Just a few model cycles ago, savvy auto-shoppers could indulge in the fine art of speccing-up. Consumers coveting European motoring on the cheap flocked to Volkswagen's second-generation Jetta. Shoppers could specify a lightweight, no-frills special: crank-it-your-damned-self steering and windows, no a/c and a basic radio. (Even steel wheel trim rings were optional.) The converse was also true– intenders could option-up a high-end GLI with most every feature then extant.
Fast forward to the new Jetta. Even a cooking version of VW's fifth-generation Jetta comes with air-con, remote keyless entry, power windows and a 10-speaker MP3-compatible CD stereo. And that's just the creature comforts; safety-wise, figure six airbags, ABS and traction control. Which goes some way towards explaining the car's 3,200-pound curb weight. (For comparison's sake, the average 1986 Jetta weighed around 2,500-pounds.)
But that's not all. Today's omnipresent 'convenience packages' and 'value bundles' foist unneeded or unwanted items on consumers; adding weight, complexity and cost. Of course, automakers are happy to ditch the once proud "mass customization" trend. Limiting possible build combinations curtails manufacturing and delivery complexity. Forcing consumers into unwanted features to obtain fittings they deem essential is an inherently profitable business.
Taken to its meridian, enforced 'feature creep' results in duo-spec vehicles like Scion's tC. Scion's sportiest comes with just two factory options: a slushbox and side airbags/window curtains. A great deal of attention has been lavished on the fact that Scion sells a huge range of dealer-installed options, from lighted cupholders to strut bars. Yet few question the fact that every tC comes larded with power everything (windows, locks, mirrors, and signature dual-element sunroof), 17" alloys, six-speaker CD, keyless entry, etc.
Given tC's admittedly reasonable price point (circa $16.5k), enthusiasts seemingly have little to carp about. But hang on– Scion's "sports" coupe weighs more than 3,000lbs. Admittedly, the gobs of sound deadening jacketing the interior account for some of its ballast. But much of tC's scale-tipping largesse arrives courtesy the electrical gubbins. And it doesn't take Colin Chapman to realize that weight is to dynamics what Jessica Simpson is to music.
Looking for a low-spec Hummer H3 with a price approaching the basic msrp? Hankering for a sports car without a hole cut in the roof? Then forget your local dealer's lot. They've been quick to cash in on the high-content, high profit racket by purposefully stocking a preponderance of highly-spec'd models. Twenty years ago, state-of-the-art in dealer grafting consisted of hundred-dollar pinstripes and paint sealant. Today's automotive brokers are infinitely savvier, baking-in more revenue streams. What's true in Congress is true among car dealers: pork = profits.
This axiom also works on back end; many of today's most popular electronic butlers (juiced windows, automatic climate control, etc.) account for the most frequent out-of-warranty repairs. With drivelines capable of lengthy distances between scheduled maintenance (and even longer between tune-ups), service bays would lay barren if it weren't for electrical gremlins. Just ask your local Volkswagen franchisee.
Perhaps the most confounding issue facing enthusiasts today is a lack of available manual transmissions. Aficionados checking manufacturers' websites might note that Honda still offers a DIY Accord, or that the latest car rag just tested a Mazda6 with a stick-shift. Attempting to find and purchase an equivalent example is about as easy as nailing Jell-O to a tree. Buying a manual often necessitates placing an order or shipping from another state– at which point shoppers can kiss most applicable financing incentives goodbye.
The problem doesn't just affect enthusiasts. Safety-minded motorists are also afflicted by option glomming. Nissan Maxima buyers must plump for an automatic transmission, moonroof, leather and high-end stereo to secure Vehicle Dynamic Control. Want a Chevrolet Cobalt with anti-slip? No problem, just sign-on for power windows and locks. This sort of options-sheet wrangling isn't just counterintuitive– it's manipulative. Bundling a certain suspension package with an aero kit is understandable, but forcing consumers to shell-out for unrelated, unwanted 'features' just to gain an extra margin of safety is downright despicable.
And the problem is getting worse. Thanks to the sucess of semi-mandatory feature bundles, sticker prices are increasing, and increasingly confusing. Curb weights are continuing to rise. It's time for carmakers to re-think the bundling strategy, to return to mass customization. A more flexible spec sheet may generate less immediate profit, but it creates long-term loyalty and a better shot at capturing a wider audience. If short-term greed continues to dominate, niches will shrink even as the risk of failure increases. The old new way was better.