The Checkout

Why Do Automakers Make Life So Difficult?

It should have been so simple to fix. At least that's what I thought when the light bulb to my rear turn signal stopped working. But alas, it wasn't. I've got a VW Beetle convertible (yes I know, it's not a car known for its reliability but it's cute--and if you know me, you'd know it is just my size; I'm only five feet). There didn't seem to be any way to get to the bulb to change it--not even by going through the cramped trunk.

I checked my owner's manual and sure enough--here's what it says: "It is becoming increasingly more and more difficult to replace vehicle light bulbs since in many cases other parts of the car must first be removed before you are able to get to the bulb....For your safety, we recommend that you have your authorized Volkswagen dealer replace any bulbs for you, since your dealer has necessary tools, the correct bulbs and the expertise."

Great--not only is the dealer far from my house, but there's also no such thing as a "short" visit to the dealer; at least I've never had that experience. I decided to try out my handy dandy service station nearby and fortunately even though they were booked up for days, they replaced the bulb on the spot and for only $10. The station manager said there are a lot of cars (PT Cruiser for one) that are even harder to work on when it comes to replacing bulbs. He also said he sees lots of customers try to do it themselves, only to have hundreds of dollars in repair work later.

Oh why can't car companies make the little things a little easier?

And while I'm complaining, why do the owner's manuals have to post dire warnings on each and every page? Even when there's not an item to warn the car owner about on a particular page, my VW manual says things like "Always heed WARNINGS on next page." My favorite warning in the Beetle book is about the vase next to the steering wheel. I'm sure you've seen Beetle ads where the vase is holding a fresh flower. People always ask if I do that in my car (I don't, although I have put other mementos in it). But in spite of the ad, here's what the manual says: "WARNING The vase should always be empty whenever you drive the car. In case of sudden braking, any water or object in the vase could spill on you or onto the dashboard surprising you and causing loss of vehicle control."

Go figure.

By  |  February 22, 2006; 8:50 AM ET Customer Service
Previous: E-Tailers Beat Bricks and Mortar in Customer Satisfaction | Next: Social Security Scam


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Oh why can't customers look into ease of repairs before buying a car. You have no one to blame but yourself. It sounds to me like "cute" and "just [your] size" was what was important to you and you got it, so enjoy your cute car until the next time you have to fix it.

Posted by: gb | February 22, 2006 10:28 AM

I have to agree with gb -- you buy a VW, you're asking for it. They're notorious for devising ways to charge you $500-$1000 for whatever minor problem affects your car. I used to own an Audi; but never again -- it was a complete money pit. Fun to drive, but every time something went wrong, it was a minimum of a grand at the dealer.

Moreover, Beetles are not known at all for their reliability -- unless it's for the lack of it. I'm blown away more people don't read Consumer Reports before buying cars.

Posted by: Dave | February 22, 2006 11:28 AM

Warnings exist in the owner manuals because lawyers and the ethos of victimhood exist in the real world. People will sue for anything nowadays so all companies have beefed up the warnings and warning labels on their products. People are stupid and want someone else to pay for their stupidity.

Posted by: Stick | February 22, 2006 11:38 AM

I think the underlying problem is that automobiles are designed by automotive engineers rather than mechanics.
All designs should be submitted to working mechanics before approval for production is given. And I mean "mechanics." The cutesy designation of "technicians" is just that.

O Smith, Spring, Texas

Posted by: O Smith | February 22, 2006 12:11 PM

Hey, don't bash the PT Cruiser! I changed the tail light bulb on my 2001 with a screwdriver in 5 minutes. No need for special tools or a trip to the dealer.

Posted by: Paul | February 22, 2006 1:37 PM

They make things difficult to replace because they don't want you or some shade tree mechanic doing the work. Otherwise, if it is screwed up, then they'll get sued. Also it's their way of compensating the dealer for cars lasting like 12 years and 150,00 miles, they get more service time on them.

Posted by: Stick | February 22, 2006 1:56 PM

Well that certainly warns me off the beetle. I think the first two posts here are way too harsh. I would expect that changing a simple bulb in a vehicle would be reasonably easy. It has been easy in all the vehicles I have owned. I mean I know that many cars are difficult to maintain, that changing the oil can be a pain etc. But the turn signal lights? That is really stupid design work. Now I will look at this feature much more closely. Thanks for the tip!

Posted by: cass | February 22, 2006 2:39 PM

Hey, I totally agree and I bought my cars for value, features, and now, safety. What's with the need to be changing so many light bulbs over the life time of cars? I change the bulbs myself or bring the bulbs to the dealer, who install them free for me. Here's my experience so far 1982 Toyota Corolla SR5 (1), 1992 Honda Accord (4), 2001 Volvo S60 (8).

Posted by: sl | February 22, 2006 2:54 PM

I'm a real do-it-yourself car guy.

I always buy the Factory Service Manual when I buy a new or used car. To Caroline's point, the typical Owner's Manual these days tells you very little about maintenance and repair other than to take it to your dealer.

Granted, not everyone is interested in spending $75-$300 on a bunch of telephone book-sized instuction manuals, but I haven't had one yet that didn't save me more than the cost somewhere along the line of vehicle ownership. For example, other than knowing how to fix the little stuff yourself or to turn off that meaningless "maint" light, you can verify a shop's work estimates by reviewing exactly what they need to do to fix/replace a given something, and can use that knowledge to weed out BS about muffler bearings...


Posted by: bc | February 22, 2006 3:07 PM

My theory is that the engineers who design these things never ever have to replace them.

Posted by: | February 22, 2006 7:48 PM

It's not Caroline's fault that she didn't know how involved changing a light bulb would be. I mean, how many people actually sit down with the maintenance manual before buying a car and look up that kind of thing?

We all make choices about what we want out of cars. I drove trusty old Volvo wagons for years, then I finally got tired of looking like a soccer mom (I'm a guy). Now I have a 1998 Volkswagen Golf GL and a 1984 Porsche 944. (And still a 1994 Volvo 940 wagon with 212,000 miles on it). Are my new toys Honda-reliable? Get real. Do I love to drive to work every morning now? Yep! I found a great independent mechanic in my neighborhood who specializes in German cars, bought a premium AAA membership, and I got a United Airlines Mileage Plus Visa card to pay for repairs. So I have a heck of a lot more fun driving, and I'm racking up points for a trip to Hawaii. Top that, Honda-nisti!

And by the way, in many cases modern cars burn out bulbs more frequently because of daytime running lights (DRL), which turn on at least the low-beam headlights and sometimes every exterior light on the car every time you turn on the key. You can often turn DRL off using procedures described in the owner's manual if you wish. Volvo is one that turns on every single light, even though only the headlights can realistically be seen during the day, so Volvos go through lots of bulbs every year.

Posted by: Scott | February 22, 2006 7:53 PM

Wasn't there a story a little while ago about Toyota SUV's that had made car parts so easy to replace that theives could easily take off the doors and sell them on the grey market? Certainly a downside to making parts easy to replace...

Posted by: Anon | February 22, 2006 8:13 PM

I have to say that it seems odd that any company should design a car that it's hard to change bulbs on. I have a 2001 Prius, and replacing bulbs is easy and detailed in the manual. As well, and despite the gee-whiz amount of technology, most everything a shade-tree mechanic would want to do on the gasoline engine is accessible and well-designed (if a bit crowded).

Seems to me that making the easy stuff difficult or impossible is blatently bad design (unless you are the dealer, in which case your profits double).

Posted by: Alan | February 22, 2006 10:41 PM

I have a 2001.5 VW Passat and have been able to change the headlights and all the filters on my car. the only thing that bothered me was getting past all the covers that VW put over top of everything to keep out the larger debris that can get into an engine. I agree with bc. If you want to do things yourself, get the manual. But you don't have to get the factory service manual. One of the Chilton's manuals would benefit you because it tells you how to do the basic stuff. You can even go to an auto parts store and look at the manual if there is one, specific thing you need to do.

Posted by: 2001.5 Passat | February 23, 2006 10:22 AM

I had a 1991 Subaru Justy--great little 4WD "clown" car, but confounded me when a rear light burned out in year 4 or 5. Turns out the whole back end needed to be pulled out, since it was considered a "disposable" car (kind of like the Yugo) that shouldn't outlive its parts. Had the (non-dealer) mechanic replace every single lamp on the back end, which lasted until we finally traded it in 5 years later.

Posted by: Subaru Too | February 23, 2006 12:26 PM

I had a Ford van a few years ago that needed the heater hoses changed. The last time I had done a similar job on an older car, it was a simple matter of loosening a hose clamp at each end of the hose - one on the engine block and one on the heater core. Hole thing took 5 minutes.

With this Ford van, not only was the heater core attachment located so far up inside an obstructed part of the engine compartment that you could barely reach it, but it was attached by a "special" quick-connect fastener that could only be released by a special tool that was not sold retail and existed only at Ford dealership service centers. That was the last time I ever considered buy a Ford.

Now the first thing I do when I'm contemplating a vehicle purchase is pop the hood and examine the engine spaces and all the various components to be sure that a reasonble repair by a fairly competent shadetree mechanic (like a water pump or alternator replacement) can be made with minimum fuss using a basic set of mechanics tools - wrenches, sockets, screw drivers, etc. If not, that vehicle stays on the dealer's lot.

I know people in the automobile dealership business and they all say the same thing. While vehicle sales bring in some money, the biggest and most important profit center for their business is the service center.

I guess that's why the engine in a 2000 Dodge Dakota pickup (mine) would completely sludge up and require a new oil pump after missing one oil change at 30,000 miles. It's obvious to me that the manufacturers are building them this way on purpose so as to keep their dealers rolling in profit.

Posted by: gbchriste | February 23, 2006 3:29 PM

I agree, the first couple of comments here were unnecessarily harsh. Take it easy on Caroline!

I could easily change the light bulbs on my dear old Subaru. I now drive a Jetta, which has been remarkably problem-free despite all the bad press. When the headlight burned out, I went to the owner's manual and saw exactly what Caroline saw. I was pretty appalled. Luckily the warranty was still in effect so the dealership replaced it at no charge.

Still, it was a pain to have to arrange for a dealership visit.

Posted by: Madame Librarian | February 23, 2006 4:21 PM

Poster #2 checking in again.

All I'm saying is (I believe this is also the point of poster #1) that if you're going to complain about reliability, expense, and ease of repairs, you shouldn't be buying a VW. There is plenty of easily available information out there that will tell you that VWs are not cheap or reliable. If you love VWs for other reasons, including style, performance, whatever, and are willing to put up with the foibles -- hey, that's great. But there shouldn't be an element of surprise involved when you find out the cars are difficult and expensive to repair.

Posted by: Dave | February 24, 2006 2:52 PM

Back in the day, I rebuilt my MG convertible one summer, so I thought something as simple as replacing a bulb would never be a challenge. But after having an experience similar to Caroline's (with a Ford!) I was appalled. I have reached the conclusion other posters here have expressed: that manufacturers do this on purpose, to steer us to the overpriced service departments.

Posted by: webguybill | February 24, 2006 11:10 PM

Best part of the blog ? The light bulb ads at the bottom of the web page. Not a one of them has anything to do with automotive bulbs. Go Figure ! rofl :)

Posted by: 4 MY EGO | February 26, 2006 12:26 AM

The reason there are so many warning in your owners manual is becuase the manufacturer has been sued so many times over the incidents they are warning you about.
The vehicles are designed with the consumer in mind (most of the time anyways)- and the consumer is usually concerened about the outward apperace of the vehicle. So the design of the vehicle is sometimes complicated in an effort to make it more pleasing to the consumer. I am sure that there are countless people who have tried to change the bulb in their VW and screwed up the vehicle- only to bring it to the dealership for repairs (of which they usually want to hold the dealer responsible for.)
Most customers don't read the owners manual so i have to applaud you for at least reading it (even if it was after you purchased the vehicle!).

Posted by: Car Dealer | February 27, 2006 4:03 PM

I love the warning about the vase!

Posted by: h3f | March 1, 2006 2:07 PM

I've got 80k miles on an 03 Passat and it's been rock-solid (knock on wood - I've beaten it up pretty good). I've changed a couple headlight bulbs, and while it wasn't easy it was doable - no more of a knuckle-buster than I've seen on Detroit's or Japan's cars.

Posted by: John | March 1, 2006 5:15 PM

does anyone know how to replace the headlight bulb on a dodge dakota 2001?

Posted by: | May 3, 2006 9:58 PM

i've been loving my 2001 beetle for 80k miles, but right now it has a burned out tail light and i cannot figure out how to get at it!!! i've changed the headlights numerous times...with a little savvy, a tender loving touch and a $2 light bulb in 20 minutes you can save ~$50 from the dealer!

Posted by: anne | June 10, 2006 3:27 PM

I liked reading all your comments; but now I still do not know how to replace the rear light bulb of my wifes VW beetle...

Posted by: | June 12, 2006 9:34 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company