Are German Cars Over-Engineered?

I’ve often wondered why German cars are over-engineered. Why can’t they just do things that work and make it easier for someone to do their own car repairs without the need for special scan tools, repair tools, and always require to re-code replacement parts?

German cars are most certainly over-engineered. The reason why car brands like BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Porsche, VW are over-engineered is that they are always pushing the envelope in terms of innovation. Whether it’s the design, function (body, interior, engine), or other features regarding safety and convenience, these car brands are at the forefront of pioneering new ideas. With those innovations comes a caveat, at times, all this technology can break down or not function properly.

Quality

Let’s face it, we all want to defend our purchase. I’ve personally owned a few German cars myself. Whenever someone asks me about my experience with German cars, I’m always tempted to say ‘if you treat it right, it’ll run forever; i.e. bulletproof,’ even though that may not be the case. Don’t we all want to look good and justify our purchase?

Pros

  • Paint quality is phenomenal. Even after 20 years or so, there is still enough clear coat to protect the paint from peeling and fading
  • The doors feel solid and close with a satisfying thud
  • Reinforcement bumpers are made of aluminum or metal, not foam, even on the lowest models
  • No matter what decade the vehicle is from, somehow it’s still able to retain the factory smell
  • Overall the cabin is very well built and no matter what model it is, you can’t help but be impressed with the overall design and function of the interior

Cons

  • Components can and will fail prematurely
  • Replacing said components can be a pain the way they’re integrated and oftentimes require additional coding
  • Not all of the ideas are well thought out. Case in point, the BMW E39 cup holders
  • Sensors, sensors, sensors. There’s tons of them and yes top tier models like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7-series will have enough of them failing to make you want to give up on repairs altogether

German vehicles are very solidly built overall. They’re not afraid to think out of the box and try new things. This may or may not always be a great thing if buy that model in its first year of production.

As always, it can depend on the model itself and what year of that iteration it’s from as carmakers are always trying to resolve manufacturing defects asap. If there are any serious manufacturing defects, recalls are ensued to address them free of charge at any dealership.

Many dealerships will refuse to do recalls on salvage-title vehicles so beware.

There are websites dedicated to giving feedback on the reliability and general issues that are specific to certain models. Check out this site if you’re interested in finding out common issues with your car by clicking here.

Porsche Cayenne Interior

Convenience

Most car brands nowadays borrow so much from each other, that regardless of where they were made, they all seem to be more or less homogenized. Everyone pokes fun of the quirky features or gadgets of one manufacturer, only to find out in a couple of years, every car brand is now doing the same thing as well.

Take ambient lighting for example. Convenience interior lighting is nothing new, however, when Mercedes rolled out their W-222 S-Class luxury vehicle, it took the world by storm with its interior LED lighting.

I’m still in awe, every time I sit in an S-Class. Driving one at night is an incredible experience. Some might say it feels like a club or futuristic spaceship inside, but there’s a big market for it and now every car manufacturer is rolling out models with built-in interior LED cabin lights.

It’s important to note that some conveniences can quickly become an inconvenience especially when it breaks. When I owned the Audi A8 05′, it had the convenient push-start feature. On a particularly cold morning, the vehicle refused to start due to communication issues between the key and ignition switch.

Luckily my vehicle allowed me to start the car with a physical key, but you can imagine for those that only have a push-to-start only system and no way to insert an actual key, what a nightmare that would be.

Technology & Safety

Mercedes always pushed the boundaries in terms of innovation. They were the first to implement the passenger-side airbags and all-wheel ABS system in a production car.

Nowadays it seems impossible to think someone would drive a vehicle without certain safety features like airbags for the entire cabin and ABS. In the 70s and 80s, it was only available on certain high-end models like Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Car manufacturers don’t want to be left behind especially if consumers are exposed to new standards being rolled out all the time. Nowadays most vehicles not only have dual front airbags but even door and pillar airbags as well.

Tesla which is not a German carmaker really pushed the limits of innovation and what many deemed to be impossible. It currently has some of the highest crash-test ratings and its auto-pilot is years ahead of other car manufacturers. Everyone is still playing catch-up.

Although Tesla is currently leading the pack when it comes to technology, it can’t touch the luxury of the S-Class for example. Cabin quality, feel, and features like adaptive climate control still give German carmakers the edge.

We’re going to see more and more cars that are electric and fewer internal combustion ones. The current feud between Tesla and Porsche signals that there is going to be some serious competition in the electric car sector. VW already has its own e-golf, BMW with its i8 and i3, and Mercedes just rolled out the EQC.

Reliability

I compare the reliability and how long your car will last to the human body. There’s genetic potential, then there’s your lifestyle. Much the same can be said about cars. You have the car potential based on that design, then there’s how you take care of it.

Not all cars will make it to 200,000 miles major-repair free, even you do all the maintenance. Some will have a premature engine or transmission failure, electrical or sensor failure, and more.

Even if you did everything right by getting all the routine maintenance done, there are still manufacture defects that will need to be addressed in order to keep that car running for a long time.

There were times when German carmakers used plastic pieces on certain components from the factory that should’ve been aluminum from the start. It’s not a matter of if, but when those parts fail due to high-stress and inferior materials. The water thermostat on the BMW E36 is a good example.

Some would say that’s a deliberate flaw in the design to make you spend more money on maintenance.

Maintenance Cost

This is where the over-engineering factor takes its toll. If you’re buying a German luxury vehicle, expect to pay more for repairs and maintenance.

One of the worst cars ever produced was the BMW E65-68 7-series. It was a car with so many new features including the quirky i-drive and LCD dash display. However, many years later, it’d be the last used luxury car I’d recommend buying.

Besides having a gazillion sensors and computers, BMW decided to experiment and use fiber-optic wiring. Yeah sounds really cool in theory. Years later due to regular usage, suddenly the wiring began prematurely failing in random parts of the vehicle.

The amp failed one day, the ignition the next, loss of communication with sensors, etc. All the wiring started to fail to cause customers a huge headache and endless diagnostic fees.

No matter how perfectly you tried to maintain this vehicle, people were shelling out thousands of dollars not just in maintenance but manufacturer defects as well. Knowing the common defects for your vehicle is absolutely essential.

Check out this link here if you’d like to see the reliability and common issues with your car.

If you’re planning to go the DIY route, make sure you invest in the appropriate scan tool. You can read the article on the best OBD2 scan tools here. Many of the components like light control modules, climate controls, etc..all have to be re-coded for your vehicle. Failure to do so can cause an immobilizer mismatch which can throw a fault code or even prevent the car from starting.

Generally, because of the high engineering costs for the engine, electrical, or some other unique features that sound awesome, it’ll eventually cost you later down the line. When I had the Audi A8 for example, you couldn’t just replace the brake pads, you had to use the exclusive Ross-Tech VCDS scan tool, disable the ABS system.

Only when you’ve disabled the ABS system, are you able to replace the brake pads. Failure to do so can potentially fry the ABS module and damage the sensors.

Yes, more and more car manufacturers are making it all the more prohibitive to repair your own car. This is due to the complexity of computers which in turn makes them less repair-friendly.

BMW and Toyota recently did a collaboration with their Z4 and Supra respectively. The engineers on both teams had nothing but platitudes for each other. An interesting remark from one of the German engineers was how impressed he was with Toyota’s quality stress testing to ensure no premature component failure

I’m not saying that if you get a Japanese car, you’ll never have to think about car issues other than routine maintenance since even Japanese car makes have component failures, however, it seems to be more common with German car makes to see premature components or sensor failures.

Conclusion

Owning a German brand car can be a real joy. The feeling of quality, innovation, and design reigns superior in many aspects and makes you appreciate the engineering that was put into these cars.

If you’re willing to put up with higher maintenance and possibly more weekends at the car shop, German cars can be an excellent purchase. I had a BMW E39 M5 and let me tell you, despite all the maintenance required especially with the Vanos system when I stepped on the acceleration pedal, I quickly forgot all the downsides.

Do you own a German car? If so, what is your overall experience with it?

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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