By on March 10, 2012


Click for Larger Image

“All I need is a nice basic car. Something like, maybe, a Saturn or something.” This unassuming, if perhaps ungrammatical, combination of sentences has come to be a long-running joke in my family. You see, one of my relatives married a woman back in the Eighties and subsequently provided her with a string of relatively upscale whips ranging from an Infiniti J30 to a Siebener BMW. Every time it was time to go looking for a replacement, however, she would ardently protest to anyone who would listen that “All I need is a nice basic car. Something like, maybe, a Saturn or something.” My relative ignored her and kept shoveling the Audis, Bimmers, and Infinitis her way, and each time she would accept the new ride reluctantly, reminding us about her preference for “a basic car”.

Some fifteen years after their marriage, this woman told me at dinner, “You know what I did today?”

“No. What did you do?”

“I rode in a friend’s Saturn to lunch. You know, I’ve talked about how that’s all I really want.”

“And?”

“It was horrible! It smelled weird, the windows rolled up by hand, it was cramped inside, and it was really noisy, like something was wrong with it.”

“So, what’s your opinion now?”

“Well, I still want a basic car. But now I think I’d be happy with just a basic BMW or Lexus.” I thought this was well-said, because it allowed her to continue to champion the usual liberal virtues of “simplicity” and “consuming less” without actually being forced to drive anything worse than a 328i. As it so happens, her current car is just that – a “nice, basic” two-hundred-and-thirty-horsepower, leather-seated, alloy-wheeled Bimmer sedan.

A quick examination of any dealership lot in the country will show that, in her opinion of what constitutes a “basic car”, my relative’s wife was well ahead of the curve. The era of the “basic car” is dead and gone. The Chevrolet Chevette “Scooters”, Plymouth Horizon “Americas”, and Toyota Tercel “EZ” models which littered the streets and cluttered the left lanes of my youth are long gone. Today’s “basic car” has performance to match some Sixties “musclecars” and equipment which would shame Konrad Adenauer’s Mercedes-Benz state limousine. Naturally, the government is to blame.

Sort of. China’s also part of the problem.

Well, really, it’s your fault. Okay?

The plain truth is this: Government regulation, changes in manufacturing processes, and consumer behavior have all combined to drive a stake through the heart of the “basic car” in this country. Before we discuss why it’s slightly easier to hijack an Israeli airliner than it is to find an American-made car with roll-up windows, though, let’s take a look at the way the car market does not work – at least not any more.

Have you seen the movie “Gran Torino” yet? If you haven’t, consider it recommended to you as of this moment. My father drove a Gran Torino when I was a child, you know. He also made Walt Kowalski, the character Clint Eastwood plays in the movie, look like Carson from “Queer Eye”. But I digress. Anyway, in the film we learn that Kowalski built Gran Torinos and other Fords for thirty years, and that he preserved a 1973 Gran Torino as his most cherished possession. The way Gran Torinos, and all other American cars, were made in 1973 was pretty simple. You pushed ‘em down the line and you added equipment. The men who built the cars earned a solid “living wage” doing so, and all of the equipment they added, with the occasional minor exception, was also made in America by men earning a living wage.


Click for Larger Image

GM used the “Vette” as a price leader for years, long after the platform had been paid for.

With this fundamental understanding – that everything on the car was made in this country by middle-class Americans – in our heads, it becomes easy to see why cars were priced as they were, and why the options structure functioned as it did. Building an AM radio required a certain amount of time and raw materials. Building an AM/FM radio required more time, because it was more complex and contained more raw materials. Building an 8-track/AM/FM required still more time, money, and materials. You get the idea. The more something cost to build and install, the more it cost as an option. You can apply the same logic to everything from “mag wheels” (which contained more costly raw material than a plain steel wheel) to the additional taillight which graced certain models of the full-sized Chevrolet (it cost more money for two more lights, plus it took time to run the wires). This is not to say that the options were always priced fairly; some options were high-profit, like a Landau vinyl top, and some weren’t, like the combination of parts that made a Hemi Dart. Ever heard of a Hemi Dart, by the way? It was a $4500 “compact car” that could run ten-second quarter miles from the showroom floor. That’s right. If you ever owe anybody a “ten-second car” for some reason, just get in your time machine and buy ‘em a new Hemi Dart. It’s much easier than buying a wrecked Supra and getting all your parts overnighted from Japan. Sorry, we’re off topic a bit here.

Returning to the matter at hand… We are now confronted with the reality of modern manufacturing. In the thirty-five years since Kowalski’s ’73 Gran Torino rolled down the line, nearly everything about the way cars are built and specified has changed. Most of the equipment that makes up a 2012-model car is sourced from “suppliers”, which is a nice way of saying that most of a Cadillac isn’t made by Cadillac after all. These “suppliers” operate on a volume basis, and they are ruthless seekers of efficiency in manufacturing. A 1973 Ford might have many different dashboard assemblies, seats, steering wheels, radios, and door panels, all of them made by Ford in smaller affiliated factories; today those parts are reduced to the minimum possible variety and produced in bulk by the lowest bidder.

Why did power windows cost more than roll-up windows in 1973? It’s easy to understand; it took a man, or a team of men, earning the aforementioned living wage, longer to build, assemble, and install power window components. In 2009, the whole deal is “subbed out” to a supplier who produces snap-in power window assemblies. It’s usually cheaper to get 100,000 power window assemblies than it is to get 50,000 roll-up assemblies and 50,000 power assemblies, plus you don’t have to train the $12/hour temps who (don’t tell anyone!) actually do a lot of “low-skill” jobs on American assembly lines how to install two different kinds of window assemblies. The door can be made simpler because it doesn’t have to accommodate two different kinds of controls, which leads to more volume discounts, and so on.

Still, the idea of a power window being cheaper to build than a roll-up window should offend any reasonable individual. How can that be? The answer is usually found in China. In that vast industrial hellhole of a country, where men and women are marched at gunpoint from their rural homes to be “resettled” in crowded factory shantytowns, children are chained to tables and forced to work from dawn ‘till dusk, and pollution exists at a level that would have shocked Upton Sinclair, production costs are virtually nil. With no EPA to satisfy, it’s cheap to make electronic components. The biggest cost is usually shipping and distribution, and those costs are related to weight and size.


Click for Larger Image

Toyota’s cheapie: the Tercel “EZ”. It was $6,495. Toyota dealers refused to stock it, preferring to sell the Tercel coupes for ten grand.

What’s that? You didn’t realize that China makes a major portion of “American”, “German”, and “Japanese” cars? Well, they do. Sorry about that. It isn’t limited to hidden circuit boards or wiring harnesses, either. That all-American icon of ass-kicking, full-throttle power, the mighty Corvette Z06, rolls on lightweight wheels made by the supplier AmCast. No prizes for guessing that “AmCast” wheels come from China, the same way you can always bet that when a clothing manufacturer uses “New York” or “London” in their name, their stuff really comes from China or Vietnam. In terms of actual, inflation-adjusted costs, it’s very probable that the massive magnesium wheels on a Z06 cost GM less than the set of American-made styled steel 15” wheels on the ’73 Stingray did. That’s progress. If you call it that.

You can see the effects of this by looking through any modern car’s “order book”. Stand-alone options have virtually disappeared; they required too much effort to install, too much differentiation from suppliers, and didn’t create enough possibilities for volume discount. I’ve griped about the lack of option availability in the past, and this lack of availability is a direct consequences of outsourced supplier production. When I visited the original Porsche plant in 2007, I was taken to the room where leather is cut and dyed, by men and women earning a living wage, one piece at a time. By contrast, the “leather” at a Toyota or GM plant is delivered by the truckload, already glued to the seat frames, by a supplier. Any wonder that Porsche charges five thousand dollars or more for a “full leather interior” while Toyota offers it as a cheap part of a packaged option group? And is it any wonder that Porsche can offer limitless colors while Toyota offers two or three at the most?

In a world where most of the “little parts” are made by (supposedly) faceless people toiling at faceless suppliers, assembly time has become the Holy Grail of auto manufacturers. There was a time when it took days for a car to travel from one end of the massive River Rouge plant to the other; today it takes Ford thirteen hours to build a Fiesta. There are hundreds of assembly steps required to build that Fiesta, so you can be assured that each one has been massaged into near-perfection. If it takes an extra thirty seconds to determine which radio should go into a slot, it might be cheaper to give everybody the “better” radio and standardize production, particularly when the “better” radio barely costs any more than the “regular” one. These kinds of decisions are made all the way up and down the line, with the end result being that no car sold in this country today comes with a plain AM radio. What’s the point? Your Chinese radio manufacturer couldn’t save you more than a dollar or two, perhaps less, by pulling the FM functionality out of the radio, and your assembly time might go up as a result. And just like that, the AM radio is gone, as dead as the non-prismatic rearview mirror or the fixed-back bench seat.


Click for Larger Image

The Horizon America was pretty fast by the standards of the day: 0-60 in ten seconds. That’s probably faster than a modern Versa 1.6.

With all of that said, it might still be possible to make a standardized low-equipment car nowadays, even knowing what we know about suppliers and volume. Years ago, Chrysler responded to economic trouble in this country by creating a set of what I would call “critical-content cars”: the “America” series. They offered decent engines – usually the 2.2 four-cylinder – and very basic interior equipment. Vinyl seats, cheap radios, no power goodies. They were sold in a limited number of colors and for a very aggressive price. Check it out.: a decent compact car for $5995! It was one hell of an idea, the cars sold pretty well, and you absolutely, positively, couldn’t do it today.

Why not? It really is the government’s fault. The list of modern required safety and emission equipment is pretty long nowadays. You need plenty of airbags, you need a complex diagnostic system to keep emissions in check, and in the very near future you’ll need tire pressure monitoring and stability control, which means you might as well throw ABS and traction control in there for “free” because they’re subsets of the same control assemblies. And what the government doesn’t require, the consumer’s been terrified or bullied into demanding by the media. How many “non-enthusiasts” would buy a car with a vinyl bench seat, no air conditioning, or (gasp) a manual transmission?

The end result of the current manufacturing process, government regulations, and consumer perception is this: There’s a certain cost involved in building an “acceptable” new car. From there, the cost to provide the rest of the “basic stuff” is pretty trivial, so most manufacturers go ahead and do it. A basic Chevrolet Cobalt is sixteen grand. It might be possible to build a “Cobalt America” for fourteen grand, but who’d buy a vinyl-seat, no-A/C, wind-up window ‘ Balt to save a measly forty bucks a month?

There’s one manufacturer in this country who was really willing to test the market in this regard recently, and that was Nissan. They offered a Versa 1.6 for $9,995. Sure, it might be occasionally possible to buy a Kia, Suzuki, or Hyundai for less, but don’t forget, those are all cars built in the low-cost haven of South Korea. Your just-under-ten-grand got you a lot of equipment by the standards of 1973: five-speed manual transmission, curtain airbags, tilt wheel, intermittent wipers, audio system “pre-wiring” with four speakers (and I don’t have to tell you that’s because it’s cheaper to wire ‘em all for sound than it is to stop and check to see if they should be wired or not, right?) and dual mirrors.

I suspect was a stunt, and that if Nissan had actually sold a million of these cars it would have bankrupted the company. Still, there’s something to be said for having a nice basic car, after all. The only problem: it really gets hot in Ohio during the summer, so I’d like to have A/C. It’s a pretty basic requirement. And guess what? For $10,990 I can have it. And for $13,100 I can have the bigger 1.8L motor and a six-speed manual, which would be nice too. And they’ll give me a CD player. Not bad for two grand more. For just a little more — $16,100 — I get alloy wheels, MP3 capability, cruise control, and a bunch of other stuff. You see the problem? With a series of little steps, all of them justified, I’ve added 60% more cost to the car.

And that was the raison d’etre of the $9,995 Versa: it sold a lot of $16,100 Versas. It’s easy to be cynical and think it’s always been that way, but it wasn’t. Most of the Model Ts, Beetles, Rabbits, and Tercels were sold in fairly basic spec. Their manufacturers expected to earn money on the basic car, and they did. Today, the entry-level car is just another marketing trick, another triumph of appearance over substance. There’s no such thing as a nice, basic car. Perhaps that’s always been true, though; if the entry-level cars today aren’t basic, we can all take some solace knowing that their predecessors… weren’t very nice.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

166 Comments on “Avoidable Contact: Airbags killed the AM radio star....”


  • avatar
    Marko

    My local Ford dealer keeps a grand total of one manual transmission Fiesta S in a far corner of their lot. You’ll never see it if you drive by. Its sole purpose is to enable them to advertise “Fiestas for $13K”. Most of the actual Fiestas there are $17-20K.

    • 0 avatar
      Robstar

      I wonder’ed why, when I inquired about a 13k sentra, the dealership contacted me once and then didn’t contact me again. I’m guessing it’s perhaps because they want to keep it on the lot so they can advertise “Qty 1 at this price!!!!”

    • 0 avatar
      Skink

      That’s pretty sneaky, to have one cheapie Fiesta, and then to use the plural.

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      My first new car was a stripper ’86 Ford Tempo — black, windup windows, no A/C, AM-FM radio with no cassette — it was basic. I got it for $8,200 brand new. I didn’t care, it was new, had a warranty, and I needed reliable transportation for my first real job. The car was really the dealer’s “bait” Tempo. The “real” Tempos were around $12K. The salesman nearly choked when I told him I wanted the stripper version or I would walk.

  • avatar
    afflo

    If I had to field a hypothesis, I’d guess that the used market did in the cheap car. Assuming you could sell someone a $8,000 car these days with massive decontenting, why would they buy it? A car with 60,000-100,000 miles is often rust free, in good mechanical order, and has another 100,000 miles of life with minimal problems left in it.

    Note that my motorcycle is pretty basic compared to a car, and had an MSRP of $7,999. Even a bike with a carb (KLR 650) still lists for $6,299. I’m actually kinda impressed that a car, with the much greater amounts of raw materials and more complicated systems, can be had for the same cost as a large motorcycle.

    • 0 avatar
      PJ McCombs

      +1. In 1973, many (even most) cars were worn out by 100K miles. Today it’s more like their half-life, at worst. Better rust/westherproofing no doubt helps a lot.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      When I was a young Airman and didn’t have a lot of money, we were pretty much forced to buy used cars. That didn’t work out so well since we were essentially buying other people’s problems, even from reputable dealerships.

      So when we bought our first brand new car, basic transportation as the article infers, we bought a 1980 Chevette Scooter. Aside from several warranty repairs it served us well and gave us a little bit of trade-in value two years later.

      In 1982 we bought a VW Quantum, also pretty much basic transportation, but it also had numerous warranty problems. So we traded that one for a 1985 Toyota that was also basic transportation, with hand cranked windows and a stick shift.

      That car served us so well and without any problems that we traded it for a 1989 Camry V6 with all the bells and whistles. Now we find that all the bells and whistles of 1989 are pretty much standard equipment these days.

      Last year we helped pay for our grand daughter’s HS grad gift. She chose a 2011 Elantra in its most basic form. But that most basic form included power-everything, an AC and an automatic, a killer stereo, plus a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

      There’s no such thing as a stripper any more. Even the 1998 Saturn we helped buy for our grandson had power everything, AC with a stickshift.

      Kids these days want all the bells and whistles in their first car. Strippers are so last century.

      • 0 avatar
        Felix Hoenikker

        Cheap and disposable, the reason why Harbor Freight exists. Note, I amd a custoer there.

      • 0 avatar
        joeaverage

        Power front disc brakes, a/c and cruise control is all I really want in a car. And soundproofing.

        I can upgrade the stereo myself for $150 and upgrade the speakers if necessary for a little more. I don’t need volume, just clarity with a little basic bass so the music doesn’t sound like it’s piped through a telephone. Our stock well aged Honda speakers plus a $150 stereo sounds great.

        Power windows are nice if done right i.e. they don’t break. Our’s have been perfect. Power steering is nice if it doesn’t break. Again our’s has been troublefree.

        I don’t need no stinkin’ automatic either. LOL! Give me a manual five or better yet six speed. And a good four cylinder engine.

        Most importantly – make it last. A long time. Bumper to bumper.

      • 0 avatar
        ApK253wa

        My brother-in-law and sister bought their 2008 Mazda 3 brand new off the lot with no power anything including windows or locks, hubcapped wheels, no A/C and a manual trasmission (along with the base 2.0 litre engine over the more common 2.3). The vehicle they had in mind was something reliable like a Mazda or Toyota (nothing Korean) but as basic and cheap as possible. I didn’t ask but it was probably either the only one like that on the lot or they had to special-order. Getting a brand new stripped vehicle is still possible (at least it was as recently as 08) but you probably have to go out of your way to get one.

    • 0 avatar
      solracer

      Not to mention the KLR 650 has hardly changed since it was introduced in 1985 so it’s not exactly an up-to-date motorcycle.

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    If things had worked out like I’d had hoped, I’d have been able to afford to buy new and simply order from the factory what I want and wait for it.

    Alas, I bought used and got a pretty loaded up 9 YO Mazda P5.

    That said, I like what’s standard in cars today. I’ve never cared for the super stripped cars as they lack the things that make them more comfortable when on long trips, things like AC and a decent enough sound system.

    Even back in the day, most people bought a car that was at least a step up or two from the base stripped out trim in a model lineup.

    I recently test drove a 2009 KIA Rio5 and while it had a decent enough CD head unit with Aux/USB and AC, it still had manual door locks and crank windows though but had I think cruise and intermittent wipers along with one for the rear if I recall right. It DID have the basic steel wheels with plastic covers though.

    My P5 has leather, power windows, locks, keyless entry to add to the basic equipment though it lacks ABS and side airbags of any kind. It’s still very well equipped indeed and has alloys.

    Besides, who’d listen to AM radio when it’s all talk radio these days and sounds sucky when any music is playing anyway?

    • 0 avatar
      Robstar

      I recently tested a 2012 Kia Rio 5 speed…..And it still had crank windows! I couldn’t believe it!

    • 0 avatar
      charly

      It is a marketing fact that people buy one or two steps above the base stripper. It is not only true for cars but for almost everything

      • 0 avatar
        22_RE_Speedwagon

        the second least expensive bottle of wine on the list, for example.

      • 0 avatar
        ciddyguy

        That’s very true, and I’m one who won’t buy the cheapest electronic gadget.

        This is partly because with electronics, I’ve found over the years that most of the super cheap, especially the lower cost brands/off brands that they tend to lack certain features and amenities that make then truly useful, add to that, their cases are often poorly made, buttons poorly designed and placed etc and in general, not very good to use/operate and most tend to not last very long either, resulting in you having to toss it and replace with another one – and that to me isn’t wise spending IMO.

        Though there ARE times when you need to buy cheap and disposable for what it CAN do, on the cheap either due to a lack of budget or due to time or simply to get a less perfect result for whatever your doing and sometimes, it’s just cheaper/better/easier to use the crappy cheap product to obtain your result and then toss it as a one time purchase or to use as a stop gap until you can get the better gear replaced should it wear out or get broken before you can cough up the proper dough for its proper replacement.

  • avatar
    racer-esq.

    Cheap Chinese labor is taking American jobs – robotics engineers. Automation would have led to standardization and higher content if cheap Chinese labor had not. The UAW jobs bank was in response to automation, not offshoring.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I was actually thinking about this a few days ago. I was visiting a school with the Director of Special Education in the district and when it came time to leave she offered to let me drive our party of 4 adults back to Gallup, NM a drive of about 60 miles – half state highway/half interstate.

    Two decades ago she would have been driving a early 90s Buick LeSabre with no options and actual crank windows (I know cause I looked at one in the district surplus vehicle auction.) This past summer the district purchased her one of the first 2012 Impalas with no options. What does $20,000 get you in an Impala (or should I say Biscane?) in the present day? Power windows, automatic headlights, power drivers seat, aluminum wheels, CD player, mp3 jack, 300hp, and a six speed automatic transmission. It was a quiet and pleasant cruiser, rode well, and the engine was barely taxed even at 85mph in hilly terrain.

    Rember when their used to be such thing as a true stripped down model? Not any more as Jack points out.

    Personally the biggest side affect I see of this is that so called “luxury cars” hold less and less appeal to me. This article is almost an addendum to Jack’s articles about luxury for everyone and “soft corinthian swaybars.”

    • 0 avatar
      Dynasty

      “Personally the biggest side affect I see of this is that so called “luxury cars” hold less and less appeal to me.”

      In today’s world, the “value” of a luxury car is in its overall refinement rather than its features. For example, how well composed its ride and handling is, overall quietness, seat comfort, and the quality of its interior styling and materials, and exterior styling.

      So yes, you can get a 2012 Toyota Corolla that has many more standard features than say a 1972 Cadillac or Lincoln..(or even a 12 year old Mercedes) but putting gas prices aside, I’d be happy to do without a lot of features assuming the Cadillac was in showroom condition. And preferably a 1967 model year Cadillac too.

      My biggest gripe with luxury cars are a bunch of features I don’t want. What I want is a basic car with a luxury car refinement. Basically, a luxury car from the 90′s with modern engineering, safety, performance, and styling minus most of the electronic gimmickry.

    • 0 avatar
      Felix Hoenikker

      Dan,

      Six years ago, I spent 14 months in Gallup when I was the project engineer building a plant in Sanders AZ. Sooner or later, evertone does time in Gallup. Not that I minded much! I got to test drive about 20 rentlal cars over that time.

    • 0 avatar
      Roberto Esponja

      “Personally the biggest side affect I see of this is that so called “luxury cars” hold less and less appeal to me.”

      Biggest side effect, Teach. ;-)

  • avatar
    racer-esq.

    God damn lazy kids and their electric start.

  • avatar

    In the interests of balanced commentary, I bought a new car in 2010 with window cranks and manual locks. No manual, of course: manuals are for my fellow TTAC commenters who want turbodiesel eurowagons. Still, roll-up windows are alive and well. I did not even have to special-order anything, it was on the lot.

    • 0 avatar
      Marko

      Wrangler?

      • 0 avatar
        NulloModo

        My first car was a Wrangler – it didn’t have manual roll up windows, it had zip-up windows. No AC, vinyl seats, and an AM/FM radio with no CD. I put an aftermarket CD player in, which was stolen because locking it was pointless – cheaper to let the potential thief open the door and take what they want than have them slice one of the plastic windows and have to replace that as well as whatever they take out.

      • 0 avatar

        I must admit to the air conditioner. Apparently they simply don’t make them without anymore, just like Jack wrote. Although, interestingly, the engine has a mount for an additional roller, to be used if A/C compressor is removed. But I have no idea where to get the part if I were to do the surgery.

      • 0 avatar
        econobiker

        Pete Zaitcev – While posting this months late, I believe Dorman products sells a/c delete belt rollers to maintain the original length serpentine belt either for the speed freaks or for those with dead a/c and not enough money to repair.

  • avatar
    Dan

    The entry trim Camcords are the textbook nice, basic car. Nobody would be dumb enough to settle for a noisy, badly riding “America edition” stripper with 60% of the comfort to save 20 bucks a week, so they don’t even offer one.

    Except they do. Today’s “America editions” are the Civic and Corolla. 10,000 people are settling for that every week.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m pleased to see you describe it properly. The answer to the question “which is the least crappy car for the money I have to spend on this”…

      We B & B on this board must oft realize that that is the question that motivates the vast majority of sales, followed by “can I get financing”.

      The average buyer is not concerned with sport packages, the extra ten horsepower, or that there is some version of this in Europe or JDM that we don’t get.

  • avatar
    PaulVincent

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dodge_Dart
    “Fifty specially-equipped “Hemi Dart” models were built under subcontract by Hurst for NHRA SS/B and SS/BA drag racing classes, today these cars (with their sister Plymouth Hemi’Cudas) remain the quickest production cars ever mass produced, with elapsed times in the low 8-second range (1/4-mile) and trap speeds approaching 160 MPH.”

    • 0 avatar
      LeMansteve

      The definitions of “production car” and “mass-produced” are still elusive.

    • 0 avatar
      Gannet

      The article is misleading. If you rolled one off the transport in 1968 (they never saw showroom floors, you had to “know someone” to get one) and took it straight to the track, no change, it would run something in the low-12s to high-11s at probably 120 mph. The low 8s they run today is with a fair amount of modification and 40+ years of tuning.

      A dead-stock new Corvette ZR1 has seen 10.90s at over 130 more than once (reference: DragTimes). It’s vastly faster than a Hemi Dart, with AC and power everything to boot. And if ZR1s were allowed in NHRA Super Stock racing they would eat the Hemi Darts alive there as well. Which is to take nothing away from the Hemi Dart, they are truly awesome machines. But that was 40 years ago.

  • avatar
    BoredOOMM

    “Little Friend Neon” was priced at $7995. When you arrived at the dealer, they instead planted you in a $10995 Hiline Neon. They sold well and with the 1995 GM strike, they were available when Saturn and other small cars were not.

    Government intervention now means they pork on us the $40000 Volt (Fire Extinguisher NOT included). 5 Star roll protection means a micro-car is MUCH safer. Safety has a price that to some is worth more than low price.

    It will be interesting to see how well the new Dodge Dart flies off the dealer lots.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Oh give it a break. Read up on the Volt problem somewhere besides a conservative news site. You’ll find that it was a problem that was fixed with simple changes.

      The rest of what you said – I agree.

  • avatar
    Spartan

    This is the one area where the market has spoken. No one wants a car with no A/C, roll up windows, rear defroster, and no AM/FM radio. People will find the extra $50-$75 a month to pay for at least power options, AC, bluetooth, and sat radio.

    People may not know what kind of car they want, but they know what features they want at a minimum.

    • 0 avatar
      NulloModo

      Not uncommonly I’ll have a customer tell me they want a basic car, then rattle off a bunch of options that are anything but basic. Such as ‘I’m interested in the Explorer, nothing fancy, but it has to have leather, and I’d like a backup camera, and I’m used to having navigation so I want that too’.

      • 0 avatar
        Spartan

        Sounds like my wife. Probably the reason we have a Taurus SHO instead of an SEL. She said she wanted something nice, not too fancy, but ended up buying the top trim model. Go figure

      • 0 avatar
        NulloModo

        You can’t go wrong with the SHO. I’ve been tempted many times myself since it came out, as well as the Flex with the EcoBoost.

        I had some limited seat time in a pre-production 2013 Taurus SHO, and the overall improvements are nice. It felt like they reduced the size of the dead pedal, which is a huge plus as that’s the one area of the Taurus that feels cramped to me from the driver’s seat. The paddle shifters are laid out differently as well – with one side a dedicated upshift and the other a dedicated downshift instead of the mirrored 2-ways the car has now. The optional alcantara steering wheel is an interesting option – it feels great, but I can’t get over thinking it will get grimy looking and feeling after a few months of regular use.

    • 0 avatar
      VA Terrapin

      Spartan is correct. Manufacturers, China and the government didn’t kill the basic car because they felt like it; the market compelled manufacturers to kill the basic car. Hardly anyone these days wants a basic car. At the cheaper end, as some have already pointed out, for the price of a basic, new car people can buy reliable used cars with more content and lots of life still left.

      In America at least, the car market moving away from basic cars mirrors the general trend towards affordable upscale products that I’ve noticed since the 90s. This trend has helped make Apple become the world’s most valuable company. This trend also helps explain the rise of fast casual restaurants like Chipotle and Five Guys and fast fashion stores like Forever 21 and H&M. With this trend towards affordable upscale products still going strong, it’s not surprising that car companies would make similar moves away from basic cars and towards more upscale cars.

      • 0 avatar
        joeaverage

        Yes and no. Around here we have our share of rural poor and they are quick to go buy something cheap when they are able. Cheap and new is better than old and cheap even if it would save them money over the long run. Also cheap and Chinese with an expected lifespan of a few years vs slightly more for something that would last a decade or more is acceptable too. Whats more the cheap and Chinese made sometimes necessitates multiple replacements over something slightly more expensive item.

        Yes I recognize they are living the life their choices lead to. What makes me shake my head are hearing the same people with a trunk full of discount items made in China complain about all the jobs that have left our area for Mexico and China.

        Don’t get me wrong. I have my share of cheap discount tools made elsewhere. Sometimes I buy cheap tools to get me through a project no sure if I’ll ever need it again but when it is clear I will benefit from the long term use of a particular tool – I buy quality. A coworker bought a Kobalt air powered grinder and we wore it out within a few months. I bought an Northern Tool import air cutoff grinder just like it for $20 and it’s going on it’s third year simply b/c it doesn’t get used that much. At work given the opportunity I’m going to buy a quality air tool even if it costs $250.

  • avatar
    Glenn Mercer

    I think the impact of Chinese car parts is overstated. Chinese suppliers have a HUGE part of the aftermarket, but a relatively low share of new-car (OEM) parts going into cars made in North America. BEA trade statistics for the month of January 2012 (for example) show car parts imports of $3.2 billion from Mexico, $1.6 from Japan, $1.4 from Canada, and $1.2 from China… of which Chicago Fed economist Tom Klier estimates some 80% are for the aftermarket. Yes, some of the Mexican and Canadian parts might have Chinese content hidden in their numbers, but even allowing for that the great bulk of the parts that go into North-American-made cars come from… North America. And the Chinese volumes may even be dropping (according to some sources) as Chinese wages rise and as high oil prices drive the cost of Pacific shipping higher. In my view we will see a continued shift back to Mexico for the high-labor-content stuff likes seat covers and wiring harnesses, and may even see erosion in what is arguably THE area of Chinese OEM part dominance, alloy wheels (as the author points out), as domestic demand continues to soak up supply. Radios, etc., yup, I have to agree, long ago went to China and will stay there.

    I think the author is spot on with 95% of what he writes, except that I don’t see China as such a huge part of this trend. If he broadened the accusation, as it were, to ALL the nations that export to parts to us, I would agree, but note that more than a few of those are high-labor-cost nations that export to us for reasons other than that they can chain their workers to the bench. Even Germany sent us $700 million of auto parts in the first month of 2012….

  • avatar
    Dr.Nick

    Of course the biggest problem with all of this is the dirt cheap Chinese labor combined with automation can build things to an incomprehensibly better standard than a 1970s middle class autoworker could.

    • 0 avatar
      Elorac

      +1

    • 0 avatar
      afflo

      Cars have never been built by middle class autoworkers… The standard for middle class, ev en lower-middle class, is college educated, white collar. Socioeconomic Class is about more than pure money, and while blue collar workers with a high school education could make a good living, they weren’t middle class.

      • 0 avatar
        Dynasty

        Interesting.

        So hypothetically, if someone with just a HS diploma managed to work up to 130K a year of income they would not be in the higher end of middle class?

        But someone with a college degree bringing home 75K a year would be middle class?

        I think I understand your point. The two examples are people I know.

      • 0 avatar
        Dynamic88

        You must be from the UK. Here it’s all about the $. Your accent or the schools you went to (or didn’t go to) didn’t keep you out of the middle class.

      • 0 avatar
        afflo

        Socioeconomic class and financial fortune aren’t the same thing…. Though the class structure is nowhere near as rigid in the US as the UK, and class mobility is a cherished value in this country. Aside from the upper upper class, with old money social connections, class is largely about what you do, the education required to do that, and supervisory responsibilities. A mechanic or a unionized blue collar worker can make a fantastic living, but is not in the same class as a college professor or an attorney, even if the latter earn less.

        Not making any judgements against any classes, by the way… Just pointing out that a blue collar worker is not middle class, even if he or she has the same financial status and security as a lower middle class or even upper middle class professional.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        There is no standardized definition of “middle class.” Some would define it strictly by income, others would account for socioeconomic strata (i.e. education levels) and make a distinction between working class and middle class. Neither definition is incorrect.

        http://www.factcheck.org/2008/01/defining-the-middle-class/

      • 0 avatar
        wumpus

        Oddly enough, where I’m from it didn’t matter what your education was to be middle class.

        On the other hand, your kids *ARE* going to college (otherwise forget calling yourself middleclass). High school advisers simply will find a place that will take them, if necessary. How much this lead to the grief of those occupying places is debatable, but it certainly helped it.

        A history/social studies teacher once defined middleclass as one of upward mobility. He asked the class what they would do after receiving a extra weeks worth of pay. His definitions follows:

        Lower class: take a week off, without pay.
        Middle class: Invest or buy something nice. Any vacation would be use previously planned time off, but might be more expensive.
        Upper class: What, me work? Egads (extended definition, you have to be born into or marry into this class. Nouveau riche not included)

        Since the school zone was pretty much drawn to be all white/asian (upper)middle class, pretty much all the answers fell into the middle class bracket. This might not be a common definition, it certainly is an interesting one (and might help explain why people though Joe the Plumber had a point). I think he also brought it up in context of WWI. Under the Victorians, the defining feature of middle class life was the employment of at least one servant (assuming you didn’t have a title to pass as upper class). I think he included that as one of the many things that changed as WWI killed off the nineteenth century world and brought in the twentieth.

  • avatar
    Lokki

    Read an interesting article in the Atlantic a month or so ago about an intelligent factory worker whose job was to make aftermarket auto parts for a major replacement parts company. Complex parts which are high volume are made on robotic manufacturing lines. Simple high volume parts are farmed out to China. Her value to the company is in working the manufacturing line for parts where quality is important (and thus China can’t be trusted) and volume is too low to be worth setting up an automated line. She will never be promoted because the next level up requires a degree in computers as those jobs control multiple computer-controlled-manufacturing machines. No OJT can give her those skills and it’s not worth the money to send her to school at company expense. Her job is secure until China can provide assured quality or robotic manufacturing line get cheaper to set up. Oh, she makes about $14 per hour.

    So, yeah auto parts are made in the USA but not by humans.

    Still, don’t kid yourself. There’s no way back to the past.

    • 0 avatar
      ihatetrees

      I work in technical manufacturing field and read the same Atlantic piece. It’s an excellent window into current manufacturing issues in the USA.

      I’ll quibble with one point – the article’s assertion (that you mentioned) that no OJT can make a $14/hour laborer into a $24/hour CNC machinist or technician. Simply put, current laws regarding labor, liability, and employee testing make it nearly impossible to put together an effective long term technical training program.

      I know of one medium firm that does this – but it requires long term management involvement. And the willpower to allow your engineering & tech managers to knee-cap (the often tech-illiterate) human resource managers when technician hiring decisions are made.

  • avatar
    ronald

    “And what the government doesn’t require, the consumer’s been terrified or bullied into demanding by the media.”

    Hmm. Shorter Jack Baruth:

    “The average American consumer has different taste than I do.”

    You’re welcome.

  • avatar
    mkirk

    I realize that I am in a minority in not wanting power windows. To me it is all about simplicity. My Land Cruiser just passed 250,000 miles and everything still works. If I had the stupid power leather seats instead of manual cloth I’d have stuck, cracked seats. If you keep a car a long time, less is often more. My dream cruiser…Vinyl seats and floor, 5 speed and a Diesel and a solid front axle. Id have to move to Australia and buy a 15 year old truck to get all that. I can’t even get a vinyl lined basic jeep and they seem to load up the Rubicons. Even the basic work truck has disappeared.

    Having said that, surely there is a market for vinyl seats, at least in the rear on family haulers. My kids have spilled so much crap on the back seat of my wife’s Tucson that have left stains which could have easily been wiped off vinyl. Its not like kids sit in the damn seats anyway nowadays as the state requires them to be in a car seat until sometime after they start Junior High. I want to be able to clean my family truckster with a fire hose.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr.Nick

      You need to visit Australia. Cheap and value are two things that are foreign to the price structure in Australia with what’s happened to their currency.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo2

      mkirk,

      You really do enjoy being the martyr, don’t you?

    • 0 avatar
      Athos Nobile

      You don’t need to buy an old car to get that basic machine of your dreams. Get down here and buy a LC Trooper carrier. Brand new with a mean sounding turbo diesel V8 and a coil suspended front live axle.

    • 0 avatar
      Wheeljack

      Maybe your Toyota isn’t built to a very high standard then. The leather in my 1988 Merkur Scorpio still looks fantastic and is quite supple to the touch – all it takes is a little care. Every power feature, including the seats, windows, mirrors, power hatch release, power fuel door release etc. still work properly. Even the trip computer and the outside temp display in the overhead console still work!

      In fact, the only thing that doesn’t work on the car is the A/C, and I’ll address that in the spring.

    • 0 avatar
      Mrb00st

      we have on our lot now what I’d consider a “work truck”. Quite basic.

      ’06 Silverado 1500, cab and half, short bed
      white
      2WD
      cloth seats
      vinyl floor
      wind up windows
      A/C
      5.3 Vortec V8
      4 speed auto.

      we even have some new 2012 work trucks that have literally no options. That’s the last segment where you can get a “basic” car. By comparison, a basic Cruze has PW/AC/stereo etc etc

    • 0 avatar
      SpinnyD

      Toyota has the truck for you! just got to the website and choose the Tundra Work Truck Package.

      http://www.toyota.com/tundra/options.html

      Work Truck Package (Regular Cab) — Includes matte black upper and lower front bumper with matte black grille surround, heavy-duty vinyl-trimmed bench seat, heavy-duty all-weather flooring, black instrument panel, manual door locks, manual windows, manual outside mirrors, and two-speed windshield wipers. (Deletes courtesy and foot lamps and outside temperature gauge.)

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    there’s still one place where you can buy fairly stripper vehicles

    ford ranger/gm colorado/jap/thai trucks are pretty popular with all levels of government, mining and utilites

    they require light trucks that can haul a load and when 3 yrs is up they have to sell them to the public

    they always get white trucks with steel wheels, aircon, basic cd player and auto (OH&S usually wants auto)

    and so there’s always these basic trucks for sale at auction

    sure you can send $10-$15-$20k more at the start and get a brightly coloured toy truck which rivals a Raptor for options but the basic white work truck is still common

    also governments love basic Cruze/Corolla/Hyundai sedans for basic public servant transport

    however I’d say a Cruze or Korean basic sedan would have more features than a luxury small car a decade ago!

  • avatar
    toxicroach

    “I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
    1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
    2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
    3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” — Douglas Adams.

    The basic car you pine for came with things like alternators, seat belts, a radio, headlights, WINDSHIELDS, a roof, and a whole lot of stuff that would have stricken a car owner in 1910 as wildly luxurious.

    Now time has moved along, and efficiency gone up, to the point where a the basic car of today looks pretty luxurious to what you could get forty years ago and lasts much much longer. This is, how you say, not a big deal.

    The community of ascetic monks whose vow of poverty requires them to buy cars without power windows is even smaller than the community of manual diesel station wagon drivers. And really, the difference between power windows and crank windows is what, an electric motor? Not exactly the kind of thing that it makes sense to skimp on in a machine that is supposed to last for 20 years.

  • avatar
    danman75

    “The answer is usually found in China. In that vast industrial hellhole of a country, where men and women are marched at gunpoint from their rural homes to be “resettled” in crowded factory shantytowns, children are chained to tables and forced to work from dawn ‘till dusk, and pollution exists at a level that would have shocked Upton Sinclair, production costs are virtually nil.”

    Jack, I have no doubt these horrible conditions are rampant in China, and the government should be criticized for allowing these conditions to persist. But should we, as Americans, be the ones to start pointing fingers?

    Are there any violations of human rights that the U.S. has NOT committed? The prosperity that the U.S. enjoys today is based, in no small measure, on slavery, the genocide committed against Native Americans, the stealing of their land, and let’s not forget the abuses committed against Chinese immigrants who built the American railroads. And now China wants to gain a fraction of the prosperity that the U.S. has enjoyed for centuries and we wag our finger at China for human rights and environmental violations?

    • 0 avatar
      VA Terrapin

      Jack Baruth is like a shock jock. He goes out of his way to be offensive, and I doubt he cares about those he offends.

      With all this borderline nostalgia about middle class Americans making cars and car parts back in the days when real life Walt Kowalskis were still working, Baruth doesn’t mention that a lot of those Americans took their jobs for granted and made poor quality products. Some even intentionally made poor quality products. There’s a saying that applied to American cars in the past, “don’t buy a car made on a Monday or a Friday.” Thanks in part to these American workers and their managers who similarly took their jobs for granted, foreign companies like Toyota and BMW have become part of the American mainstream.

      Meanwhile, today’s low wage Chinese workers make much higher quality cars and car parts than the Kowalskis did back in the day. While China makes lots of cheap junk, mainly because it’s cheaper to make cheap junk in China than in America, Europe or Japan, China is perfectly capable of making high quality products. Those products tend to cost you lots of money, but if you look around, you can find these high quality, Chinese made products. Don’t be surprised if your children or grandchildren will some day in the future buy a Chinese branded car because they think it’s better than any equivalent European, American or Japanese car.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        +10000

        The Chinese will make any quality of item that you are willing to pay for. Mind you, part of that “pay” will be the cost of relentless quality control, as they will not do that themselves. But they can make anything from cheap dollar store crap to iPhones. But ultimately, China is going to price themselves out of a lot of business, particularly as transportation costs continue to rise.

      • 0 avatar
        skor

        I had a relative…since gone to his reward…..who worked the line at Ford’s Mahwah Assembly plant. Ford Mahwah Assembly was the largest auto assembly plant in the world when it was built in 1955. It was closed in 1980 because the cars produced at Mahwah Assembly had the highest defect rate of Ford’s North American plants. Did the workers sabotage cars? Yup. Why did they do it? Because of the way Ford operated at the time, workers were punished for doing too good a job. Huh? At the time it was assumed that a certain number of defects was expected when the workers were giving it their all. It the the defects got to be too few, it meant that there were too many workers on the line, or the line was running too slowly. In other words, if the defect rate came down, management responded by pulling workers off the line, or speeding up the line. So if a worker needed to install 5 suspension bolts per car, he quickly learned to “miss” a bolt on every 5th or 6th car.

        Management also played fast and lose with safety and environmental issues. Ford Mahwah management paid local mob connected trash haulers to make lead paint sludge “disappear”. This culture of abuse and corruption ultimately “trickled down” to the union guys. Once the culture was set, it was impossible to undo, and the only option left was to nuke the place.

        So were the unions corrupt? Yup….they learned their lessons from management….learned all too well.

    • 0 avatar

      The “genocide” against Indians? Please. “Stealing” “their” land, too. Hilarious. So, what kind of cars did they build back then? That would be on topic. Oh wait, they didn’t.

      • 0 avatar
        VA Terrapin

        Pete Zaitcev wrote:

        The “genocide” against Indians? Please. “Stealing” “their” land, too. Hilarious. So, what kind of cars did they build back then? That would be on topic. Oh wait, they didn’t.

        Race and ethnicity are the big elephants in the room that most people, you and Danman75 included, try to avoid when directly comparing East Asian and white dominated, western countries in the context of the global car industry.

        The people who tend to talk about race and ethnicity most directly are white supremacists who are nostalgic about the days when American car companies dominated the American car market, when European cars were rare, sporty or luxurious exotics (VW Beetle excepted), and when it was easy to dismiss Japanese cars as “Jap crap.”

      • 0 avatar
        danman75

        Pete,

        For the love of God, pick up a history book. Anyway, you miss my point. There will always be people on the losing side of history. To the victor go the spoils, I say. But we should not be so eager to condemn China for the horrible working conditions of their factory workers when much of our own prosperity has been the result of far more egregious human rights violations.

      • 0 avatar
        jkumpire

        danman,

        I have read all the history books, and you’re like a lot of other good people who get only one side of everything because of the monolithic, politically correct, and non-diverse modern college faculty.

        This is the best article I’ve read on this site period. Thanks Jack.

    • 0 avatar
      Darkhorse

      Different time, different standards. Want to make amends? Give your house to an Indian casino.

  • avatar
    jmo2

    “to continue to champion the usual liberal virtues of “simplicity””

    Um, do you not read the TTAC comments?

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    While content in many way is much higher than any time in the past, a load of decontenting is taking place and nobody seems to be complaining. Here are some I have noticed: Folding side view mirrors used to be on almost everything. They are missing on many cars today. Prop rods are back for hoods, and those beautiful articulating trunk hinges that even GM offered are mostly gone. Remote gas filler releases are either cable operated or are missing entirely. If you do have a lever on the floor for the release, I’ll bet a cheap plastic handle is sticking out of a cut in the carpet. What happened to the plastic trim that used to surround that handle. Carpet, mats, door gaskets are all flimsier than they used to be. Take a look at how rear glass fits into a modern car…Black coating in the inside perimeter of the glass and no trim whatsoever on the outside, just dropped in by robot. Cabin air filters, gone. Even bodywork has changed. In the old days, the roof and rear quarters were fitted together and assembled as one. Today all cars have a trim piece that allows the roof sheet metal to be separate. Not that this item is a big deal, but it is just another example of how manufacturers have cut assembly costs out and it sucks sometimes…

    • 0 avatar
      gottacook

      What’s so bad about a cable-operated gas filler panel release?

    • 0 avatar
      Wheeljack

      I miss some of the little touches you descibe – the brazed roof joint being a prime example. They’ll tell us that the “one piece” bodyside stamping makes for a stronger car, and perhaps it does…but that roof ditch molding is just hideous. I think my daily driver Stratus was the last mass-market car with a brazed roof joint. The Avenger that replaced it went with the ugly molding solution.

      I also hate the manual fuel doors with the “finger bump” to open it – it ruins the bodyside styling. If you aren’t going to let me have a power or cable operated release, it seems so much easier to use the design that a lot of Euro cars have with an off-center hinge pivot – just lightly press inward on the forward edge of the door, and it flips open without any interruption in the body styling other than the door itself.

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      I thought the Euro auto standards required folding mirrors? Even though cheaper, I cannot imagine cars bound for America getting fixed mirrors for the reasons already mentioned; unless you are talking about domestically produced cars.

      Speaking of mirrors and the “base model” car — have you priced mirrors lately? The outside ones with heating, turn indicators, remote adjusting, etc. Someone brought in a late model Silverado to my local mechanic with a damaged mirror; replacement cost $800. Ouch; give me the basic fixed mirrors of the 1990s and before any day.

      Cabin air filters — unheard of before the 1990s. Are they really needed, or just another maintenance item to take care of?

      The changes in the sheet metal probably made it easier for robots to assemble it without human intervention.

      In the two Taurus books I read, they talked about the cars coming down the line with the order sheets attached; I could see the delays in reading the sheets and installing the options requested only on certain cars.

      • 0 avatar
        joeaverage

        $800 sounds like greedy mark up to me.

        I can buy aircooled VW mirrors for $30 and replacement heated glass mirrors for less than $20 per side. I can buy an exterior mirror for my 15 year old VW from the dealer for about $90 and it is heated. $800 sounds like between a rock and a hard place pricing ’cause they can.

        FWIW I can buy replacement headlights online for $60 per pair eBay or pay my local dealer Honda $250 per headlight. Similar materials (I’d say same), same construction, same functions. OEM version has slightly more refined assembly construction, fewer rough edges.

        Greedy bastards!

  • avatar
    ajla

    You can still get a pretty basic truck.

  • avatar
    Maymar

    For the past month, I’ve been driving my fiancee’s otherwise unused ’04 Accent, and it’s rather basic – no A/C, no power locks or windows, the sunroof is a hinged piece of glass, and there’s no CD player unless I want to listen to the copy of Luke Doucet’s Steel City Trawler that’s stuck in it (and hey, some days, I do). Slushbox though, unfortunately. And I don’t mind the levels of spartanness. It’s not a great drive (snow tires, missed maintenance, and months of sitting don’t help), but I can put up with that for no monthly payment. For that matter, I used to own a Cavalier and Escort with a similar lack of equipment, and rather liked both cars.

  • avatar
    gsf12man

    Kids nowadays. It’s a ’72 Gran Torino.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Very well said, Jack.

    In my opinion, anyone decrying outsourcing should consider how many American jobs have been saved by doing so. I don’t see a lot of consumers volunteering to pay more for American-made products, particularly as the quality gap closes.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      Is a job a job? Where I live there used to be a load of aircraft manufacturing. That’s gone today – for a lot of reasons – replaced by low paying shopping malls. I just read that there is a major shortage skilled machinists in the country…nobody wanted to train for a job that was almost certainly to be endangered by that faceless killer: outsourcing. I don’t want to hijack the thread, so I’ll end it here, but IMHO America has slit it’s throat by losing skill sets to short-sighted profiteering.

      And yes, I routinely check what I buy and if an American made product costs more and is of equal or better quality, I usually buy it. I know I am the exception, but I can’t be the only one who feels this way…

  • avatar
    Michal

    Sounds to me like car manufacturing is working as it should: seek maximum efficiency per dollar spent. It’s capitalism at its finest. Porsche can provide for in house leather workers and give you unlimited choice in colours, but no one is suggesting Porsche’s manufacturing methods are affordable for the mass market.

    The earliest Ford factories were massive all-in-one efforts where raw materials were delivered at one end and cars emerged at the other. No one builds cars like that anymore. Everyone uses suppliers, and there’s a very good reason why: it’s much cheaper, and the supplier can focus their efforts on creating one product well instead of creating a dozen.

  • avatar
    Mr Nosy

    Well,I know from experience that a Chevette,with some sound deadening removed and a cat free exhaust, will instill a hangover that would NEVER have occurred in any other reasonably equipped automobile.This quelled any notion in me regarding option deprived, puritan-butch, motoring displeasure.Hell,I also no longer need a butter churner,a video store rental card,nor cable.Remember also that today’s vehicles don’t require valve jobs,oil changes at 3K,coolant flushes at 50K,tune-ups at 30k,or air filters(K&N,Cilly Billies.).ABS/EBD WILL more than pay for themselves at some point in one’s ownership.Now then,just look at all that savings! No A/C? Come on,haven’t you ever wanted to bundle up in a big,comfy,sweater in the middle of summer? Coziness knows no season,IMHO.Skimp on safety? Go ahead,oh all knowing head of the household,you.My guess is that wife of yours will move on, after that lopsided encounter you have with a QX56 and your strippy-mobile,followed with an additional hit from that texting Escalade lady.Your surviving spouse(Has needs,you know.)will meet up with that systems analyst guy she mentions from her work.That you’ve never met,and never liked.
    Thanks for cinema corner-I haven’t gotten around to watching “Gran Torino”,yet.However,I did recently view “Taxi Zum Klo”,and judging from this transgressive little cinematic gem,owning a beat up,old,Karmann-Ghia in West Germany circa 1979-80,causes a delightful promiscuity in skinny,bearded,German gay mens’s.Marriage shmarraige,give me a time machine & an Alfa GTV,or(Ford)Capri,or…

  • avatar
    BobAsh

    Nice article. If only it’s basic premise – that with with the modern manufacturing methods, it doesn’t pay off to offer low-equipment models, wasn’t completely, utterly WRONG.

    It’s all about tastes of American customers, who became accustomed to the way Japanese brands do it, and American brands following the suit.

    European brands still do it the old fashioned way, with multiple radios, multiple seat trims, roll-up windows in base models, cars without central locking, without AC etc.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr.Nick

      I wouldn’t use the Europeans as an example of any kind of efficient car manufacturing. Because a few German brands can make it pay because of their huge margins doesn’t mean it’s the most efficient way to do things.

      • 0 avatar
        BobAsh

        I did not say a word about efficiency. Just that you can have a car with tons of choices available, and it doesn’t have to be a Porsche.

        Even a cheap car, like Škoda Fabia, can be had with I think three different radios, two different satnavs, several options for steering wheels, seats, either manual or electric windows, auto AC, manual AC or no AC, nicer or not-so-nice instrument panel, and tons of other stuff to choose from.

        I don’t say it’s necessarily a good or bad thing, just that Jack’s premise is flawed.

  • avatar
    Dr.Nick

    That’s probably one of the reasons VWs have electrical issues then- figuring out how 17 different versions of various gewgaws interact with the other bits of the car is probably a difficult endeavor.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    I suspect that one of the reasons for today’s ‘basic’ car not being nearly as ‘basic’ as it once was lies in the explosion in the suburbs. ‘Back in the day’, the time spent in commuting was a mere fraction of what it is today.

    Today’s working-class spend a lot more time in their cars than they once did. An hour commute in a no A/C, AM radio, roll-up window, no cruise stripper on a daily basis would be intolerable, so now, all that stuff is virtually a requirement.

    Hence, no more ‘real’ strippers because people essentially live in their cars these days.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Well maybe and I’d add the notion that most people I know that they just have to have all the latest pseudo-luxury items in their cars and homes.

      Even the college kids do pretty good these days. Go back and look at a 1970s dorm room and then look at today’s dorm room. I left for college with a walkman, microwave and a fridge plus my clothes. The kids today carry more technology used just for goofing off than it took to put men on the moon – TV, video game systems, computers (multiple – big and little), cellphones, etc.

      The adults I know will – when their finances allow it – buy expensive flatscreen TVs when the old one isn’t dead yet, cellphones and landlines, $40+ internet to play farm games and get the latest gossip, etc. TVs in every room, new furniture when my grandparents used the same nice furniture for 20+ years, frequent trips to the mall for “something” i.e. that buying “high”.

      My kids are well grounded but saw the first house my wife and I lived in and wondered where we’d put all our stuff. Then they just chalked it up to small b/c only two people lived there. We reminded them that the house had two bedrooms. We as a family could live there but we’d need to bring a minimum of extra stuff with us. The house was about 24×30 or so.

      In ’99 we bought our CR-V new with everything that they came with and have loved it. Today that car seems like a 1980s stripper Chevy. Still it’s all I’d even want on a car and then some. Add a big sunroof, sixth gear and more soundproofing please.

  • avatar
    ihatetrees

    >>Why not? It really is the government’s fault. The list of modern required safety and emission equipment is pretty long nowadays. You need plenty of airbags…<<

    Excellent point, Jack. I'm sure Nissan could sell a base Hecho en Mexico Tsuru (1994 Sentra) for $6K. With normal maintenance, this tried and true platform should easily last 150K miles.

    Of course, by lacking airbags, stability control, & abs, the Safety And SaveTheChildren whingers would soil their panties at the thought of these abominations at a new car lot. But they need not worry. Importing and selling a Tsuru is probably a violation of several federal felonies punishable by 1000 years in prison. Those looking for cheap, new transportation can drive motorcycles, I guess.

    • 0 avatar
      Patrickj

      If vehicle death rates per mile were as high as they were in 1994, we’d be killing 50,000 people a year on the roads instead of 30,000.

      Even if only 40% of that is due to better cars, with the rest due to road improvements, driver demographics, and better EMS/hospital care, that is a very large positive result. This has been done despite higher road speeds.

      I think it’s better than a lot of ways we can spend money as a society.

      • 0 avatar
        Dan

        For all the IIHS hand wringing about higher road speeds, the only roads that have gotten faster are rural highways.

        By NHTSA 2009 numbers, less than 20% of fatalities occurred on roads posted over 55 mph. The NHTSA uses a very liberal definition of ‘speed related’ and even they claim that less than half of those involved speed.

        As the eternally jammed suburbs sprawl further out every year, I would contend that most drivers’ commutes are getting slower.

      • 0 avatar
        Patrickj

        @Dan
        Speeds have increased in a lot of places, not just rural interstates. 30 years ago, breaking 70 mph was an unusual event in the Northeast U.S.

        Four years ago, I started a long, counter-rush hour commute, and have to work at limiting my speed to 75 mph every morning and evening. 75 mph is just above average speed for most of the commute, which includes a 10 mile stretch of 55 mph highway with minimal enforcement.

        Speeds have increased everywhere traffic allows, because of both higher horsepower and 5 and 6 speed transmissions that allow a small engine not to whine like a banshee at higher speeds.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        Patrickj,

        I’d suggest that it wasn’t 1994 model year cars that were the problem. It was almost certainly more the result of seat belt use being far less common, drunk driving being socially acceptable, and older cars with poor dynamics and little safety gear still being in use as daily drivers. Even ten years ago it was still quite normal to see toddlers riding without special carseats. I’m pretty sure that the rise in seatbelt use is the single biggest factor in the reduction of highway deaths.

      • 0 avatar
        ihatetrees

        @CJinSD

        Increased seat belt use and less drunk driving surely helped. I wonder if there’s a correlation due to increased truck & SUV use in the ’90s. Tires are often overlooked – they’ve become very good – how often do you even hear of a blowout these days?

        In car safety systems make people THINK they’re safer, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Economist Steven Landsburg has 1/2 seriously suggested that replacing DRIVER’S airbags with steel spikes would vastly improve driver behavior and hence reduce overall car crash deaths. There’s something to that.

      • 0 avatar
        joeaverage

        “Economist Steven Landsburg has 1/2 seriously suggested that replacing DRIVER’S airbags with steel spikes”

        John Muir of “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive” said that in about 1968 or so.

        I agree. Far too many distracted drivers out there. As for the steel spike – I guess I’d walk or bike to work. No steel spikes for me.

  • avatar
    redav

    from the article: A 1973 Ford might have many different dashboard assemblies, seats, steering wheels, radios, and door panels, all of them made by Ford in smaller affiliated factories; today those parts are reduced to the minimum possible variety and produced in bulk by the lowest bidder.
    __________________________

    Not necessarily. The new Focus has more wheel options than you can shake a stick at (and some of which are so similar that fans of the car don’t know they’re different), two different console assemblies for no reason, different seat designs for each trim level (sometimes more than one for each), different center stack materials, different paint options for each trim, multiple headlights, etc.

    This isn’t a case of spending more and getting a nicer leather-wrapped steering wheel instead of the cheap plastic one (which you do), it’s a case adding differences just to make them different.

    I somewhat wonder if they do this just to show off the flexibility of their new assembly line processes where they make all Foci–std, electric, hybrid (future), etc. But then again, having the differences has increased parts sales with individuals footing the bill/effort to swap them out. In that sense, maybe it isn’t such a bad move–people get the custom car configuration, but Ford doesn’t have to pay for it.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Maybe the parts are manufactured by different suppliers who hold the patents or ??? i.e. ACME Consoles Inc designed console version A1 for Ford and Ford also is using a console from Best Consoles Inc. and Best can’t just copy the A1 console b/c ACME won’t allow them to?

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    A couple of things I forgot to mention yesterday and that is, as long as I’ve been driving, which is since the early 1980′s. I’ve always preferred a car with AC and part of that is due to a physical issue I was born with, I can only hear out of my left ear and driving along with my ONLY good ear facing the driver’s door and it’s the suckage when the only option is rolling the window down to get cool air in a car that lacks AC on a warm to hot day. OK around town, but get it on the freeway, no way, it’s noisy, it causes buffeting etc and in general, adds to the noise one has to listen to on a long trip.

    I’d rather listen to music than the wind buffeting about. When I did my trip to LA in 2002, I drove a 1988 Honda Accord LX-I, the top of the line trim with power everything, fuel injection, sunroof etc. However, the AC didn’t work so had to keep the rear windows cracked, the ventilation going and the sunroof open a good bit of the time (until the very hot sun pouring in through it while going through the San Joaquin Valley forced me to shut it) and while not as bad as having the driver’s window down, it was STILL noisy though and that was possible thanks to the power window controls on the driver’s door to adjust as necessary while driving. That gets old fast.

    Also, many cars today (2012) still offer cabin air filter for the AC/heater so that’s not quite so true.

    While I don’t need a luxo barge, I DO need a car that has enough amenities that it’s comfortable on long journeys, AC being one, I view power windows and locks, especially on a 5 door hatch/wagon a safety thing as I can, with one button lock ALL doors for safe motoring as well as securing the car when I’ve parked it. That’s one thing I would have to be on top of with manual locks, ensuring the hatch is locked as many hatches today lock/unlock like a conventional door with a key and so remain unlocked during use but you have to lock it from inside or with a key to secure it without power locks.

    My Dad had a 1983 Chevy Citation without power locks and windows and often one or more rear door was left unlocked when he had passengers as he often didn’t check to see if ALL doors were locked. He didn’t have to worry about the hatch though as it automatically locked when closed. Fortunately, he kept the car in the garage when home and not out driving about.

    Back in late January, Mom and I went to do errands while out car shopping for me and found a car in a parking space behind us who’s rear passenger door was left ajar, probably some little kid didn’t get it closed all the way before leaving to do their shopping. That’s something a parent should check before they leave the car, especially with small kids.

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      Some of the add-ons on cars truly do make the cars better and so are worth the added price.
      - AC. I live in a place where it’s hot and humid, so rolling down a window makes it hot and humid inside the car. There is no debate about rolling down windows or using the AC, because if you want to cool off, AC is the one and only option.
      - Power locks + key fob. The process of locking your car when outside it has saved countless drivers from locking themselves out. This is a great example of a simple design feature working with human nature to produce better results.
      - Cruise control. This is one of the few features that is a requirement on my list.
      - Safety features like ABS, traction control, & air bags. IMO, these make a real difference, so I don’t mind them being mandated.

      There are a couple more features that I hope become standard because not having them is a greater inconvenience than the cost:
      - USB. It seems most cars have it now, but it should be as common as a CD player. The convenience of plugging in an $8 stick (no iPod required) with all the music I could want is priceless.
      - HD radio. I hope it becomes std like FM radio did. It’s cheaper & simpler than satellite & brings the benefit of digital quality to radio.

      • 0 avatar
        joeaverage

        That HD radio with a USB port with iPod and generic memory stick controls can be had for $150. I have a Kenwood that I installed after the our car’s original stereo volume knob went crazy. It accepts satellite radio add-ons, cellphone tricks, and a plain old aux input that allows anything with a 1/8″ stereo headphone jack to play through the stereo.

        On the old stereo sometimes the knob would work correctly and sometimes it worked opposite as it should. Made changing the volume n exciting gamble.

        Like you said there are some really nice little things that pay off big during a vehicle’s ownership – remote locks, cruise control, this kind of stereo, etc.

      • 0 avatar
        ciddyguy

        I agree on USB ports as I’m researching buying a replacement stereo for my 03 Mazda Protege5 as it has an older Alpine single DIN head unit without USB/Aux and nor does it have hands free Bluetooth.

        The units I’m most interested play CD’s, both CDA and DATA discs, have all that along with BT and I think one model has HD radio and they all cost between $200-$250 and are double DIN, which is the size of my original HU that WAS in the car when new.

      • 0 avatar
        joeaverage

        This is the stereo we bought: Kenwood KDC-BT648U. Might not be exactly the same stereo b/c it looks like Kenwood makes 35 different flavors of the same thing but at slightly different price points. Don’t know why. Can’t see how that is profitable.

  • avatar
    stuntmonkey

    Well, it’s pretty much another sign that the market has reached thermodynamic heat death. The annual unit volume has not gone up appreciably in the past decade, but the stragglers have become more competitive. The end result is a better and cheaper product for the consumer, but smaller margins for the manufacturers. Just the like the Econ 100 textbook says.

    I for one would prefer a car that has intrinsic engineering and manufacturing quality but fewer amenities rather than a lesser engineered car with more amenities and luxuries.

  • avatar
    buzzliteyear

    FWIW,

    Back when I turned wrenches on BMWs for a living, I remember needing to take the front seats out of one particular car to do my repairs.

    The reason I remember it is because the owner has specially-ordered ***manual*** seats controls. It was strange to move mechanical levers and manually push the seat pan to get at the bolts holding it to the floor pan.

    But, as Jack correctly would have predicted, even though this car had manual seats, it still had the wiring harness for power seats. I could have dropped a set in out of any similar BMW and they would have worked right away.

    It was cheaper for BMW to use the same wiring harness that it used in 90%+ of those cars (E39 5-seriers, IIRC) than to make one that especially for a special-order manual-seat car.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Interestingly, that is generally no longer the case. I assume because copper has gotten so expensive, now if you don’t get the option, you do NOT get the wiring for it.

      I find it kind of amusing that the only issue I have had with my e91 is with the power seat controller shorting out. I really did not want power seats, but the other things I did want in the premium package made it the same price to get them as to not get them. Oh, well.

    • 0 avatar
      John

      I think most manufacturers, foreign and domestic, use one wiring harness with connectors for all options. It’s cheaper to make and install one harness. If certain powered options aren’t ordered, the electrical connectors are not attached to anything.

    • 0 avatar
      WildcatMatt

      My first car was a ’65 Buick Wildcat. About the only option it had was the AM radio — no windshield washers!

      I picked up a couple of things for it (especially a rear window defogger) and the guy who sold me the parts was mystified that I didn’t have the harness for it.

      Turns out a) he was used to dealing with Buicks that were fully loaded and were wired for everything; and b) I had the 1965-only base model which was effectively a Buick Biscayne.

      My 1997 Volvo 850, OTOH, seems to have been prewired for everything except the rear heated seats.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    A So Fla dealer took an order for a non-A/C manual, Chevy Prizm many yrs ago and when the buyer backed out, they were stuck with a car nobody wanted, no matter how cheap they tried to sell it for, I was almost tempted because they were letting go at a loss, but no A/C in Son Fla is just not an option!

    • 0 avatar
      28-cars-later

      I remember those, if you could have floated the capital at the time could have driving it up north and sold it to any number of dealers. Those were very popular here in Pittsburgh at the time.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Hate to break the party, but it’s really mostly about inflation and interest rates. That $6495 1987 Tercel EZ would cost $13,000 in inflation adjusted dollars. At the then prevailing 11% interest rate for the then-typical 48 month loan, meant monthly payments of $339 (adjusted) dollars.

    That same amount ($339/mo) will buy you an $19,000 car, at my credit union’s 2.25% 60 month loan. Or an $18,000 car at with a 4% loan. 98% of folks buying basic transportation cars don’t shop on sticker price; they shop on monthly payments. The world has changed, thanks to lower interest rates and longer loan terms.

    That also explains why folks were sweating in Beetles and such in 1971. That same $339/mo (adjusted) monthly payment got you only a $10,000 (adjusted) new car in 1971, because of 12% interest rates and 36 month loans. That $10k equaled $1800 back then, about the price of a new stripper Beetle or Corolla.

    What does all this tell us? We can afford a nicer $20k car, thanks to improvements in technology as well as improved credit conditions. Why do you think so many folks are driving BMWs? They’re not nearly as expensive (monthly) as the were once upon a time either.

    • 0 avatar
      VA Terrapin

      I have no doubt that cheaper credit and low inflation over the past few decades has done a lot for people to buy more car than in the past, but you fail to mention that people spend money on lots of other things they didn’t necessarily spend on during the 70s and 80s. More people are going off to college than before. People are also buying more gadgets like cell phones and home theater systems. Designer label clothes are becoming more mainstream. People are going out more to eat more expensive meals and staying in less to eat cheaper, home made food or TV dinners.

      Cheap credit and low inflation aren’t the only reasons why most people avoid buying basic, new cars.

      • 0 avatar
        Paul Niedermeyer

        You’re missing the point: it now costs the same per month(adjusted) to buy a nicely-equipped 2012 Corolla LE as it did to buy the 1987 stripper Tercel EZ, or a 1971 Corolla 1200. Who would want a stripper, when nicely-equipped cars are so cheap to buy?
        http://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/1971-corolla-1200-stripper-1987-tercel-ez-stripper-and-well-equipped-2012-corolla-les-all-cost-the-same/

      • 0 avatar
        ihatetrees

        I don’t agree with the assumption that car prices should match inflation rates. Car price deflation makes sense. While a Moore’s Law level of improvement is unrealistic, cars have been made for 100+ years now. Improvements AND price drops should be possible.

    • 0 avatar
      John

      It’s also an excellent example of the hidden tax of inflation.

      • 0 avatar
        afflo

        A useful tax, actually.

        It’s a tax on hoarding cash reserves… it encourages reinvestment. There’s a contingent that fears investment, and will try to hoard cash reserves by hoarding commodities, but this usually results in bubbles and busts.

      • 0 avatar
        28-cars-later

        While I see your logic in deterring a commodities boom/bust scenario, I must disagree with inflation being a useful tax. Inflation is a terrible burden which impacts the old and young the most. Only twelve years ago when I was still in high school, we could get by on our crappy McDonalds-esque paychecks, cruise around in $500 Celebrities, Tempos, or [insert cheap 80s car here], and still have a little pocket money to pay our car insurance, gas, beer/liquor/weed whatever to enhance our weekends. Now I look at the kids in those same positions, and I can’t even imagine how they feel. Even with the minimum pay of most positions at $7-$10 now, they still cannot afford most of the things I could on their own. Even if I cleared say 4 bucks an hour, gas was maybe $1.10/gal, cigs say $2.50, decent vodka was $10-$12, and the biggie was car insurance at roughly $1500 a year on my awful K car. So a 6 hour day bought me two packs if i were inclined, 5 gal gas for the weekend (maybe 90-100 miles of driving with the 2.2, way more than I needed to get around), split the cost of decent vodka (not smirnoffs) with friends and still had almost ten or so left over to put toward that month’s insurance. Sure it didn’t seem like the best lifestyle even at the time, but even then I don’t remember any of us needing a credit card or getting trapped in debt by purchasing frivolous teenage wares, it wasn’t really on the radar. Today, cigs are I think $6.00 dollars a pack, gas here about $4.00, decent vodka runs you close to $25, and try buying a $500 car… the $500 cars are now $2500, and the $2000 ‘decent’ rides (5.0 panthers, GM B Bodies, or C bodies) now $5K-7K. So even if your wages have doubled in said time, everything else has at least tripled, if not quintupled. Couple this with the serious amount of debt these kids get into and you have the perfect recipe for misery.
        These same generation of kids will grow up and one day be old ready to retire. But unless they become financial wizards they wont have much to retire on. Your existing tax burden roughly at 50% for all taxes incl local/property/sales, will probably creep up to 60% or 70% in the next twenty years to continue funding the baby boomer American dream and SS/MC retirement. What inflation has shown me is its all a bit of a Ponzi scheme… I may have had it a certain way, but those in front had it better, and those behind me will get screwed. I have the benefit of knowledge so I can invest wisely for the long term with the capital now available to me, but those ten to twenty years younger will probably not have access to the same amount of capital at the same time in their lives. I can now currently afford to absorb the additional costs of inflation, but can they? Can any of us in the long term?

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        Mild inflation is a necessary part of a growing economy. It means that wages are generally increasing, and incentives are being provided for workers and companies to continue to generate output.

        The alternative of deflation would be far worse. The prices of goods would fall, but your wages would be falling faster. Deflation only benefits hoarders, not producers.

        Alcohol and tobacco make for bad CPI proxies, because governments increase the taxes on them in order to reduce the demand for them. Oil isn’t a good measure, either, as it is a volatile commodity.

        Car prices have pretty much kept apace for inflation. If you adjust the prices for the added content of today’s cars, then they are arguably cheaper now than they were in the past.

    • 0 avatar
      dude500

      This reminds me of an article written awhile back by a tech journalist named Andy Kessler . He said that if you were to build an iPhone in the 1970s with the same capabilities that it has today (16GB memory, cellphone capability, etc), it would cost $100 Billion dollars to make just one. So, the world has become much “wealthier” since the 1970s, since many people can afford an iPhone.

  • avatar

    My parents’ 1970 Valiant was basic: no power anything, no AC. It had a radio, a slushbox, and a very powerful slant six, and that was it. They got it for $14.7k inflation adjusted dollars at the end of the year from a ply dealer who was switching to Chevy; the Dart they were offered by a Dodge dealer, which had power steering and brakes, and probably power windows, although I do’nt remember, would have set them back $15.5k. I’m 95% sure they paid cash.

  • avatar

    The Honda Civic DX is actually a very basic car, with no AC, and most of the time manual transmission. If I remember correctly, some even come without power steering. Of course, you do have all the govt mandated safety euqipment. And of course, this is one of very few exceptions that prove the rule.

    FAscinating article.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    What Paul said is important. Setting that aside, Jack’s article could have been written any time since Kettering invented the self-starter, and it could have been trotted out every few years since.

    In 1912 you had to be buying a Cadillac to get an electric self-starter. By 1920 even a “basic” car like the Model-T had it as standard.

    We all know the litany of “options” that became standard over the years. Autobox, PS, PB ………. after a few years what used to be optional comes to be seen as necessary. There has not been a “basic” car made since 1920.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    American consumers have rising expectations. In a competitive market, companies will cater to those rising expectations by offering them more stuff.

    Hence, Ford could get away with selling windshield wipers as optional equipment on a Model T, but couldn’t even dream of attempting to charge extra for them today, even if regulations didn’t require them. The middle-market car buyer in 1921 had lower expectations than we do now.

    • 0 avatar
      Dynamic88

      Sure. All through history people have rising expectations. That’s what’s so silly about the article. We have more stuff. The minimum standards keep rising. What was once a luxury is now a necessity. It’s an ongoing process, in all areas of life.

      • 0 avatar
        Mark MacInnis

        I prefer the way the Doobies’ once put it…”What were once vices, are now habits.”

        And we ride to hell in our own, personally-chosen and custom designed handcarts.

  • avatar
    afflo

    I remember just 10 years ago, it seems that most cars were available in “base” trim. I had a 2003 GMC Sonoma with hand cranked windows, no cruise, etc. The Toyota Echo was almost exclusively sold in stripper form.

    Remember when the Scions came on the market? If I recall correctly, the xA and xB were the first to be built on the premise that a well optioned monospec would be cheaper overall than having multiple tiers. the xB arrived a bargain prices with standard power M/W/D, Ipod compatible stereo, traction/stability control. A year later, the tC arrived with 17″ wheels, panoramic moonroof, and other ‘premium’ touches at low prices.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    We need to get real about inflation and car prices. My son recently purchased a 2005 Pontiac Vibe with 85k miles for $7900. Back in the day, I bought my first car, a seven year old 65 Chevy Implala Coupe for $400. It had 65k miles on the odo. There is no way to reconcile the price difference of 20 fold with inflation. While the Vibe will outlast the Chevy, the price difference is not proportional to the increase in quality of the Vibe over the Impala.

    • 0 avatar
      chicagoland

      The equivalant car today to a mid 70′s $400 ‘work car’ would be a $1800 1999 Chevy Prizm, with near 150K miles.

      The Vibe example would be like a used 1971 Nova with 350 v8 for $1800?

      Point is that a 7 years old cr now is far from ‘beater’ as back in the day.

  • avatar
    geo

    I have a 2001 Suzuki XL7, and I suppose it’s a “stripper”. After a week or so of owning it, it finally dawned on me that it had no cruise control, as I poked around the steering column while driving. I haven’t owned a car without that option since my ’86 Skoda. It’s sort of refreshing, but I do wish I had it occasionally. It has power locks and windows, though.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      You can add cruise to a vehicle. I’ve done that several times as I prefer having it for trips over 50 miles on the highway and especially even 5 miles through our town where the roads are relatively empty but the local police like to tag people for 5 mph over the speed limit. Set the cruise, and forget watching my speed.

  • avatar
    28-cars-later

    Actually in hindsight I reread my statement and most of the talking points were commodities, which I agree can be volatile depending on conditions. However I would imagine commodities were at the top of the list for most teenagers in terms of expenses. I still think inflation is a societal burden, and I think in the past five or so years we have experienced at bit something above mild inflation.

  • avatar
    panzerfaust

    “It allowed her to continue to champion the usual liberal virtues of “simplicity” and “consuming less” without actually being forced to drive anything worse than a 328i.” That sir is the money quote. When I lived on the East coast in the 70′s and 80′s it always made me wonder whom our liberal neighbors were trying to fool. They were successful and had money, but would buy a loaded Saab, Volvo or Audi instead of a BMW or Benz because they thought they conveyed and image of New England frugality an simplicity. Never mind they spent just as much as they would on a typical luxury car. Even more laughable was their disdain for the American car culture and its image and status conciouness.

  • avatar
    icemilkcoffee

    It’s not that I don’t care for a cheap, basic, car. I just don’t care for a cheap, basic CHEAP car. Like a Versa. I have had a number of cars, and my favorites were the 1963 VW bug with the ragtop sunroof, the 67 MGB, and the 91 Miata. All these are simple, basic cars (by modern standards) with character. Likewise the classic Mini, Citroen 2CV, Fiat 500/600, Morris Minor, CJ5 Jeep. These are all simple, basic cars have a tremendous following because they are well made, well thought out simple cars.
    I have a 2004 Scion bB with a manual trans now. While I wouldn’t say it’s as iconic as the original Beetle, at least it does have a certain amount of cheeky character.

  • avatar
    tekdemon

    This whole blame everything on China thing is getting out of hand. Pretty hard to take you seriously when cars were getting options lumped together WELL before so many parts were made in China. It’s cheaper to get the tooling made to make 100,000 of something versus 50,000 of something no matter where you are, if anything it’s cheaper to get multiple options made in China versus elsewhere since the labor cost for running multiple lines and retooling are cheaper.

    Honda has been doing packages as trim lines for several decades now, a DX vs LX vs EX is just a whole slew of options bundled together. How the hell does that have anything to do with China?

    My car has essentially no parts made in China at all (80%+ US/Canadian content, most of the remainder from Japan) and it still came only as a bunch of bundles, but clearly it must have been an evil Chinese scheme to make Toyota bundle options together. Totally plausible.

  • avatar
    AMC_CJ

    It’s hard to find just a base-trim car on a dealer lot….

    When it came time to new car shop, this was a problem for us. We wanted something simple, and basic. It started with Fiestas and Focuses (Foci?). So many of them were spec’d out, the Foci to near $20k. But, for some reason, the very same dealer carried a large selection of bare-bones no options added (outside of the occasional automatic) Mustangs. Now, go a mile down the road to the Chevy dealer, and every single Camaro they had was optioned out to near $30k.

    So we got the Mustang. Automatic, Candy red paint, and a $301 option package that included the small spoiler and I honestly think that was it….

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    my no power anything, manual Corolla has lasted me over 300k miles, maybe there is something to be said for simplistic cars.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    As lots of commentators have pointed out, what you’re commenting about is process of continually raising the “floor” of consumer expectations from a car that greatly predates China or Japan as a source of manufactured goods.

    I dated a woman in college between 1968 and 1970 who occasionally had her family’s Torino at school (I don’t think it was a “Gran”). Having driven that car, I refuse to be nostalgic about it. It was large, ponderous and “approximately assembled.” I would not have preferred it to my dad’s ’66 Biscayne, much less his ’70 Volvo 144S (which was actually more comfortable than either car on account of its far superior seats). I suspect that many examples of “restored” American cars from the 1960s and 1970s are restorations where the entire car was disassembled, parts were replaced, painted, etc. as necessary and then the entire car was re-assembled by hand. The resulting vehicle is unlikely to resemble the version of that same car, as it came off the production line in its year of manufacture.

    Adjusted for content, there’s no comparison between a cheap 1960s car and a cheap car today. Let’s take a very successful 1960s car (in terms of sales volume) — the VW “Beetle.” First off, here’s what the car didn’t have: power steering (admittedly, not needed), power brakes, disc brakes, automatic transmission, air conditioning (not even an option), power windows, fuel injection, enough power to maintain the speed limit on Interstate Highways at the time (70 mph), seat attachments to the floor pan which wouldn’t yield if the car was rear-ended.

    Not to mention ABS, DSC, cruise control, and air bags. (And, because of its swing axle design and the poor adhesion characteristics of bias-ply tires, it was easy to spin the car, especially in the rain, and also roll it.

    A monaural AM/FM radio was available.

    The car would get a little over 25 mpg on the highway, but even the more aerodynamic Karmann Ghia 2-seater coupe would be hard-pressed to get 30 mpg.

    I don’t think this car would be acceptable today, no matter how cheap its selling price.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      As much as I like my elderly VW Beetle – I agree with you. People are charmed with it but none of them want it as a daily driver. I don’t even want it as a daily driver.

  • avatar
    siuol11.2

    Two things:
    1) I will happily, joyfully, tearfully buy a manual the day Dallas’ I-75, I-30, I-35, etc. stop being a massive parking lot. I love rowing gears while freewheeling down the highway. I do NOT enjoy shifting in and out of first while crawling along at 7 MPH.
    2) Anyone who buys a Versa should be taken out behind a shed (any shed) and shot, for the good of humanity. Yes, I know, some people want an appliance, etc. etc. etc. But it’s possible to have an appliance that isn’t butt ugly.

    • 0 avatar
      afflo

      Hah… I recently had an automatic rental car for three weeks in DC (for Fusion). I would gladly have taken a stick if they had one. It’s bad enough beeing in stopped or creeping traffic without adding the uncertainty of an autobox that strains against you when your foot is on the brake, or hesitates when you push the pedal, or suddenly surges forward because some computer circuit has decided that you needed to downshift. They don’t bother me on the open highway, but in traffic, I’ll take a stick any day.

      (Yes, even on hills… I happily drove a stick in Monterey, CA.)

      As for point #2 – my GF drives a Versa… she is the quentissential appliance-car buyer. I don’t get the ugly comment… it’s not really offensive in any way. It’s a bit French looking if anything; squint and it looks like a Renault Megane, with a standard boring hatch in place of the funky Megane hindquarters. It’s also WAY nicer than a Honda Fit inside… which admittedly isn’t hard.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    As I read the article and got to the Chevette ad my eyes read Chevrolet, Taking Charge and my mind said “Chevrolet, Finally Taking Charge” – but they really aren’t – still. Despite a few standouts, mostly GM looks like they are doing alot of the same things they’ve always done. Bread and butter products that you buy when you’re looking for a good deal. Neither bad nor great. Just – okay. Never a bad brand if you are a person that replaces their new GM with another new GM every couple of years. Not the CAR brand that instills alot of confidence in me for the long, long haul aka 250,000 miles. Plain but durable is okay with me. Bread and butter products that you better get rid of before 125K miles worries me to much to take a chance on a GM product.

  • avatar
    getacargetacheck

    Might be time for a new Yugo. Fiat’s Punto Classic (built in the old Zastava plant) sells for about $7,000 in Serbia. Could Fiat make money exporting a federalized version for under $8,000 here?

  • avatar
    wumpus

    While this answers why there are no longer “strippers”, it still leaves the question of why manufacturers need to have multiple levels of trim (with possibly the exception of leather interior – the only option that makes a noticable dent in the mass produced car).

    I can only assumed that the idea of “we have to hit every price point, just screw that car up till we can only sell it at a cheaper price” is so engrained in car companies that they will go bankrupt before trying something else. Scratch that, it is engrained across modern corporate behavior. The classic case was contact lenses where disposible, regular and long term were exactly the same (I think there was a lawsuit that wound up making the disposibles flimsier at greater manufacturing cost). Also as far as I know, every CPU Intel makes is exactly the same. They then descide which options to laser out (often without allowing the consumer to get every tick) and them sell them (no, it is ussually cheaper to laser out then test. Testing is the most expensive test and lasering might damage something).

    The whole issue is a lot more complicated than just “basic cars” vs. loaded. It comes down to who owns what IP and how you pay for it. Ask youself what happens when Star Trek style replicators are available. Now ask yourself just how big a difference the Chinese factory system (send them your files on how to manufacture something and a small chunk of change, get back the manufactured items to sell for a much larger chunk of change. Also compete with “pirated” items that where exactly the same as the “real deal” until they were pulled off the shelf to be shipped elsewhere.

    It would be trite to say capitalism outlived communism by about 60 years (going from medieval tech levels to beating Hitler has to count for something), but I can’t say I know what will work better. I suspect the nation that gets it right will plow ahead as much as Denmark did at the birth of capitalism (and the large country that copies them will do similar to England 1600-1900).

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      “it still leaves the question of why manufacturers need to have multiple levels of trim”

      Many consumer products are marketed with the use of a “good/ better/ best” (lower/ middle/ higher) strategy.

      Usually, this sort of arrangement is designed to orient most consumers toward the middle “better” tier. There are a few consumers who want to feel that they are getting the best, and a smaller group that is focused on the lowest cost (the “good” tier). But most consumers want to split the difference and avoid the feeling of being too low on the ladder, while avoiding the extravagance of being on the top. So “better” is usually structured so that it seems like the sensible choice that appeals to the buyer who wants “value” (i.e. a reasonable package, but not necessarily the lowest price).

      With mainstream cars, this is often modified to have a fourth “sport” category that is a branch off of the three-tier model.

      You can see how this plays out:

      -Honda Accord sedan: LX/ EX/ EX-L, plus a sporty SE variant

      -Toyota Camry: L/ LE/ XLE, plus a sporty SE variant

      -Ford Fusion: S / SE/ SEL, plus a Sport model (and the hybrid gets its own branch)

      Mercedes, BMW and Audi have extended this to how they structure the core cars in their respective lineups (C/E/S, 3/5/7, A4/A6/A8), using similar styling to create the relationship and the ladder. In that case, the lower-line “good” model is usually the bread-and-butter model, but it provides the base of the ladder that makes the top perch more desirable.

  • avatar
    chicagoland

    Like nails on chalkboard, every time a blogger gets a fact wrong and repeats it. It was a 1972 Gran Torino, not a ’73! Car nuts would know this, since the 72′s had no 5 mph bumpers!

    I don’t care if the young bloggers think model year is ‘trivial’, but if waxing about ‘olden days’ it does, since that is one of the many qualifiers collector car values.

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    I was going to say that too! (Also, on the DVD version, you may have noticed that the steering wheel/column–the one that Eastwood’s character installed on the line–was from a 1975 or later model.)

    Closer to the topic at hand: I made a game of going to the Detroit Auto Show/North American International Auto Show in recent years, and seeing how many cars I could find with crank windows. I found as amny as three in 2006 (all Kias and Hyundais), one in 2007 (a Jeep Wrangler), and I remember only one this year, I believe a Toyota Yaris.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Dynamic 88,I thought every Model T came with a crank permanently attached. The cut offs from T floorboards became Kingsford charcoal. Or is that more apocrypha? Most of my cars have been one stop away from the crusher. I shadetree a pair of 88 528es . My most modern car to date is the 94 Ranger. I bought the 94 specifically because it was OBD1. Only OBD2 are smogged in MA. Its engine mgt systems are pretty much clones of the Bosch stuff in the BMWs . So far, I haven’t had to mess with it.

  • avatar
    jayzwhiterabbit

    The thing is, if you’re willing to buy American, you don’t have to settle for the stripper model with their deep-dish discounts and rebates. In 2010 I bought a new Cobalt coupe (which of course was NOT my first or even second choice.) It has power everything, alloys, the upgraded radio, auto, air, and 8 airbags. Sticker was $18,700…..and I financed it for $11,500 with no down payment.

    Why settle for a stripper when I can get that level of content just north of $10,000? Sure, I wanted a Civic, but a stripper Civic with roll-up windows and no a/c was $4,000 more than I paid for the Cobalt. And unfortunately, all the Honda dealers I found offered zero discounts. If you’re a college student on a limited income looking for a new car (100k warranty), like me, it made sense.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      Most Americans initially were willing to buy American. I certainly was, in my younger days. Many lived to regret it. That’s why the foreign brands do so well these days.

      If you had a great ownership experience with your American-brand car, there’s no need to buy anything else. Many of us were not that fortunate and joined the mass exodus toward the foreign brands. Many, like myself, reluctantly.

      But we couldn’t get away from the domestic brands completely, no matter how fast we ran or how hard we tried. Our government decided in its infinite wisdom that we should become shareholders and part-owners of GM and Chrysler while at the same time bestowing enormous amounts of DOE money on Ford for retooling, etc.

      So it all boils down to how you feel about bailouts, handouts and nationalization. If you believe in it and want to keep it alive with your tax dollars, you buy American.

      If not, you buy something else.

      • 0 avatar
        jayzwhiterabbit

        Well, that was kind of my point. I am in no way biased toward American cars, in fact I prefer imports. The Civic is way superior in build quality, materials, and IMO style. But I have a very limited income and the deal made sense. I have not regretted it.

        The bailouts and related politics did not influence my decision. For some of us, it all boils down to cost….we don’t have the luxury of paying more based on ideology.

        By the way, it was a bailout but not a handout. GM paid back the loan with interest….unlike the private banks, which got to keep money and pass it on to the fat-cat execs for free. Too bad we didn’t nationalize them, like the UK, when we had the chance. As we’ve seen with the LIBOR scandal, nonintervention in the private sector leads to ever greater outrages.

      • 0 avatar
        joeaverage

        Despite some Asian brands being slightly more expensive to buy and to buy quality replacement parts when they’ve rarely needed repair – - – I bought what I bought precisely b/c I didn’t have alot of extra money to spend.

        I’ve watched family and friends repeatedly buy domestics and have expensive troubles – transmissions, a/c compressors, rear axles in two cases, and so forth.

        Meanwhile we’ve passed 236K troublefree miles on our Honda. We drove it 3 hours each way this weekend for a family outing in 90+ degree weather and the a/c was cold all the way there and back. Drama free. I do think finally we’re going to need to put the first replacement clutch into it. Will probably do the job myself.

        I can buy cheap replacement parts and find myself repeating repairs every 18 months. Or I can shop for good parts at slightly more money – with OEM dealer parts sometimes available via the ;net or the local dealer price matching the internet dealers – and fix the car so it stays fixed. If the first factory part lasted 200K miles then the replacement ought to as well. I can buy cheapo brake pads for $25 that squeak and coat everything with black brake dust or I can buy the dealer parts for $48 and they last longer, less dust and no noises.

        This arithmetic might not work in other parts of the country where new cars rust away in less than a decade but it works well for me here in the south.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr.Nick

      GM hasn’t finished paying back, not by a long shot. And just think about what it says about GM that they have to offer $7k off a well appointed vehicle while another manufacturer can sell strippers for $4K more than GM got for that Cobalt.

  • avatar
    jayzwhiterabbit

    “Sigh”. Apparently reading comprehension skills are not being taught in the schools any longer…

    Anyway, to get back to the point: that is certainly no longer true about the newest American products. The Focus and, even moreso, the Cruze are fully competitive with any Asian contemporary and actually superior in many if not most measures. Like I stated previously, I am in no way biased toward domestic autos….I’ve had my share of scorn for most American cars up until the last few years. In my case the bottom line was indeed the bottom line! But given the obvious quality slides of Toyota and Honda in the past decade, American cars are looking better and better from any angle. Based on their new products, Toyota is the new GM….and reputation will only allow a company to coast but so far.

    The public finally seems to be waking up to this. See TTAC.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    The challenge for me is deciding if the broken car is at fault or if it is the owner’s who are too rough with it. Is the brand/model flawed or is it the owner? I’m not sure I want to gamble $20K to find out.

    I’m quite sure some of my friends and family would have broken my two cars which have delivered excellent service over the past 10+ years.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    The 2013 Dodge Dart is kind of a throwback in the area of optional equipment. Much more than most other modern cars, it’s a “roll your own”.

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    Corvette rims are made at a plant near me in Norton, Ohio, my son works there. They make aluminum rims for GM, Chrysler, Honda, Nissan, Ferrari,Lamborghini and a few others that I can’t think of offhand. They don’t make any for Ford, tho.
    They make rims for everything from the chevy cruze right up to the camaro and vette,including trucks, same for chrysler and the others. They also make rims for medium duty trucks and 18 wheelers, motorcycles. Last week my son was making the rims for the trac pac equipped camaros, they make them right beside the cruze and ferrari rims.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • J & J Sutherland, Canada
  • Tycho de Feyter, China
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India