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As I have previously mentioned, I have joined the ranks of Vauxhall drivers and the Cavalier I have been given as a company car has proved to be less than reliable; as a result of which, I have been involuntarily sampling numerous other vehicles - Astras in the main although I did have the use of a top of the range Vectra for a couple of weeks. About the Astras I shall say little other than that the 1,4 is asthmatic and primitive. The Vectra on the other hand is a surprisingly good car (in parts) with a powerful, quiet engine, excellent seats and the ubiquitous hard ride. Handling on the other hand is a hit and miss affair. Still, this is not a Vauxhall club so I shan't major on these cars. What I shall mention though is that the Vectra was equipped with an incredible amount of electronic trickery - ABS brakes, air bags, traction control, cruise control, CD player, air conditioning, etc. Now while all this may be fine when such a car is new, what happens when it gets to 60,000 miles? My experience with the Cavalier leads me to believe that there are some fundamental problems with the use of electronics in motor cars. The technology would appear to be insufficiently robust to outlast the first owner. Let me explain:-

The problem with the Cavalier has been the engine control management system (ECMS). All modern cars, including our beloved Citroëns employ such systems, the purpose of which is to clean up what is at heart, a dirty polluting engine. The ECMS comprises a number of sensors - a lambda sensor in the exhaust and a camshaft sensor. These sensors are connected to a computer which ensures that the fuel injection system and the ignition system work together to reduce harmful emissions. The final bit is the catalytic converter which, once it is hot, removes most of the harmful emissions. In a diesel car, there is of course no electronic ignition system.

Back in the eighties, PSA, VW and Fiat were, in anticipation of tough new emissions laws, developing lean burn engines - engines that were designed to be inherently low on pollution. Other manufacturers preferred not to spend the necessary millions and wanted to adapt existing technology and they formed pressure groups to persuade the Eurocrats to go down the electronic control/catalytic converter route that had been adopted in the USA in the seventies. They won the day and lean burn technology was dropped.

There are some very real problems with this route. Firstly, a catalytic converter is utterly ineffective until it becomes hot. Given that most journeys are of less than 10 miles, this means that nice, "clean" cat-equipped cars pollute just as badly as much older vehicles during these short journeys. The problem is exacerbated when these first few "cold" miles are in stop-start urban traffic.

Secondly, as I have already mentioned, the electronic technology is insufficiently robust to last the life of the mechanical bits of the car. My Cavalier is 18 months old and has done 48,000 miles. Apparently the problem could be (I employ the conditional since the problem has still not been resolved) that as the camshaft belt wears, the position of the camshaft in relation to the sensor shifts by a micron or so, causing the ECMS to react to signals that are slightly wrong. This is sufficient to cause the system to shut down. The second theory is that the ECMS wiring loom is picking up spurious signals from elsewhere - there is a warning in the handbook not to use a mobile phone unless it is connected to an external aerial. The loom has been replaced with a new one that incorporates additional shielding to obviate this problem.

Thirdly, catalytic converters are extremely fragile - an engine misfire which results in neat petrol being squirted down the exhaust is sufficient to destroy a "cat" - hence the warnings about not bump starting "cat" equipped cars. the cost of replacement can be anything from a couple of hundred pounds to a couple of thousand. Even allowing for perfect maintenance and performance, the life of a "cat" can be as short as 24 months.

But vehicle electronics are not only about engine management - ABS brakes are yet another area where they are used. My old BX GTi was thusly equipped and after a while, the system packed up. "You need a new ABS control unit sir" - costing the best part of a grand. The problem was actually a dodgy wiring connection.

ABS and traction (not one of those lovely cars built between 1934 and 1957) control systems are, in my opinion, devices that allow the driver of little skill to believe that he or she is actually quite a good driver. The Vectra had traction control which for those who have never experienced it is a system that uses the ABS sensors to detect the onset of wheel spin and then either reduces the power output of the engine or in extremis applies the brake to the wheel that has lost adhesion. This means that one can, with impunity, floor the throttle when on a wet road surface and know that you won't sit there, spinning the wheels. Only drag racers and boy (girl?) racers do this anyway - any competent driver knows that one should feed the power in progressively. Furthermore, when you do need to floor the throttle, it is most disconcerting to have your decision overridden.

So, where does this leave the person who runs "pre-owned" cars? The answer is likely to be "with a big red number on his or her bank statement" when the MOT falls due. Do the manufacturers care? I suspect they don't. After all, if the costs of running older, catalytic convertor/electronic gizmo-equipped vehicles escalate to the point of being totally uneconomic, people will be forced to buy new cars which means bigger profits for the manufacturers. And as I have mentioned in this column before, the true impact on the ecology of dumping old cars and manufacturing new ones is far greater than running "primitive" old cars.

Citroën's hydraulics technology has often been described as "complex" but it has, on the whole, been reliable and robust (yes, those of you who ran DSs in the 50s might disagree). Now that electronics have been incorporated into these systems in the XM and Xantia, I wonder whether this will continue to hold true. Certainly early XMs suffered from electrical problems in the suspension area. Anyone who uses a computer will know how unreliable these devices can be - and a desktop PC isn't bounced up and down, thrown sideways, subjected to wildly changing G forces and extremes of temperature and humidity... 

To cap it all, your average backstreet mechanic is unable to work on these electronic systems - the outlay in computer diagnostic hardware is prohibitive.

At the end of the day, I seriously question whether we actually need all this electronic jiggery-pokery in our cars. The 2CV is an example of how minimalist design can still be fun, comfortable and above all, reliable. Granted, the 2CV isn't the safest of cars - I can't remember who to credit but one of the leading lights in the motor industry said, "The 2CV provided 90% of what is needed in a car and the other 10% is mostly bovine excrement" (paraphrased since this is a family magazine).

© Julian Marsh 1996 

This article was originally published in the Citroënian, the monthly magazine of the Citroën Car Club .