“They don’t build ’em like they used to.” When it comes to cars, that’s a good thing. Back in the ’80s, Toyota ran commercials featuring owners talking about reaching the brag-worthy milestone of 100,000 miles. Now, 200,000 miles is common. Here’s why new cars are better than ever, and what you can expect out of a modern vehicle.
“There’s a lot of things that have changed over the years. I think the biggest thing is going to fuel injection,” said John Burkhauser, Director of Education at Bolt On Technology, a leader in vehicle shop management software.
“The old carburetors basically just dripped fuel into an engine, and because there wasn’t real good control of it, that extra fuel would wash down the cylinders and cause carbon buildup and all sorts of wear and tear on the engine.” Burkhauser said he used to tear down engines at 50,000 miles that were filled with gunk, but a modern engine still looks new inside at 50k.
Burkhauser said oil 40 years ago wasn’t as good at preventing buildup while protecting the engine. “So then the synthetics came along, where the molecules can change with the temperature,” he said. “This means it can lubricate when it’s ice cold, but also when it’s very hot and keep wear from occurring.”
The oil changed as the engines changed over the years. Thirty years ago, a Ford Mustang had an iron engine block with port fuel injection handling the fuel requirements. The result was a V8 with 225 horsepower and 22 mpg.
“The engines were basically hunks of cast iron,” said Burkhauser. “You had to break them in properly in the first 500 miles or so because their build tolerances weren’t very tight. Now, engines are being built today out of exotic materials, built in a dustless environment. They don’t have to break-in, so they start off life in a better place.”
The results can be seen in the modern Mustang , which has an all-aluminum engine with tighter clearances between parts, and direct fuel injection for precise fuel metering. The better built modern muscle car has a turbocharged four cylinder generating 300 horsepower, up to 30 mpg, and fewer emissions. The V8 model’s numbers are even better, with the Mustang GT delivering a 115% increase in power with a 25% increase in economy, versus 30 years ago. This dramatic change didn’t happen on accident.
“People want to make things better. It’s a natural evolution in any industry,” said Richard Reina, Product Training Director at CARiD , an aftermarket parts store. Reina sees the quality of vehicles increasing over the last several decades due to changes in the sales environment.
“When I was in college, I bought an Italian car. It was four years old, I drove it for two years, and when that car was just six years old, it went to the junk yard. It had rusted out, and I couldn’t drive it anymore.” Reina said that doesn’t happen anymore due to galvanized steel used in construction of modern vehicles, and improved rust-proofing techniques.
“Cars weren’t rust proofed through the 1970s and into the ’80s,” he said. “That came about because manufacturers were forced to provide corrosion warranties.”
Reina said improvements and changes didn’t happen out of the kindness of the manufacturer’s hearts – they aren’t building better cars because they want to – but because the consumer demands it.
“Crash standards have improved, but that’s not in a bubble,” Reina said. “The IIHS started doing their own crash tests that got a lot of publicity. The much more severe and infamous frontal offset crash that NHTSA wasn’t running, yet they were giving passing marks to these cars, then IIHS failed those vehicles.” Reina said consumer concern and government standards raised the bar. Modern SUVs like the Nissan Rogue  earn good scores  because Nissan built it to withstand the new tests.
“It wasn’t engineers saying ‘lets build a better car.’ It was them adapting to higher standards from every corner. Competition from all sides drives a better product.”
In short, the reason vehicles are better today than 40 years ago is because they have to be better. Manufacturers look at costs and profit margins, and have to build a car that passes the balance sheet and makes sense financially. Cars would probably be made out of cheap balsa wood if there were no competition, government regulations, or consumer demands. With all of those putting pressure on the manufacturers, the individual tech changes happened because the sales environment demanded a better car. The good news is, you can’t go wrong buying anything made in the last few years.
“A new vehicle, built in the last five years,” said Reina. “If you stay on top of maintenance, you could get a quarter million miles out of a car today.”