As cars becomes more sophisticated, it seems like they are increasingly becoming more complicated. Remember the days when you could just go to your local auto parts store to pick up a new headlight bulb and then replace the burned-out bulb in about a minute in the parking lot? Well, that may still be true for some models, but for a growing number of vehicles, this simple repair has become so difficult – and often time-consuming – that Autoline Detroit felt the need to produce a how-to video just for design engineers.

In the video, Sean McElroy, an ASE-certified mechanic who spent more than 13 years as a technician, looks at the extraordinary time it takes to replace headlights on some of the worst offenders. In particular, he notes the Saturn Aura requires the entire front bumper to come off to access the headlight assembly – labor that may take over an hour and can cost up to $100 at a repair shop. Of course, the video also features examples of vehicles with simple headlight access. To learn more, watch the amusing and illuminating video below, and then sound off with your own bulb-changing horror stories in comments.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 73 Comments
      Tweaker
      • 1 Year Ago
      Last Mercedes I had required an entire headlamp assembly replacement, not just a bulb. $345 for the part on ebay. I will never own another Mercedes.
      Mike Pulsifer
      • 1 Year Ago
      As LEDs become more powerful, their long life, often lasting longer than people will typically own their car, will probably result in even more difficult replacements. However, with their long life, very few will likely need to.
        methos1999
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Mike Pulsifer
        That was my thought. Definitely there's some stuff on cars that's needlessly difficult to work on, but the list of technologies that have pushed the maintenance cycle out from monthly to yearly to once or twice in the cars' lifetime is lengthy. Maybe my favorite is carburetors to direct fuel injection (yes I know there was some evolution in between) - old timers complain that they can't work on new cars or motorcycles like they used to, and while that's true, I counter that I rarely have to work on them at all!
          Julio B
          • 1 Year Ago
          @methos1999
          Very true but the point of the article is that a simple design feature such as an access panel can make it very simple and inexpensive for an owner to replace serviceable items such as bulbs, filters, belts, spark plugs, etc. when the time comes.
          Mike Pulsifer
          • 1 Year Ago
          @methos1999
          Engine bays have become more cramped though. Compare a typical car from the 70s that had enough space in the engine bay for a dead body or two with a typical car from today that has extra equipment, shorter front-ends, and extra reinforcement for crashes. Do you want to go back to the days of land yachts? One alternative is to keep the same size car with a much smaller engine. I don't see that happening either.
          methos1999
          • 1 Year Ago
          @methos1999
          Yes Julio B, that's why my second sentence was to acknowledge that some stuff is needlessly difficult to work on...
      Steve Clements
      • 1 Year Ago
      Changing the headlight bulbs on my Honda Pilot was relatively easy, but changing a cracked lens meant removing the bumper shell, loosening support brackets, and giving my wife quite a shock when she saw "her baby" in the middle of the process. All in all, it was a 2.5 hour job for one person, and that included finding the much-needed DIY videos online.
        789dm
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Steve Clements
        Same here with my Element its so easy to replace bulb, air filter , cabin filter, less than 5 min each. But i remembered 1st Gen Fit have to take out the wheel n the inner fender just to replace a bulb.
      omgcool
      • 1 Year Ago
      This reminds me of replacing the battery on my Chrysler 300m. What in ordinary cars is a five minute job, I had to remove the airbox and passenger wheel to get to the damn thing. To make matters worse, after hitting a deer, I bought a new hood and had it freshly painted, only to have the wind blow down my hood, smashing into the airbox which I stupidly left sitting on top of the intake manifold while changing my battery, leaving a fresh star-crack on my hood. Never rusted, fortunately. That's not all, though; turns out the battery was fine. The actual problem was a corroded battery cable. All that for nothing. On the upside, that position of the battery offered offered a couple advantages: lower center of gravity and fantastic battery life (from being kept away from the engine heat). The car was a 1999, I changed the FACTORY battery out in 2011, and it wasn't even done yet. I've noted some of GM's cars have their batteries mounted under the rear seat.. even smarter. Regulated temperatures, weight distribution, and easier access.
      EJD1984
      • 1 Year Ago
      I read awhile back that the manufacturers are designing their vehicles purposely for that for some (what used to be) routine maintenance & minor repairs, you have to take it back to the dealer. The story that I read was something like this: BMW customers in the mid-late 90s were complaining about the quality of the cars and how much they had to get them worked on at the dealer/shop. So BMW cracked down on the quality, then the dealers started complaining that the far fewer repairs were needed. So we now have this designed-in specialty repairs that the average driveway mechanic can no longer do. I had a 2009 GMC Acadia, and to change the headlight bulb, it had to go up on a lift, remove the tire AND wheel well just to get access.
        David MacGillis
        • 1 Year Ago
        @EJD1984
        I have a Saturn Outlook and to remove the front fascia takes about 1/2 hour. Anyone that thinks this is a bad job needs to have their head examined. It\'s a lot of work for a bulb but bulbs fail very infrequently and when I replace bulbs, I replace them in sets if I have to do something like remove the fascia to get to them.
        jz78817
        • 1 Year Ago
        @EJD1984
        "I read awhile back that the manufacturers are designing their vehicles purposely for that for some (what used to be) routine maintenance & minor repairs, you have to take it back to the dealer." No. vehicles are designed for efficient *assembly* (DFA, Design For Assembly) and serviceability sometimes has to take a back seat. If it's something that is an infrequent repair, it's a better use of time to figure out how to assemble the thing cost-effectively than worry about the poor schlep who might have to take it apart in five years or so. IOW, this is just conspiracy theory BS.
      TBlueMax
      • 1 Year Ago
      Spent 30 minutes trying to change a headlight bulb on my wife's Kia Rondo until I realized it was just quicker to pull the entire headlamp assembly (held in place by 3 bolts), swap bulbs, and mount back in place. Now it takes about 10 minutes and is infinitely less frustrating than attempting to contort your hand/arm according to the diagram in the owner's manual.
      jonnybimmer
      • 1 Year Ago
      I have a friend who used to work at Autozone which, for those who are unfamiliar with the chain, offers several services to help assist people repair their own cars such and in some cases, the employees will even go out to the parking lot and change out a part themselves if you are unfamiliar/uncomfortable doing it yourself. The parts are usually smaller items such as windshield blades, oil changes (they accept used oil), spark blugs, and headlight bulbs. Most cars of the 80's, 90's that my friend worked on were usually a breeze. Some even require no tools at all (E36's for an example just have a bulb holder you turn to pull out, swap bulbs, and insert back in, all by hand. Whole process takes a min or two to do). Then one day a lady came in with a 2000 Celica and asked if my friend could change out the bulb for her since it was getting dark and she didn't know anything about her car. Being the mechanically experienced and having owned several Toyota cars/trucks himself, he thought he'd be able to get it done in just a few minutes since his store was supposed to soon close. After wasting time trying to understand how the heck he was supposed to reach the bulb, he finally looked it up on some forums which informed him it required the removal of the front bumper to take off the headlight to finally reach a bulb. Ended up taking well over an hour to complete. That was the first time it really occurred to us that automakers are making their cars less and less friendly for owners to maintain on their own.
      vvk
      • 1 Year Ago
      I love headlight design of my 2012 Passat (but hate the car) -- it is so easy to change a bulb! It has a special bulb holder with built-in contacts, so you just turn the holder and remove it with the bulb, no wires at all. I have always found the toughest part of changing a headlight bulb was detaching and attaching the wires, so it is really great not to have to deal with that. Plenty of room for your hands, too.
        Natural
        • 1 Year Ago
        @vvk
        Why do you hate it? I have a 2013 Passat 3.6 and absolutely love it, as do every passenger I've had in it. Only complaint I have is the lack of AWD, but I knew that going in. Goes like a rocket (except in the wet) and is great on gas. I usually get 900km in all highway driving, 750km mixed. Can't imagine anyone hating the 3.6 or TDI. Got the 2.5?
          vvk
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Natural
          There are many things I like about my Passat. Including the 2.5l engine -- it is more than powerful enough if you ask me, because the chassis just cannot handle it. I cannot imagine how bad it must be with the 3.6. Although I am sure the automatic dumbs it down to the point where you just cannot feel it. What I really hate about it is the ride. It is beyond soft. I have driven a lot of different cars, including some really bad ones with worn out suspensions. I have never, ever driven a car that rides as bad as my Passat. The diagonal motion is horrible. Every bump results in several up and down movements in a rocking fashion. Driven with authority, the way I usually drive, the car becomes a mess, I just hate it. Artificial steering feel is a minor complaint compared to the ride. When I drive it the rain, the front end will slide readily in first and second gear, which I expect from a FWD car. What I do not expect is not feeling the car step out through the steering wheel. I see it but don't feel it. Having said that, I enjoy the interior room, look and feel of the instruments, terrific standard features (although lack of heated mirrors took me completely by surprise,) enormous trunk, great headlights, comfortable seats, light and precise clutch pedal, very quiet interior, rock solid highway manners, fantastic fuel economy (38+ mpg on the highway!!!) and, most importantly, $209/month lease payment with $0 out the door cost (did not take my checkbook to the dealer at all.) Maintenance is free, too.
      Jason
      • 1 Year Ago
      With all the new technology going into the lighting system of car's. changing your own headlight will be a thing of the past. My car has LED tail lights, it's a 2006 and 4 of the LED's have "Dimmed" there not out but they are not as bright as the others. The dealership has told me to live with it or spend $400 for a new assembly because you cannot just replace the LED's that are bad. As LED technology expands to the headlights, as in many higher end cars are now doing, replacing these lights are going to become a MAJOR repair cost. We all want the latest technology on our new cars, but it's going to come at a price. Oh and to boot, most bumper to bumper warranties do not include the lighting system.
        HaterSlayer
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Jason
        Aren't LED headlights supposed to last the life of the car?
        rcavaretti
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Jason
        LEDs don't dim. They shine until they go open or short out. If its not a monolithic design, i.e. having multiple elements, then it's more likely some are out OR your lenses are becoming opaque and losing some of the light transmission through it.
          Jason
          • 1 Year Ago
          @rcavaretti
          nope it's 4 LED's that are dimmer, the tail light covers are as clear as new. Trust me I have had it looked at and they cannot tell me a reason for it. They are not out just dimmer than the rest. When the brakes are applied they are just as bright as the rest of them, but when just "On" they are dimmer, it was not like that when new, hell it was not like that 6 months ago....
      David
      • 1 Year Ago
      30 minutes to do it on my Mazda 5 (stuff had to be moved out of the way, had a hard time understanding where to stick the little spring thing and couldn't see it anyway, and ended up breaking some delicate plastic things when I ripped the light out). A lot more convoluted than it had to be. My Volvo 945 takes only a minute. There's value in shaping a car like a brick with all sorts of space under the hood.
      Blizzak454
      • 1 Year Ago
      My 2005 Hyundai Elantra requires you remove the headlight, but fortunatly is takes very little time. All of this is pretty moot though as cars start coming out with LED headlights. There is nothing to change. If/when the LED's fry, you're in for a whole new housing anyways. But as the owner I should be able to change it myself. Forcing me to have special tools, do to a shop/dealer or start removing body panels is a joke. The whole, "we had no choice becuase of the design" is a pansy excuse. How about a "trunk release" style mechanism if the headlights are SO hard to access? have a mechanism in the engine bay close to the headlights that when actuated they pop forward. If there is a robot on Mars, then a soultion for changing bulbs is possible.
      Hazdaz
      • 1 Year Ago
      This is what happens when engineers become too hands-off and have no time wrenching on their own. I hate to say it, but WAY too many schools blindly focus on theory, theory and only theory and offer little practical real-world education.
        jz78817
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Hazdaz
        sorry, I've been both a mechanic/tech and an automotive engineer, and this is balderdash. Packaging *anything* in a modern car can be a frustrating experience; the studio has a signed-off design which says the car looks like this, and now you have to try to fit everything product planning wants into that envelope. So when you're working on a car and you find yourself asking things like "why do I have to do all this to change a bulb" or "why is the frickin' oil filter *there*" 99 times out of 100 the answer is "because it would have been ridiculously expensive to do it a different way." Engineering involves a s***tload of trade-offs. If making serviceability worse means you actually get a manufacturable design, well, them's the breaks.
          macutty
          • 1 Year Ago
          @jz78817
          How expensive are those inner fener access panels? That would likely address most all of these cars.
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