Magazine article Insight on the News

What Price Comfort? the High Price of New Cars Can Be Traced to Consumers' Demands for the Latest Amenities

Magazine article Insight on the News

What Price Comfort? the High Price of New Cars Can Be Traced to Consumers' Demands for the Latest Amenities

Article excerpt

Why do new cars cost so much compared with the cars of 20 or 30 years ago? Surely it's not all inflation. It's true that sticker prices have outpaced inflation, especially in the last 15 years. And while government-mandated safety and emissions equipment has added several thousand dollars to each new car's final cost, much of the blame for escalating prices can be laid squarely at the feet of the consumer.

How's that? Well, it's the consumer, after all, who has demanded greater sophistication in cars-even bargain basement "entry-level" models. What was perfectly acceptable in years past no longer meets minimum standards in the American marketplace.

A comparison of Yesterday and today's entry-level models is useful to illustrate the point. Take two "cheapies" of the early seventies: the Dodge Dart Slant-6 and the Volkswagen Beetle. Both cars cost less than $3,000 when new--but came with little more than a body shell and a sputtering engine to push them along. Instead of a console-mounted gearshift, drivers dealt with the infamous "3 on the tree"(in the case of the Dodge) column shifter. There was neither power steering nor air conditioning. AM radios cost extra.

These cars were typical of their era and class-difficult and uncomfortable to drive. By contrast, the typical 1996 "basic" model has a smooth, fuel-injected power plant that starts every time and works through a hydraulically assisted, easy-to-row manual transmission. And that transmission will have 5 speeds, providing excellent fuel economy and a high cruise capability. For those who want it, these cars can be ordered with electronic 4-speed automatic transmissions (not 3 speeds, as in the past), some of which feature high-tech gadgetry such as "grade logic" and locking-torque converters for superior efficiency and driveability.

Even the cheapest 1996 cars come with good four-speaker audio systems (and many have cassette players to boot). They don't leak or break down three months after leaving the dealer's lot. Safety items such as air bags and protective body structures come standard.

Drive an old car-a model made in the fifties-and then compare it to what's available today (see Model Driving). Fun as they were-replete with outrageous styling and great personality- yesterday's automobiles were blunt, unreliable instruments.

A modern car will run for 150,000 miles or more without a hint of trouble if given regular oil changes. And the body won't rust in your lifetime unless you douse it in sulfuric acid. …

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