Is it still possible to find a petrol vehicle today without electronic fuel injection? In fact, is it even possible to find a diesel now days with a good old mechanical diesel pump? Perhaps, but you will dig to find it.
Are electronics advisable to have for a vehicle that you want to take to the middle of nowhere and back?
ECU's are things that vehicles of today cannot be without any more and electronics are extremely reliable. Let's give it credit for that.
However, electronics does have Achilles heels, all of which are a much higher risk on a 4x4 than on a sedan doing tar only. First of all, they get grumpy from bad connections which are helped by water, dust, mud, vibrations and some other things that are much more part of a 4x4 doing tough roads, than a sedan doing tar.
Mechanical vs. Electrical wear
Bad electrical connections are equivalent to mechanical wear, but there is a difference in behaviour. Mechanical wear is something that you can determine visually or by feel and it develops vibrations and sounds when it moves. In most cases you do have plenty of warning that something is wrong. The wear is not reversible so when you start looking for it, it will still be there. Bad connections on the other had, are intermittent and to find an intermittent problem is totally different. To find a problem that is not a problem at that exact moment, that is often invisible, makes no sound, can mostly not be determined by feel and does not cause vibration as the part is stationary, leaves no other option but finding it with the best intelligent trial and error methods possible – or a proper electronic diagnostic tool.
For mechanical wear, we can cater by regular servicing parts that wears out before it is a problem. If the maintenance is not done, failure is guaranteed. On the electrical side of a car and most other machines for that matter, there is no maintenance schedule on electrical connections because it is not possible to maintain, therefore it is only given attention to once it gives trouble. Technicians across the board will universally confirm that the most common, but difficult problems one gets on any system are electrical of nature. To summarise, in the electrical systems of a car, the ECU's hardly ever gives trouble, but the physical wires, connections and sensors does and it is also the most common problems on a car that is mechanically well maintained.
ECU's and sensors don't like water and more than one type of sensor and ECU on a 4x4 is vulnerable. What if you are forced to make a water crossing and even though you took care, something happens and you drown the vehicle? Yes that happened to some people – not only due to irresponsible behaviour. That event will almost surely destroy every single ECU in the car and at the price of ECU's it is effectively a write off.
ECU's either work, or it don't. The next problem is that if it don't work, it is most of the time not fixable even in civilisation. Go one day and walk from workshop to workshop and see how many cars there are standing for weeks or months because they simply cannot find the electronic problem. What possible chance would you have in the bush?
To find the electronic problems, technicians needs to use electronic diagnostic equipment as a primary tool to find this type of faults in a vehicle. ECU's will log the exact sensor on which intermittent connections are a problem. However, that is also the way that they ensure that you have little option but to take the vehicle back to them. Diagnostic equipment is very expensive and for many cars it is almost impossible to find a third party diagnostic tool for your vehicle at a reasonable price.
Diagnostic Tools are Highly Recommended
For VW and Audi vehicles, a company named RossTech makes an awesome diagnostic tool for a great price. In fact, that tool is so good that many VW dealerships use it illegally in there workshops in order to give each technician his own tool, instead of one tool for the workshop. That is an important reason why I bought a VW later. I could get an affordable (R 5000), potent diagnostic tool for this brand of car and with one single electrical problem on my Passat, that tool have paid for itself many times over. Not surprisingly, it was a bad connection in a plug that caused a short. The tool was a great help. Unfortunately, it is still not easy to find affordable third party diagnostic tools for most brands with enough diagnostic power to make it really worth it. If you need something good, prepare to look in the R 10 000 to R 20 000 price bracket.
Personally, I am not at ease to take a vehicle to the bush if it has electronic control for any major function – like to keep the engine running. As much as I know how very reliable ECU's are, I am still not comfortable with the fact that electrical wires and connections are the most common problem in cars. When it starts nagging, it is often intermittent and it definitely can make you stop. ECU's itself are almost perfectly reliable, but the sensors and connections that needs to provide and lead the signals are not. Any of those parts could fail without the slightest warning and then it is not fixable.
To choose a vehicle with or without electronics driving major functions, is something that I honestly don't know how to advise you on. Good diagnostic tools are available, but quickly expensive. Unless you have a good diagnostic tool of your own for your car, I still think an older, all mechanical vehicle is much better to have for this type of travel.
The reality is that I cannot drive it forever. Eventually I will have to replace my old Discovery 1 and even if it is after squeezing another 20 years of life out of it, I will have no option by then but to take a car with full electronic systems for everything. Hopefully electronic diagnostic systems will be more readily available.