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'Manufacturers are building cars designed to last, and it's hurting them'

The quality of cars today is so good that customers are keeping them longer which is hurting new car sales, says Mike Rutherford

OPINION new car sales

So well designed, brilliantly built, impressively reliable and stubbornly long-lasting are many of the cars made during the past decade or so, that owners are increasingly unwilling to ditch them – even when their motors breach 100,000 miles. 

The old adage goes ‘they don’t make ’em like they used to’, and that’s true. Fact is, in the 2000s-2010s they’ve been building them better than they used to. 

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New cars sales 2019

For the cash-strapped motorist with an on-call breakdown/recovery service, plus a contingency fund for unexpected repairs and MoT scares, ageing cars are great. Those prepared to put up with the uncertainties and risks know that the right modest old car can be owned and run for ridiculously little money. 

But this is a double-edged sword and a major – and worsening – headache for car manufacturers, some of whom are already unprofitable. They desperately need to sell growing volumes of factory-fresh cars – not just a few spare parts to keep old bangers chugging along – simply in order to survive, before reinvesting their profits into products, production lines and personnel.  

Up-to-the-minute figures I’ve just unearthed provide clear evidence that cars are not only lasting longer now, but are also remaining on the road for more years than expected.

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The Department of Transport (DfT) states that in the early 2000s, cars averaged a life of just six and a half years. Yet the Society of Motor Manufacturers quietly announced in recent days that the “average car on the road in the UK [in 2018] was eight years old”. Intriguingly, the DfT reckons petrol cars are now kept longer, and longest – 9.1 years.  

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Look at the bigger picture and the whole of the EU, and cars are being kept even longer – 11.1 years on average. And the US revealed a few days ago that the average age of its light vehicles (cars and pick-ups) has jumped significantly, to 11.8 years. 

None of the above was in the script. The traditional business model for global mass producers is that they’re supposed to hit the sweet spot by manufacturing cars that are good enough to last about one decade (or just under), but not so damn good that they’ll happily keep going for decades. 

Best selling cars in the UK 2019

I never thought I’d think or say this, but I will: perhaps car corporations are building their cars too well, and making them too resilient these days? 

Maybe they need to do the unthinkable and build them a little, er, less well, thereby reducing production costs while ensuring that the vehicles don’t last quite as long. Alternatively, they need to make at least some of their new cars so deliciously low-priced that even used-car diehards will find them irresistible. 

Dacia has sensibly set the ball rolling with its latest £500-down, £99-a-month deal. Citroen is generously weighing in with free insurance on some factory-fresh models.

Other manufacturers must take similarly dramatic action if they’re to put more paying customers into more brand new cars. And if they don’t? They’re toast.

Do you agree with Mike that new cars are built too well? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below...

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Chief columnist

Mike was one of the founding fathers of Auto Express in 1988. He's been motoring editor on four tabloid newspapers - London Evening News, The Sun, News of the World & Daily Mirror. He was also a weekly columnist on the Daily Telegraph, The Independent and The Sunday Times. 

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