So What Makes Expensive Cars So Terrible, Anyway?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Derek’s editorial yesterday on the idea that you need to look upmarket for truly awful cars nowadays ruffled quite a few feathers among the B&B. Some of you thought Derek was simply repeating the usual TTAC tropes. Others wanted to hear more about why expensive cars often fail to meet the same expectations that a Camry or CR-V easily exceed. To the first group of readers, I can only say: You’re going to hear about ethics in journalism on this site almost half as often as you heard about the Chevy Sonic when they were co-branding with Jalopnik. To the second group of readers: click the jump, okay?

We can break this down into three questions:

0. Why is it tougher to build a great upmarket car than it is to build a great mass-market car, if indeed that is the case?

1. Assuming the truth of the above assertion, why does anybody buy these not-so-great cars?

2. What is the mechanism by which this mediocrity is perpetuated?

Derek went some way to answer the third question with his column; I’ll only say in addition that the prestige manufacturers are much more sensitive about the behavior of their media, ahem, partners than the mass-market crowd is. You can say some pretty harsh things about Volkswagens and still catch an invite to next year’s event. Criticizing the Robb Report brands, even by praising them faintly, is unforgivable unless you have a really big media organization standing behind you.

Enough about that, let’s turn to Question Zero. What I’d like to suggest to you is that it was easier to build a great prestige car than it was to build a great mass-market one — until the Seventies or thereabouts, when the game changed and the opposite became true. The successful London merchant who was the owner of a Rolls-Royce or Aston Martin circa 1950 could be reasonably assured that his money had purchased a car that was more reliable, and more durable, (remember, these aren’t the same thing; a 1978 Accord was reliable, a 1978 911SC was durable) than the prole-mobiles driven by his house staff.

His grandson, however, is likely to find that his Rolls-Royce Ghost or Aston Vantage doesn’t run for as well or as long as the Corollas and Cruzes with which it shares the Queen’s road. Across the pond, it’s common knowledge that an Ohio-built four-cylinder Accord can run a half-million miles with relatively little mechanical intervention and that a Maybach 62 will likely find itself facing a repair bill in excess of its value in much less than half that time.

The same’s true for performance cars. A Corvette Z06 or Shelby GT500 will run as long as you’re willing to visit your local AutoZone periodically. A Ferrari 575, on the other hand, can cost several dollars a mile to operate, as Keith Martin has demonstrated in the pages of SCM, and you’re never sure when the bill will come due. A friend and racing pal of mine has put over 100,000 miles on his ’94 Supra since he turned the wick up to 580whp. Total repair cost so far: zero.

What happened to turn the price/reliability equation on its head? It was a combination of several factors. Prior to the era of computerized design and assembly, quality was a function of materials quality, which cost money, and quality control during assembly, which also cost money. Think of a Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman, chock-full of expensive materials and subject to hours of post-assembly rectification, compared to a Pinto.

Once computers got involved, however, it became a matter of available computer processor cycles in the design iteration, the size of the engineering staff, and the economies of scale possible when sharing platforms and engines over a large production volume. We all accept that the infotainment system in a low-volume sports car won’t be any good, because the cost of developing it has to be amortized over a thousand cars instead of a million and not even Rolls-Royce can make up a thousandfold shortage in volume with individual price markup. The same thing goes for everything from seat heaters to stub axles. In 1930, the route to a quality part was to put time into it. In 2015, it’s computer cycles and high production volume to absorb costs. A CNC machine makes just as perfect a part for Hyundai as it does for Aston Martin, and Hyundai can afford more design iterations for the product, as well as more eyes on the problem.

The amazing amount of engineering effort that a modern megacompany can devote to a single problem leads to unexpected dividends. When Lotus decided to create the Evora S from the Evora, they took the stock Camry engine that powers the Evora and… they added a supercharger. That was it. No reinforced internals, no “X51 Powerkit”, not even a different cam. It’s the same engine, with a supercharger, because the Camry engine is dead-nuts reliable and it has enough capacity designed in to take forced induction without any problems. Compare that to Porsche, which for years was afraid to use its modern M96 engine family in turbocharged applications because they supposedly couldn’t afford to engineer it properly. It’s hard not to suggest that the 911 would have been better off with a Toyota V-6 in the tail. It would have done wonders for the resale value, I’ll tell you that.

Of course, the rest of the Lotus Evora is straight out of the Bricklin SV-1 school of design, right down to the aftermarket radio that comes as standard equipment. Lotus probably had fewer engineers working on the entire Evora project than Toyota has working on taillights.

Therefore, when you come to an exotic or prestige car from a lifetime of owning cars that were engineered to the nth degree by hundreds of briliant people, you’re likely to be shocked at how poorly they work. I’ve driven a lot of brand new $250,000 cars and I’ll tell you that not one of them started as reliably as my Town Car did at the 100,000-mile mark. It’s common for seats to wobble, for infotainment screens to go dark, for turn signals to cut out, for the whole car to need a “reboot”. I don’t need to name names here because it’s universal.

And then you get the little problems. No prestige car since my Phaetons has managed to provide climate control that is both adequately powerful and properly unobtrusive the way it is in, say, an Infiniti Q50. Small-batch cars don’t get all the details sweated out. There isn’t time or manpower to do it. Let me tell you, the Rolls-Royce Wraith is a wonderful automobile but the iDrive just seems, shall we say, difficult compared to the same screens in a BMW 5er.

Of course, people buy the Wraith anyway, which brings us to the second question I posed above. I think you’d be better off owning a Camry than a Wraith in the long run, but in the short run I definitely want a Wraith, because it pulls tail and gets mad house on the boulevard and can spin all four wheels in a light rain shower on Ventura. If I had enough money to buy a Wraith, I wouldn’t worry about the little stuff because I’d be in search of greatness, of unique qualities, of things that you just can’t get in a Camry.

I’m not wealthy but I own a lot of things — handmade shoes, air-cooled Porsches, vintage tube amplifiers — that can’t match up to the modern mass-produced crap out there in any quantifiable manner. What I want from these things is the sense of special, so to speak. I don’t want to wear fifty-dollar Nikes and throw them away when they’re tired. I want to have my shoes recrafted and I want to live with them for decades. I want to drive down the road and not see my car coming the other way. (The alert reader will readily conclude that, with my current Accord, living thirty-three miles from the factory, this wish is not currently being granted to me in daily usage.) I want something special and I’m willing to pay in money and inconvenience to get it.

Derek hates Astons, which is ironic to a degree because we have a mutual friend in this business who openly speaks of himself as an “advocate” for the brand. When I dragged my crippled carcass to Palm Springs last April to drive the V12 Vantage S, I expected that it would be both less refined than the competition and somewhat down on pace, and those expectations were met in spades. What I was not prepared for was just how much I enjoyed the experience of driving it. Would I buy one? Probably not, at least not when I could buy two Viper TAs and a 1957 Les Paul Goldtop for what the Aston costs. But do I understand why someone would buy it? Absolutely.

It’s been forty years since someone could legitimately say that they bought something like a Silver Shadow or Ferrari Daytona because they wanted the objectively best machine they could obtain. Truth be told, even by then it was still a bit iffy — I’m not sure if a Hydragas Bentley T1 could honestly claim to be a better car than a ’69 Sedan de Ville. In 2015, however, we expect things from even the meanest Cadillac that we’d never dare to think could be had from a Rolls-Royce. Does this abandoning of the moral high ground mean that the prestige car is no longer a worthwhile proposition?

To the contrary, I’d say that the democratization of workaday virtues in the automotive market means that buying something abysmal like a Maserati GranTurismo is more justifiable than ever. When you’re standing by the side of the road with the “Replace Transmission” light blazing yellow and steam hissing from beneath the faux-vented flanks of your Italian stallion, you’re a far better person than the man who turned his Duesey-mounted nose up at the impoverished family struggling to get a fresh tire on their flivver. You’re not spending money to buy your way out of problems; you’re buying your way in. You’re paying to experience something, and if that experience is fifty percent a hand-built twelve-cylinder engine at full song and fifty percent quiet sobbing in the bathroom of the dealership service center, then who am I to judge you?

Yes, exotic cars are often terrible, but we need them, the same way we need Leslie Feist’s voice to catch when she’s singing “The Water”, the same way we need Cindy Crawford to have a mole, the same way we need Christian Bale to occasionally tear the ass off a lighting technician. They’re a reminder that human frailty often comes disguised as human greatness.

And vice versa.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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3 of 193 comments
  • Hogie roll Hogie roll on Jan 11, 2015

    It's always comical the amount of thought people will waste describing what rich people supposedly do.

    • Chan Chan on Jan 13, 2015

      In 'Murrrrica people worship wealth. There are Forbes articles on old money descendants and how they "achieve and maintain success." The poor are supposed to be eternally jealous, and spend their lives thinking and writing about what it would be like to be "successful" or "rich"......or even "overworked" since that's the new hip thing to be. The lesson is the same as it always has been. Walk your own road; if there isn't one where you like, build it. And buy whatever car that you can afford and that makes you happy. Be it a Rolls, a Lamborghini, a rice rocket or a rat rod. Or a Camry. Drive it responsibly and enjoy their features and performance in suitable conditions. Don't be the guy who keeps whining about how "someday" he'll get a really cool car for himself, while driving a new $50k Toyota Highlander Hybrid that he bought "for fuel economy."

  • Gt40mk2 Gt40mk2 on Feb 18, 2015

    Car manufacturers have their eyes on the new revenue stream: gaming. Quality control has been shifted to the 3D modelers and coders. You don't have to drive a real car any more to get the thrill of a (sh**ty) $250k machine.

  • ToolGuy Personally I have no idea what anyone in this video is talking about, perhaps someone can explain it to me.
  • ToolGuy Friendly reminder of two indisputable facts: A) Winners buy new vehicles (only losers buy used), and B) New vehicle buyers are geniuses (their vehicle choices prove it):
  • Groza George Stellantis live off the back of cheap V8 cars with old technology and suffers from lack of new product development. Now that regulations killed this market, they have to ditch the outdated overhead.They are not ready to face the tsunami of cheap Chinese EVs or ready to even go hybrid and will be left in the dust. I expect most of their US offerings to be made in Mexico in the future for good tariff protection and lower costs of labor instead of overpriced and inflexible union labor.
  • MaintenanceCosts This is delaying an oil change for my Highlander by a couple of weeks, as it prevented me from getting an appointment before a business trip out of town. Oh well, much worse things have happened.I also just got a dealership oil change for my BMW (thanks, loss-leader prepaid plans!) and this didn't seem to affect them at all.
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X Gonna need more EV fuel.