The European car ownership experience can very much be one of either love or hate. For every person who managed to rack up 300,000 or more miles out of their old Volkswagen Jetta, there’s another handful that seems to pop up saying that they had a lemon and will never buy another ‘fill-in-the-blank’ car again. Like nearly everything, the truth always lies somewhere in between. While there are some really obvious cars that all but the most dedicated owners should avoid, like the B5 Audi S4, there are plenty of common misconceptions that need further discussion.
Myth #1: European cars are expensive to maintain
A modern European car doesn’t have to set you back all that much more money than the average Asian or Domestic equivalent to own and maintain. There are going to be two primary components when it comes to the cost of ownership—parts and labor. Thankfully, we can do something about both of these.
The first significant expense is labor. Labor costs are usually the single most expensive part of owning and maintaining a vehicle regardless of where it’s made. Outside of the 20-minute oil change places, and depending on where you live, labor rates tend to range from $75-$150 an hour, or even more. Dealerships are usually on the high side, while independent shops are on the lower side, but no matter how you slice it, the cost of labor is going to be a big chunk of any repair bill.
You can save a lot of money by doing much of the service and maintenance yourself. The basic jobs like fluid and general service are often far more straightforward than you may initially think. We also have our own extensive range of ever-expanding DIY videos and articles to help you out, and there are countless forums and groups where you can search out help from other owners as well. Saving labor costs on even a few small services adds up to big savings for you as an owner.
Secondly, we have parts, which basically leads directly to our next myth:
Myth #2: Parts for European cars are always expensive
The single most crucial component of maintaining your European make, no matter what brand it actually is, is to utilize only the best quality parts. In the past, this may have meant using only genuine manufacturer parts. While these are guaranteed to be high quality, they are usually more expensive. Generic parts warehouse brand components, on the other hand, whether it’s brake pads, rotors, ignition, fuel components, filters, and so on, are often far cheaper than genuine parts. However, there are many potential downsides.
First, they seldom last as long, so although they are cheaper, they need to be replaced more often. Secondly, these generic parts rarely meet the stringent specifications for European vehicles' operating systems, especially when it comes to electrical components. With non-premium parts, you at best lose power, performance, or refinement, and at worst, you may introduce problems that didn’t exist previously. I’ve seen this many times in the dealer-alternative service world, and you can end up chasing your tail trying to fix the problems created by low-quality parts.
The solution is to purchase OE or OEM parts as an alternative to genuine. OE parts are the very same genuine parts made by the same manufacturer as the original parts but in a different box or bag. So when you buy a Sachs, Bosch, Lemforder, TRW, or any of the other OE brand parts sold at FCP Euro, you often may see that the OEM part number has been ground down and the item has been reboxed as aftermarket.
OEM parts are produced by a manufacturer that supplies at least one OE part to a vehicle manufacturer. OEM parts may not have been original to the car, but are held to higher-quality standards and stringent quality control.
Obviously, this is where we also say that FCP Euro offers our Lifetime Replacement Guarantee, free shipping over $49, and hassle-free returns. Those three key items, high-quality parts, and unparalleled customer service are what we’re doing to make European car ownership more affordable and to make your ownership experience more enjoyable and hassle-free.
With all of the above in mind, there are still some exceptions. Thanks to depreciation, many high-end European vehicles costing near or over $100,000 when new may suddenly be in the same price range of a used Honda Civic. Unfortunately, just because an S55 AMG costs $10,000 doesn’t mean the cost of ownership will be equivalent to that same Honda Civic. While it’s rare for typical service items, like fluids, brakes, and basic suspension components to be outrageously more expensive, the big components like engines and transmissions can sometimes set you back bigger money. That’s not to say there aren’t some outrageous values available from luxury brands Audi, Porsche, Mercedes, Volvo, and BMW, but it’s worth keeping in mind if you have a desire for the finer things but are also looking to save a buck or two on the purchase price... Champagne taste on a beer budget, as it is sometimes said.
Myth #3: European cars are hard to work on
European cars have a deserved reputation for being robust, strong, and solid. They are safe, often having the top safety ratings, and they have a certain feel on the road, which is simply not duplicated by competitors. Because of this robust design, they have earned a reputation for being harder to work on than Asian or Domestic competitors. While there sometimes may be more steps to completing a certain service or procedure, most often, these services are not in and of themselves beyond the range of most competent, at-home, DIYers.
The first tip, and possibly the most important, is that to be confident in working on your European car, you should familiarize yourself with the design language of the car. What I mean is that each manufacturer, be it Volkswagen/Audi, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, MINI, or Volvo, has a certain way of putting their vehicles together. The general concept and methodology are usually carried over from year to year, and from model to model. So once you’ve become familiar with replacing the engine mounts on your 2006 VW Rabbit, for example, you can probably easily tackle the same job on any of the transverse VW or Audi models from 2000 on up.
The more you do, the more confident you become, and the easier it is to tackle the larger projects because you know how and why certain brands are put together a certain way. Start with the small stuff, and work your way into the big stuff.
Another key component to working on your European car is to avoid the desire to skip steps in the process. While it may seem like more work to disconnect that axle to replace the front struts on your GTI, removing those six bolts can save massive amounts of time and headache compared to trying to "cheat" the process and touch fewer things. Sometimes more work is less work in the long run.
Lastly, you should always make sure you have the appropriate tools to work on your car. Most modern European makes have certain kinds of hardware that require tools that your average Advanced Autoparts, Autozone, Harbor Freight, Lowes, or Home Depot isn’t going to have on the shelf. Examples include the Triple-square used on VW and Audi, or the E-Torx (aka reverse Torx) used on BMW and MINI. Getting some of those fundamental tools required for your make or model will make future jobs far easier and more hassle-free. Not to mention you won’t have to run to the parts store at 5 pm on a Sunday to look for a tool they probably don’t have, while you sweat whether or not you’ll have a car to make it to work the next morning. Having the right tool in hand can be all the difference.
Myth #4: European cars are unreliable
I would argue that European cars are far more reliable than most common makes and models. It’s not uncommon to see European cars with hundreds of thousands of miles still going strong. If you’ve ever shopped for an E36 M3, you know that it is not uncommon to find one with 200,000 miles or more that still runs like a champion. Thanks to their often overbuilt design (see above), European cars will often outlast competitors with proper care.
That phrase, with proper care, is the key to keeping a European car reliable. You have to treat your European car with care, and actually service it like you’re supposed to for it to last. These are not appliances to be used up and thrown away, to be replaced by the next generation of whatever beige sedan is currently on sale. These are finely tuned, well-built, exciting cars to drive, and keeping up on the little stuff is what keeps the big things from being an issue.
I want to state that as with anything, there are times when a manufacturer gets things wrong, and there are problems that are endemic within certain models. For example, the 4.2 L V8 engine used in the B6 and B7 Audi S4 range is a powerful, awesome sounding engine. It also has serious issues with a complex and sometimes expensive timing chain system that, although it was improved over the years of production, is still a major potential problem. The same can be said for certain models across most European brands. This is where research and a proper Pre Purchase Inspection (PPI) will go a long way to making sure the car you purchase is sound, and you don’t have any surprises.
Myth #5: European cars are 100% European
Thanks to globalization and cost optimization of manufacturers and suppliers around the world, most European cars aren’t really as “European” as they once were. They are global cars with parts suppliers to match. You can find a transmission from GM in a BMW, parts from Ford in Volvos, a Chrysler with a Mercedes transmission, or a MINI with a Chrysler engine. Likewise, the same amazing ZF 8-speed automatic transmission can be found in an offering from nearly every European manufacturer.
This sharing of parts and systems from brand to brand means that parts used across many platforms are easier to find and cheaper as a result. Our ability to find alternative solutions to Genuine parts from OE and OEM suppliers across the globe means that something that previously may have been a major expense is now a bit more of a palatable repair.
Hopefully, now that you’re a bit more familiar with the reality behind these common myths about European car ownership, you’ll feel more confident to take the plunge of either purchasing a car or starting to turn wrenches on the one you already own. The process of maintaining and repairing your own car can not only save you money, but it can be an incredibly rewarding experience as well. It’s a way to create bonds with family and friends, nurture the curiosity and learning of children, or just a way to keep your own brain and body limber.
We could only include so many myths, so what ones do you think we missed? Let us know in the comments below!
FCP Euro's Event Director by day, writer and contributor by night, and wanna-be race car driver on the weekends. Nathan has been working in the VW and Audi performance aftermarket for nearly two decades, and dabbled with Porsche and BMW. He also used to write under the pen-name of Alex Rogan for magazines like Eurotuner, Performance VW, Total 911, and European Car. He has a Cornflower Blue Rabbit Edition GTI daily driver which is surprisingly still mostly stock, and a Mk5 GTI track car which is mostly not. ••• Instagram: @njbrown55