Build Quality Confidential
Updated: Mar 25, 2018
A description of how our reviews differ from others, and what we look for to help educate you on the vehicles you are considering to own.
When most individuals go looking for a new vehicle, there is usually a large lists of “must haves” to consider before making a large decision. Individuals want their new car to reflect their personal style, be functional for their daily needs, safe, and something they are proud to own. Nearly every media outlet for the auto industry goes through the needs, wants, and improvements to new vehicle models, yet there is usually one thing missing. The missing element, something that matters dramatically when you own a vehicle long term, is build quality and reliability.
It’s easy to dive into design, take a look through technology, interior and exterior appointments, and, after some driving, the dynamics of a vehicle, but maybe one of the most important topics is what lies beneath the skin. There are reasons why some individuals follow certain brands, it may be styling, performance, or tradition, but one thing that has captivated and attracted many are the prospects of buying a reliable, well built vehicle that can stand the test of time.
As my family has come to fix cars for nearly 106 years and I have become the 5th generation to grow up in the business, it is evident there is a lot under the skin of a vehicle that should be explained to the consumer so they know exactly what they are buying. Not only can you distinguish differences in build quality when you repair a vehicle, but also which elements hinder the reliability or repair time of a vehicle.
When most people buy a car, they never have intent to damage their vehicle, in any way; be they minor dings, dents, or scratches to major accidents. But, the reality is that it happens, you may accidentally bottom your vehicle out exiting a parking lot or you may not have seen a giant pothole until it was too late. A vehicle that can face moderate to major wear and tear typically means the vehicle can better withstand the test of time, as some beating on it will not hinder its future performance.
After fixing vehicles for many years, it doesn’t surprise me why many old foreign cars on the road are literally falling apart. Yes, certain brands do stand the test of time in terms of reliability, but their build quality, how they are held together, can be seriously lacking. Now, of course not all old vehicles will appear to be in such bad shape, it depends on how well they’ve been maintained, whether or not they’ve been in accidents, and what area they’ve been driven in. One issue is that some owners don’t take care of their cars as they should, letting their vehicles go until they are in really bad shape, so the owner does have an effect on how their vehicle ages. Outside of an owner not maintaining their vehicle, a lot of it comes down to the manufacturer and how well the vehicle is engineered and built. So what is it then that could cause a vehicle's build quality to be lacking? Let me explain.
As I define build quality, I think of how a vehicle is engineered and held together. It is true to say that if the dashboard is rattling there is a quality issue, but just because there aren’t noises coming from parts does not define a good build quality. What does is how the vehicle is held together and what kind of beating it can withstand. The mechanical design (engine, transmission, drivetrain, etc) is important, as a well engineered vehicle can truly last the test of time, but remember that the exterior, that being all body panels, the undercarriage, and inside of the wheel wells, need to be able to withstand all the outside elements. As mentioned, there are times when minor, unexpected things happen, like bottoming out the vehicle or hitting a massive pothole. We don’t do it on purpose, but it happens. When such things occur, hardware and parts can break or get loosened, only to fall off. This may leave a part flapping in the wind, causing aerodynamic drag and a potential hazard if anything were to fall off the vehicle while in motion. Here is how the build of a vehicle works.
Most vehicles are held together by a variety of hardware, be it pop clips, screws, or bolts. Depending on manufacturer and model, different hardware may be used to hold the body parts on the vehicle. The areas I look at to determine good build quality are typically the front and rear bumpers, splash shields (located inside the wheel wells), and the shields underneath the car, as these areas face the most wear and tear from driving. As you can imagine, nothing beats a screw or bolt, the teeth hold the bolt in place, so it can’t wiggle out easily and can withstand a great beating from the weather, including some damage. They are made of metal and won’t fall out easily.
Pop clips, on the other hand, are made of plastic and simply push into a hole. As the clip in pushed in, the inner flanges get pushed out to hold the clip in place. While pop clips may be easy to install, after about a year of fairing the weather, they can become brittle and break easily. After such time, many clips will not pop out when removal is necessary, so they have to be ripped out, breaking them and rendering them unusable thereafter, so they must be replaced. What is worse though is that they cannot withstand impacts as well as a bolt or screw. During major or minor accidents, parts shift on your vehicle causing stress on the clip. The stress can be enough to rip a clip out of its hole, or even just break one or more of the flanges that hold it in place. At this point, if still intact, the clip may rattle as you drive the vehicle. If it is underneath the vehicle, gravity works against it and helps pull the clip out. Sometimes weather alone and a clip becoming brittle can be enough to pop the flanges and loosen the clip. With time this can accumulate to a degree at which many clips fall out and parts begin to hang off the vehicle. Of course, it depends on what the vehicle has faired and what kind of damage it gets over its lifetime, so some vehicles may be alright, but some may not.
It is important to clarify that many manufacturers use pop clips to hold shields on in certain areas under the hood, although this is fine in comparison to the rest of the vehicle. The underside of the hood does not fair the weather as the exterior does, and even if a clip is loosened, gravity will not be working against it, because its head is facing up. You can usually fair without any of these shields under the hood as well, which cannot be said for many exterior parts. Any shields or exterior parts are usually there for a reason. Shields are very important as they may be protecting critical vehicle components from the weather elements or may be helping with aerodynamics. A critical area for this protection is within the wheel wells, a place that debris and dirt is most likely to be kicked around the most. Remember, the exterior is what fairs the weather, so what is holding it together can be critical!
My family has seen and repaired vehicles with nearly every type of accident imaginable, and with different models, it is sometimes evident upon arrival if a vehicle has, what I consider to be, good build quality. Typically, if a car has been in a minor accident but shields and parts are falling off, I wouldn’t consider the vehicle to have a stellar build quality. On the other hand, if a vehicle rolls in with half the bumper ripped off with the top portion still holding on as if nothing had happened, that defines a good build quality.
Another fact too well known to auto technicians is that no vehicle is perfect, they can always be improved upon. This is why new models face major styling and engineering changes with each new generation. In many cases, it is difficult to find a good middle ground, some of the most reliable vehicles have quality that is lacking yet they can last a few hundred thousand miles. Other vehicles have amazing build quality that holds up well with time, but their reliability is not good and they are very costly to maintain long term. In the end, it really comes down to what the consumer is looking for, and what matters to them most. Finding that middle ground can be difficult, but it is not impossible.
With such, any vehicle reviews I conduct will rank build quality, based on in-person inspection, along with expected reliability and material quality. I will take detailed photos to illustrate what I am talking about and will add other information as I find necessary. Cars may seem cool, but when you fix them, the best features can turn out to be your worst nightmares. I will give commentary on such and give my take on what could, potentially, bring issues down the line. This isn't the type of site that gives you info on just the consumer side, but insight into how a vehicle is expected to fair long term, allowing you to have a clearer picture what the longevity of your new vehicle may be.