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Why Are Car Owner’s Manuals So Bad?

A lack of information and inconsistency plagues what should be a driver’s best friend.

The text message from my wife included a photo of the iDrive display in our 2018 BMW 330i xDrive wagon. It stated, “engine coolant level low, top off as soon as possible.” “No problem,” I replied, as she was only five minutes from my office. Upon arrival, I opened the BMW’s hood and confirmed the coolant was indeed a touch low. I then grabbed the owner’s manual to check what type of coolant the German vehicle requires. Alas, the info isn’t there. In fact, there’s very limited data, and there’s also no decal with the information under the hood. I recall a similar situation with our old 2016 Volvo V60 when a similar warning was displayed. I wondered if this was the case with other late-model cars—and sparked a research project into owner’s manuals. (I’m a ball at parties, my colleagues tell me.) I found a mix of inconsistency and general lack of important information in very nearly every manual I checked.

Let’s start with the worst example I came upon: the 2019 Jeep Wrangler. It’s at the top of the naughty list because there’s no owner’s manual. Yes, Jeep provides an “Essential Information Guide,” but that first word isn’t remotely accurate. Any real info you need regarding, say, specific fluids is absent. And there actually is an owner’s manual. But where is that item located, you may ask? It’s online, which makes things rather tricky when you’re in one of the remote locations the highly capable Wrangler can transport you to, in need of information and with no cell service. Ironically, Jeep’s full (online) owner’s manual is impressive, but it should be in the glovebox. Jeep does include a “Vehicle User Guide” in the infotainment system—at least with the top-spec 8.4-inch screen on the example I had—but it’s not nearly as easy to reference as a printed book. And it’s completely useless if the vehicle’s battery is dead.

Next, let’s flip to the other side of the financial spectrum and look at Ferrari. I checked out a GTC4 Lusso’s manual, and it has an interesting mix of excellent and poor information. How Italian of them. There’s a list of fluids, but it’s buried in the middle of the manual and the index isn’t good at all. It took too much time to find the data, and the coolant listed isn’t a brand I’ve ever seen in the U.S. Additionally, there aren’t any details on the coolant type, so you can’t cross reference it with other more mainstream options. There is a decal under the hood with a list of fluids but, strangely, it doesn’t match what’s in the manual and fails to note the all-important coolant info. Sure, most Ferrari owners will likely just have their dealer sort this type of thing, but a Ferrari dealer isn’t exactly located in every town. And the GTC4 Lusso is the rare member of the Italian company’s lineup that might actually get used on a road trip.

Staying in the high-end world but moving to the domestic side is the mid-engined Ford GT. Overall, the owner’s manual is a winner. It lists every fluid and gets bonus points for including part numbers. My only complaint is that this information should be listed in the back of the owner’s manual, as it took a bit of hunting to find. But a good job by Ford.

Then we come to Porsche. I usually trust the Germans to be detailed, but our BMW wagon put a significant hole in that theory. The current Porsche 911 GT3’s book is much better than the Bimmer’s—but not perfect. The coolant information is extremely buried, and, like the Ford GT, the info should be located in the back. Porsche is excellent in its treatment of tire-pressure information, and it should handle the fluids in the same fashion.

I also checked on a Brit in the form of a 2019 Aston Martin DB11 Volante. Unsurprisingly, Aston isn’t as detailed, but the info was there. Still—put in in the back of the book. And the coolant listing simply says to “see dealer,” which c’mon.

Then we have the Japanese. I checked the owner’s manual for my daily driver, a 2017 Toyota 86. Other than it not being at the very end of the book—are you sensing a theme?—the rear-drive sports car’s manual has a ton of well-organized info. It’s the clear winner here. Included is all the fluid information and filling capacities, plus data like the spark-plug gap, specific gravity reading on the battery, clutch-pedal free play, and the number of recommended clicks for the hand brake when pulled with 45 lb-ft of force. I love it. Bravo, Toyota.

Clearly, there needs to be some more consistency in the organization of information in owner’s manuals. I’m not proposing we should pass legislation or otherwise force car companies to make such changes, but there must be some logical way to set it all up across the board so it’s easy for owners to at least find basic information quickly and easily. Getting back to our 3 Series wagon coolant adventure, my wife ended up driving 10 minutes down the road to our local BMW dealership and they topped off the car with splash as she waited. No charge. But I still need to confirm exactly what coolant our car takes and that shouldn’t be the case. There are at least six different types of coolant, and most aren’t compatible with others. But now I need to run out to the garage and see if the hand brake on my Toyota 86 is in spec. Thankfully, the information I need is clearly laid out in the owner’s manual.

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2019 Toyota 86

MSRP $27,225 Base (Auto) Coupe