the car’s computer will adjust the throttle and even apply the brakes to maintain a safe distance, then speed up again to the set speed when the traffic accelerates. Newer systems can even bring the automobile to a full stop if conditions require it.

Adaptive cruise control is a beneficial driver’s aid that can reduce collisions in adverse weather, heavy traffic and on long stretches of highway where motorists may become fatigued. However, the critical sensors can be fooled when driving directly into strong sunshine, heavy snow or rain, or conditions that throw up a lot of dust. Typically, the system will power down when the sensors become obscured. Laser-based systems may not detect vehicles in bad weather conditions, while radar-based systems work better, especially when they incorporate more than one sensor. Owners also have reported the brakes kicking in abruptly due to false inputs – which, ironically, could cause a collision instead of preventing one.

10 Ways to Boost Your Car’s Longevity

Pre-Owned Review: 2012-2015 Honda Civic a Familiar, Reliable Ride

  • FILED UNDER
  • Tire pressure monitors
  • Dual-clutch transmissions
  • Navigation systems
  • Power sliding doors
  • Turbochargers
  • Run-flat tires
  • Multi-panel sunroofs
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