Why Sports Cars Are Often the Most Reliable Used Cars ""
Posted on: July 14, 2017

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2011 BMW Z4 sDrive35is

Certain cars are reliability incarnate. Toyota Corolla. Honda Civic. BMW Z4 (pictured above)—wait, BMW Z4? Yes, because the long-term reliability of sports cars has experienced a paradigm shift over the past 25 years, thanks in part to automakers’ improvements in quality and reaching economies of scale with these products.

Sports cars typically are driven far less than most other types of used cars, too. According to data from this author’s own Long-Term Quality Index, which has recorded the mileage and condition of more than 1.4 million trade-ins from Connecticut to California, this low-mileage reality is as true for a Mazda MX-5 as it is for a Chevrolet Corvette or even a Mercedes CLK-class.

At the same time, owners usually invest more money into sports cars when it comes to regular maintenance. You’re far less likely to find any of these vehicles being given a paper-based oil filter at a 10-minute oil-change shop or fitted with low-quality tires that can accelerate the suspension’s deterioration. Today’s sports-car owners often are older, wiser, and more willing to invest. The result? A 15-year-old sports car in excellent shape is no longer uncommon.

 The Long-Term Quality Index awards reliability ratings to vehicles. Here, sports cars are rated against the industry average.

In fact, when it comes to long-term quality, it’s the fast and the fun that often provide the best bang for the buck. This is true even for sports cars with the same engine foundations and transmissions that are installed in full-size SUVs. The owner gets the benefit of an engine and transmission engineered to handle the stress of super-size-vehicle duties. Often, those engines and transmissions can be made (with variations specific to the application) to withstand nearly twice the vehicle weight and far more towing and hauling than any sports car. Purchasers gets the benefit of that extreme testing standard and lack of heft when they buy the sports-car version.

Radu Theyyunni, director of engine analysis at GM Global Propulsion Systems, commented on this merging of multiple standards and its impact on powertrain longevity and reliability in sports cars and other vehicles that offer a higher level of horsepower and torque.

“A sports car has a much different duty cycle than a full-size SUV,” Theyyunni said. “For example, the lubrication and cooling systems can be different. However, the base engine design, such as the main bearings, the block, and the crank, are all designed [to be] robust enough to handle both types of applications.” That means engines for trucks can handle steep grades and heavy towing loads, while engines in sports cars are optimized for performance-related activities, he said.

Sometimes even the most unreliable sports-car brands of the distant past can eventually become enduring testaments to long-term quality. Take Jaguar, for instance. The long-term reliability of that automaker’s engines has gone from the atrocious nadir of the Jaguar XJS of a quarter-century ago to the pinnacle of reliability with the well-crafted, modern engines found in the Jaguar XK.

Modern versions of Jaguar engines serve as the foundation for a wide variety of vehicles in today’s used-car market, ranging from Lincoln luxury cars to Land Rover SUVs to Ford Thunderbirds. In today’s world, that decade-old used Jaguar can already handle nearly twice the power of the old V-12 while experiencing an infinitesimal fraction of the powertrain issues.

Nearly 80 percent of the sports cars, roadsters, and grand tourers that have been sold in the United States since 1993 have above-average reliability, according to the Long-Term Reliability Index. That’s a record that no other segment of today’s market can match.

It’s a quiet reality within the used-car market: Modern sports cars usually are driven less, maintained better, and designed to handle far more abuse than their automotive ancestors. So if you want a used car that’s worth keeping, don’t be afraid to skip past the practical and dial up the horsepower.

Steven Lang has been an auto auctioneer, car dealer, and part owner of an auto auction for nearly two decades. He is co-founder of the Long-Term Quality Index.

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