Last fall, a brand new BMW 3-series car rolled into the Old Dominion Carstar Collision Center in Eugene, Ore. – literally. A teenager was “driving dad’s car,” says shop owner Patty McConnell, and rolled it over – with little apparent structural damage. The teen walked away, and normally the damage wouldn’t have been hard to repair. But the BMW had so many air bags “it looked like a balloon,” recalls Ms. McConnell. The new car, worth more than $30,000, was totaled.

But that’s only part of the problem….

Costly air bags, expensive electronics, and lightweight body materials are driving up the cost of fixing new cars. Not only do many more parts have to be replaced rather than repaired, but fewer and fewer body shops can afford the special equipment and training required to do the work.”We’re moving closer and closer to the disposable car,” says Dan Bailey, an executive vice president at Carstar, the largest auto-body repair franchise in the United States.

Repairing a new car a decade ago, for example, cost an average of $2,578 per claim, while in 2003, the cost had ballooned to $3,681, a 43 percent increase that has outpaced inflation, says Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president and head of loss claims analysis with the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) in Arlington, Va.

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