There is some good news.
The chief piece of it being that on an inflation-adjusted basis, the typical $15,000 or so brand-new economy car – something like a Nissan Versa ($14,830) or Hyundai Accent $15,600) – doesn’t cost that much more than something like a 1970 VW Beetle cost ($1,839) when it was a brand-new economy car.
A ’70 Beetle’s MSRP today would be just over $13,000, a real-money (or purchasing power) difference of about $2k now vs. then. If adjusted for equipment, it cost about the same as a new Versa or Accent – and instead of an AM radio, drum brakes, a speedometer and a heater you get an stereo, air conditioning, a full set of gauges, disc brakes, power windows and locks.
Mitsubishi – which sold cars for less – is “pulling back” from the North American market. The $13k to start Mirage was the most affordable new car available in the United States.
The least expensive new Kia you can buy – the 2020 Forte – stickers for just under $18k to start.
A new Toyota Corolla stickers for just under $19k. A Mazda3 lists for just over $20k.
The 2021 Honda Civic starts at $22k.
Chevrolet doesn’t sell a new car that costs less than $21k – because it no longer sells cars at all. The just-over-$16k Sonic has been cancelled, leaving the micro-crossover Trax as the lowest-priced new Chevy on the field.
It stickers for $21,400 to start.
That one stickers for $19,995 to start.
There is nothing on the menu at Dodge that stickers for less than $27,500 – and that one’s a minivan. If you want a car from Dodge, you’ll pay considerably more. A new Charger sedan starts just under $30k; the two-door version of the same thing – a Challenger – is slightly less at just over $28k to start. They are both great cars but there’s nothing Beetle-analogous at Dodge – which once upon a time was an entry-level brand, a notch up from Plymouth – which is a brand no more.
As for VW, the People’s Car is now the rich man’s car, too. Or at least, the not-poor-man’s car. The lowest priced new VW – the Jetta – stickers for just under $19k to start. As in $5 under ($18,895).
Now, the Jetta is also a fine car. It is a Cadillac in comparison with the ’70 Beetle. But it also costs about $6k more than the ’70 did, in actual purchasing-power/adjusted-for-inflation dollars. This would be ok – a net gain – if the purchasing power of the average American had tracked upward along with inflation. If it had, the average American would be getting much more car for about the same money as the average American paid for a car back in 1970.
Instead, he is getting more car – and paying for it. Because he has less money. His income has not kept up with inflation, while his taxes – including those not styled taxes such as the now-mandatory health insurance mordita – have gone up.
Since he can’t pay for his car, he finances it – routinely for six or even seven years as opposed to the three or four it took in 1970. And because this hiding of cost has become almost universal, there is less incentive for the car companies to offer actually affordable cars. It is easy to hide the $3k difference between a $15k Hyundai and an $18k Toyota over six years of monthly payments.
It’s just another $50 per month … easy!
Except it’s hard.
People just don’t see it – yet – because so long as they can finance and so long as they can make that monthly payment, the thing seems viable.
This has created its own self-sustaining feedback loop. The cost of entry-level goes up because most people are financing more – and for longer. It doesn’t make sense for a car company to sell a $15k car when they can finance the $20k car.
And the more who finance the $2ok car, the fewer $15k cars on the market. There is no longer an incentive to keep prices down when costs can be hidden.
This is why things like air conditioning and power windows and locks are now standard equipment in every new car. It used to be optional. The Versa was the last new car that let you skip AC and power windows if you didn’t want to pay for them.
But now you can’t avoid paying for such things because everyone else is financing them. And once you get accustomed to financing AC and power windows and locks, why not also an LCD touchscreen and an upgraded stereo, too? How ’bout a turbocharged engine while we’re at it?
But for how long?
Meanwhile, it’s interesting to imagine what a car like the ’70 Beetle would cost today – if it could be built using modern manufacturing techniques and taking advantage of all the advances that have made it possible to build $15k cars with AC, power windows, locks and so on.
Probably, the 1970 Beetle could be built for less than $10k in today’s dollars, which would put it within reach of many people’s ability to buy in three years or less. But solvency and prudence are as out of fashion in Heliogabalus-era America as showing your face.
. . .
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