The Best Kept Secret

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The best-kept secret about new cars is how little you have to spend to get a luxurious car. The car industry doesn’t want you to know this, of course – so it has shifted the definition of luxury in order to get you to spend luxury car money.

The definition of luxurious used to mean tangible amenities that made the car particularly pleasant to drive and – critically- which ordinary cars did not possess.

Air conditioning, for instance.

At one time, only luxury cars had AC. Or at least, AC was considered a luxury feature. It was not standard equipment in most cars and was still an optional extra in the lower fourth of new cars as recently as the ‘90s. Today, AC in a new car is like hot and cold running water in a house. It’s expected. But the fact is that AC in a car used to be something special that most people had to do without – just as most people once had to do without hot and cold running water.

A good stereo – with several speakers. This is another new car given that didn’t used to be.

What used to be the case is that even luxury cars had terrible stereos – by modern economy car standards. This was also true as recently as the ’90s. There was a whole industry dedicated to rectifying this – in particular, the absence of decent speakers, or an insufficiency of them. Many cars came with just two. Some had four. The latter was considered pretty high-end.   

Sometimes, there were no speakers at all.

Or for that matter, even a radio. Mark that. Not a stereo. An AM receiver, monaural. FM was extra. Sometimes, you didn’t even get that.   

As recently as the early 2000s there were new cars that came standard with a “radio prep” package – but not an actual radio. They had some of the necessary wiring. It was up to you to do the rest.

Today, there isn’t a new car on the market that doesn’t come standard with at least a four-speaker stereo that’s superior in every way to to the most ultra-premium systems put into “luxury” cars within the living memory of anyone in his 40s today.    

All new cars – even the least expensive ones – have body integrity, fit and finish and paint jobs that would have been considered Rolls Roycian not that long ago. Leaks of any kind are considered intolerable. This includes wind leaks. Draftiness is unheard of in a new car.

Any new car.

The ’18 Versa’s po’ boy gauge cluster . . .

They all have a full set of gauges – another thing that used to be optional in the majority of new cars – and things like power windows and locks and cruise control are standard equipment in probably 95 percent of all cars currently in production. The $12k Nissan Versa I recently reviewed (here) comes standard with intermittent wipers – in addition to AC and a very good four-speaker/Bluetooth-enabled stereo. You can order the Versa with an LCD touchscreen, leather trim and a sunroof   and still roll out of the dealer’s lot for less than $15k.

It is certainly luxurious – in both historic and real terms. At least, to anyone who can remember what it was like to drive a car without AC on a hot summer day. Or a car with a drafty, uninsulated interior on a cold day. Who can remember doing without a radio. And having to deal with an underpowered, balky drivetrain that gave a top speed just slightly faster than the highway speed limit . . . if you had the wind at your back.

The Versa’s fuel-injected engine starts as immediately as the engine in a $100,000 Mercedes and has power enough to get the car to 60 in about 9 seconds and to well in excess of 100 MPH on top.

More is fun but we’ve long since passed the Rubicon of basic.

So what defines “luxury” today?

It includes things like climate control AC – which differs from manual AC only in that you set a specific temperature (e.g., 70 degrees) rather than “warmer” or “cooler” via a knob rotated in one direction or the other.

But climate control AC doesn’t give you colder – or warmer air.

It does cost you more, though. Both up front – to buy the car so equipped – and probably down the road, when the electronic controls fritz out. Manual AC is inherently more long-term reliable and because the controls are simpler (usually, mechanical knobs) they are easier to repair when needed and cost less to repair if needed.

The ’18 Versa’s “crude” AC controls….

“Luxury” is also defined in terms of gadgets – such as LCD gauge clusters in place of analog (needle and number) gauges. But both provide the same essential information – and the LCD clusters are more prone to aesthetic as well as functional obsolescence, in the same way – and for the same reason – that your smartphone is a technological artifact two or three years after it was the latest thing.

Whether this is “luxurious” – or frivolous – is a matter open to discussion.

Higher-priced cars also have or offer electronic systems designed to partially absolve the driver of the need to drive the car. Or at least, to pay attention to his driving. Things like emergency automated braking and lane keep assist. A car such as the Versa lacks these things – and they are without question impressive in terms of the sophistication of the technology. But luxurious? Does it make driving the car more comfortable?

Only if one prefers to not drive much.

The one meaningful thing – other than a much higher MSRP – that sets the modern luxury car apart from the non-luxury-priced pack is power and performance. A Nissan Versa will not keep up with a $100,000 Mercedes – either in a straight line or in the curves.

But a $27k V6 Camry comes awfully close.

In another few years – assuming the government doesn’t succeed in destroying the car industry – it’s entirely possible that the humblest Hyundai will out-accelerate the V8 supercars of the ’70s and ’80s.

Scratch that.

They already do.

. . .

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  1. “They all have a full set of gauges”
    The future is likely to be like Tesla M3, no instrument panel. Everything communicated to a tablet or your cell phone. Instrument panels are hard to clean and most drivers don’t understand them anyway.

  2. re this:

    “it’s entirely possible that the humblest Hyundai will out-accelerate the V8 supercars of the ’70s and ’80s.

    Scratch that.

    They already do.”

    That’s about half correct. The slowest 2017 Hyundai sold in the U.S., the Elantra, does 0-60 in just under 8 seconds. Which is faster than Camaro Z-28s from 1974 to 1984. And the fastest Mustangs from 1973 to 1981. And Corvettes from 1976, 1977, and 1982.

  3. I like the aircon in my car as I have dry eyes and with the window open I constantly have to shut my eyes to keep all the dust out of my eyes. The dust sticks to my eyes like glue. I never used to like AC in a car, but that was when cars had vented windows. And with my 10 cd changer deck, I do not have to fiddle around changing cds when driving.

  4. Wife was pregnant with the 2nd child, in the summer, in Houston, when the climate control malfunctioned in our Audi. Basically, the inside temp sensor thought it was -40 in the car so it would blow the heat on high to try and warm up the interior, which was already adequately hot thanks to the TX sun.

    • Hi Dr!

      One of the things I dislike about climate control is not being able to modulate the fan speed; in many new cars I have driven, the system decides you need “all or nothing,” the fine control possible with a manual fan speed control is not possible.

      Mercedes cars are especially obnoxious about this.

  5. What I wouldn’t give for a brand new vehicle like the 96 Tacoma I just bought. AC/Radio/cruise control/4×4. Besides that, basic. Manual door locks/windows/5 speed transmission. No touch screens! The only thing complicated is the over head cam engine. If they could “legally” build a pickup like this today with a Chevy 4.3 v-6 in it I’d swear I died and went to the afterlife.

    • ancap, I’m still looking for a good ’92 or 3 body for my ’93 6.5 Turbo Diesel Chevy one ton, ext. cab 4 WD. It got 3-4 mpg more than the 2000 Z 71 I have now. It would have gotten much better mileage than it did with 3.73 gears. A/C that would run you out on any day regardless of wind direction or temp. Power windows, door locks and cruise control. That’s all I need. No problem replacing the stereo from the factory with a much better new one for cheap. Oh, and the seats, they were SOOOO much better than they’ve made in 2 decades, big captain’s chairs with armrests and good cushions, esp. the bottom. Got in last night and the recently rebuilt endgate on the Z POS wouldn’t unlatch. I kept my cool and tried this and that. The plastic handle eventually broke….just like the original. The chromed steel handle on my 93 is there for good and so are the door handles, inside and out. Plastic POS everywhere.

      Of course I was running afoul of federal law on the “secret compartment” deal since it had no computer and the space was still there behind the glove compartment. Is there anything that’s not illegal?

      • QUOTE = Is there anything that’s not illegal? = QUOTE
        Not much.
        “There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”
        Ayn Rand

    • Thanks for this one, AF…

      Note the head “hero” – bald steroid geek with four stars on his lapel. A full Obergruppenfuhrer.

      The story doesn’t say but I wonder what crime the woman they were chasing had committed? I’ll bet a Bitcoin it was something statutory involving arbitrarily illegal “drugs.”

      • More than welcome.

        You would have won a Bitcoin.

        It looks like that was the vast bulk of it:

        Online jail records indicate Jones’s first arrest in Guadalupe County, where she lived, occurred in September 2006 on a charge of possession of a controlled substance.

        She was arrested on similar charges in January and June of 2009, January 2010, August 2015, and April 2016. Sprinkled in with the drug charges were driving without a license and failing to to identify herself to police.

        In August 2016, she was arrested on charges of domestic violence and resisting arrest. Another resisting arrest charge came just a few weeks later. Finally, in February of this year, Jones was arrested on a charge of burglary of a building. Her bond was set at $100,000, an unusually high amount for such a charge.

        Her record in Comal County is similar. In November 2006 she was arrested on a charge of engaging in organized criminal activity, and faced various drug charges in May 2009, December 2009 and April 2010.

        • Hi AF,

          I suspected as much.

          And: It continues to amaze me that most people don’t see the irony of the “hero” cop archetype vs. the reality of law enforcers who are so fearful for their “safety” that they can’t deal with people without using excessive/lethal/unnecessary force… or are simply psychopaths looking for an excuse to kill people.

  6. In truth, you really can’t buy a bad (or poorly-equipped) new car in America these days.

    In fact, the only thing really wrong with new cars is that so few of them come with manuals.

  7. “Today, there isn’t a new car on the market that doesn’t come standard with at least a four-speaker stereo” Ford GT350R comes standard sans radio 😉 I had to lol. Merry Christmas Eric and thanks for all the great content you’ve put out this year!

  8. And vinyl seats. Black. Guaranteed to leave a red mark on the back of your legs if wearing shorts.

    One thing about that AM radio though, it generally picked up more stations than other radios. It was pretty common for mechanics and junkyard men to construct boom boxes using the head units and some Craig or (if going for “good sound”) Pioneer speakers. Of course only idiots with more money than brains bought the Realistic/Radio Shack speakers.

    The HVAC as standard equipment thing is interesting. The same thing happened in houses too, I think much for the worse. When I went house hunting most everything was forced air and most had heat pumps or AC coils added on. The house I ended up buying was one of the few with radiant hot water heat and a swamp cooler. There’s usually about 3-4 weeks in the summer I wish I had central air, but overall I don’t generally like AC. Cars are so tight now that you basically need to have the blower running all the time but there’s plenty of days when I shut off the compressor and that’s just fine.


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