New Enough

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

There’s a sweet spot I’d like to tell you about. It’s not a great place to eat — or the RPM at which an engine really starts to sing. I’m talking about the sweet spot that lies between the too-old and the too-new when it comes to cars for affordable — and realistic everyday driving. Cars that are modern enough to be daily-driver reliable, not overly fuel-thirsty and (for the most part) fixable at not-unreasonable cost. But which — unlike a new car — don’t impose a crippling debt load, leave you at the mercy of $100/hour technicians for even basic work and which — because of their economically forbidding repair costs — have a useful service life of about 12-15 years, after which they’re often no longer worth fixing even if they can be fixed.

The sweet spot is — roughly — circa mid-1980s to the mid-late 1990s. Here’s why:

Circa 1983-ish, overdrive transmissions (both manual and automatic) were becoming standard equipment in most new cars. By the end of the decade, virtually all new cars — from economy cars to luxury cars and everything in between — came with overdrive transmissions.

Why is this important?

An overdrive transmission greatly reduces engine RPM in top gear — often by as much as 800-1,000 RPM.

Instead of buzzing along at 65 with the engine turning close to 3,000 RPM, the same car with an overdrive transmission will be running closer to 2,000 RPM at the same road speed. This greatly reduces drivetrain noise — and greatly increases gas mileage.

Performance cars especially benefit from overdrive transmissions.

Before overdrives came online, performance cars delivered excellent acceleration — but atrocious gas mileage — and poor driveability. The problem discussed above — high engine RPM in top gear (without overdrive) was magnified by the (usually) aggressive final-drive ratio, which increased engine RPM at highway speeds even more. A V-8 performance car with a 3.73 axle ratio would scream along at something like 3,300 RPM at 65. You could literally watch the gas gauge go down as you drove — and of course, all this sturm und drang beat hell out of the engine (and the rest of the drivetrain). Wear and tear was much increased — and thus, engine (and drivetrain) life much decreased.

Overdrive transmissions let you have your cake and eat it, too. A modern performance car — with an overdrive transmission — delivers both excellent acceleration and acceptable gas mileage, with the added benefit of much-reduced wear and tear on the drivetrain.

The same goes for any type of car — not just performance cars.

How to tell whether a car has an overdrive transmission? Easy! Look at the gear selector. Pre-overdrive automatics typically had three (and sometimes, just two) forward speeds. The pattern would read: D, 2, L — or D, 2, 1 (depending on the make/model). If there are four (or more) forward speeds, it is almost certainly an overdrive automatic. Often, “D” is circled — or there will be a button (Labeled “OD”) on the shifter or console. The OD button is there to enable the driver to easily and quickly disengage the overdrive — to increase engine braking (and so on) as when descending a hill.

If the car has a manual transmission and it has more than four forward speeds (e.g., it’s a five-speed or a six-speed) then it is almost certainly an overdrive manual transmission. Pre-overdrive manuals were — typically — three and four speed units.

Shortly after overdrive transmissions became commonplace in the mid-1980s, most new cars also came equipped with electronically fuel injected engines — and have been ever since. Previously, most cars had engines fed fuel (and air) via carburetors. Carbs have their virtues — including cheapness and being fairly easy to fiddle with, if you’re interested in modifying the engine for increased performance. But they also have their vices — including (generally) poor cold-start performance, as well as being more maintenance needy and problem-prone if not regularly maintained by someone who knows how to maintain them. For old car buffs, who are usually DIY-adepts, these are non-issues. But for someone interested in a reliable everyday driver, they are big issues. More so nowadays, because carbs have been out of circulation so long (since circa ’87) that it’s getting hard to find parts — and much more relevant, people who know how to adjust/tune them. If you are looking for an everyday driver, you probably do not want a car with a carbureted engine.

On the other hand, you may not want a new (or recent vintage) car with “modern” fuel injection — which means direct injection (newest) or even multi-port fuel injection (common since the latter ’90s to the present).

In these systems, there is an individual fuel sprayer (injector) for each of the engine’s cylinders. The first-generation fuel injection systems were usually throttle body injection, which was much simpler — read, cheaper to fix/replace — because instead of an injector spraying fuel into each individual cylinder, there was a single throttle body/injector unit feeding the entire engine. Fewer parts, simpler layout = less to go wrong and (usually) cheaper to fix if something does go wrong. The only reason the car companies went to port fuel injection and — most recently — direct injection — is because of the need to eke out fractional improvements in fuel efficiency, in order to comply with the ever-upticking MPG mandates tossed out by the federal government. But in terms of the things that matter to us, TBI delivers the goods: Immediate start-ups, even in winter, immediate throttle response (no stalling or hesitation) and great gas mileage — along with no fuss, no muss (or very little of it) in the way of maintenance and repair.

These two things — an overdrive transmission and a (TBI) injected engine — make a car feel (and drive) “modern.” Even if it happens to be 20 years old.

But here’s the best part:

If you buy a car built during the Sweet Spot Era — the mid-late 1980s through the early-mid 1990s — you get all the benefits of modernity without all the crap — six, eight (maybe ten) air bags, black boxes, back-up cameras, $300 a piece easily damaged plastic “headlight assemblies,” $200 a piece “keyless” keys, touchscreens, mice — etc. — that has made new cars absurdly expensive — both to buy and to keep.

And ultimately, all-too-disposable.


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