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Substandard Features

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On: Tue, Jun 22, 2010 at 10:38AM | By: Lou Ruggieri

Substandard Features

One of the theories that physicists tell us about the universe is that it is a constant cycle of expansion and contraction. The red tint that glows around distant stars is empirical evidence that those celestial bodies are, in fact, headed far off into uncharted space. Those same scientists tell us that one day the expansion will cease and that the light around those stars will begin to have a blue tint to it, indicating that the universe is heading back inward, and that the contraction has begun.  

It seems that the financial cycles of the United States are not much different from the cycles of the universe. The Roaring 20s were a time of great celebration and expansion, while the 30s brought on the biggest contraction in US history, only to be followed by he booming expansion of WWII. This cycle of cycles has continued until the market crash of 2008 signaled the beginning of another contraction. As we’ve seen, major car manufacturers are not immune to the ways of the universe, with two of the big three needing bailouts from the federal government. Although those debts are all but paid off, it does not mean that the automotive industry is out of hot water by any means. Perhaps instead of fighting the Big Crunch, as it’s called in the scientific world (the antithesis of the Big Bang), car makers and consumers should start to change their attitudes towards embracing the coming contraction. How so?  Well, it seems that in times of crisis, all but the very essentials are deemed unnecessary. The superfluous extras that are expendable are well, expunged, and the bare necessities rise from sub-standard to the standard.  

In a country where people are losing their houses, jobs, and shirts at an alarming rate, a quality car is almost a luxury. But the fact of the matter is people like owning new cars. So how can car manufacturers find an acceptable compromise between the need or want for a new car and that fact that many people have had to make concessions and work jobs that will earn them less compensation? Easy, change the standard!  

For the last twenty years or so, car companies have competed with each other on the premise that more is more. More gadgets, more gizmos, more ‘packages’, more paint schemes, and more gimmicks will lure the potential buyer to their product. Anyone remember the Wide Track Grand Prix? How about the ‘Cab Forward’ Dodge Intrepid? Or maybe even more gimmicky ads like the Dodge Neon that always said, “Hi!” Or perhaps you remember Cadillac Catera: “The Caddy that zigs!” These were all goofy marketing ploys to suggest that those cars were different or better, when in reality they were just average cars with nothing all that special about them. But up until the late 20th century, options like power steering and power brakes were just that—options. Maybe it’s time to stop trying to push onward, and understand that car manufacturing, and the country, may have to take a step or two backwards before it can move forward. 

The simple solution is “Well, why not just buy a cheaper car?” A fair point, but we as Americans have grown into a sense of entitlement that few are very willing to give up. Going from a BMW to a Kia is not going to work for many people. So what to do? Make the cost of producing higher end cars cheaper. This is actually more plausible than it may seem. All we have to do is take a quick glance back in time.

The Corvette is a great example of how things used to be, and could be again. Exactly 40 years ago, the 1971 models were out on showroom floors and the numbers are quite telling. Obviously inflation has had its say over the last half century, so we’ll have some conversions to do. The fun part is when we use that same conversion ratio to figure out how much ‘standard’ features would cost us today, or rather how much we could decrease the price if the were deleted. At the risk of oversimplifying, we are going to take the price of a base 1971 Corvette at $5,496 and compare that to the price of a base 2011 Corvette at $48,950 which gives us a multiplier of 8.9. This is the figure we will use to factor in for inflation in today’s market (some figures come out higher, some a little lower, and some are eerily spot on, so it balances out very nicely).

The prices below represent first the cost in 1971 and then the cost of that same option in 2011, using our multiplication factor. There is also a brief explanation of why said items are not all that important.

Power Windows 1971 - $79

Power Windows 2011 - $703

Motorized windows are nothing but a luxury. No one actually needs power windows. A little elbow grease is just what most of us need to get used to for the coming years.

Power Brakes 1971 - $47

Power Brakes 2011 - $418

Although ABS should certainly still be standard, power brakes are not a need. They make life easier, but a little more effort again, isn’t going to hurt anyone.

Power Steering 1971 - $116

Power Steering 2011 - $1032

On the highway, power steering is completely unnecessary. If anything, manual steering actually may improve many people’s actual driving experience due to its more natural feel. Parking in the city would be more of a chore, but to save a few hundred dollars, a couple more turns of the wheel might just be worth it.

Alarm System 1971 - $32

Alarm System 2011 - $285

Other than noise, does anyone really notice an alarm system going off and actually do anything about it? Not typically, and certainly not if it’s not your own alarm and even then if someone is stealing your car, you’re more than likely not going to be around to hear your alarm. Door locks work just fine.

Stereo 1971 - $178

Stereo 2011 - $1584

For those that are looking to save money, a radio is definitely expendable. With the advent of podcasts and MP3s all available on iPods, listening to AM/FM seems almost like a vestigial pasttime anyway.

Rear Window Defroster 1971 - $42

Rear Window Defroster 2011 - $374

For something that gets use maybe three months out of the year for most of the country, a defroster is actually almost a waste of money.

Deluxe Wheels 1971 - $63

Deluxe Wheels 2011 - $561

Of all things that truly serve no purpose, nicer wheels can go at the top of the list. If you want handling, car companies can make steel wheels in larger diameters.

That adds up to a total of $4957 for a series of “standard features” that aren’t necessarily necessary. $5000 off of the base price of a new car could do quite a lot for the affordability of a very nice, very new car.

Not only would cars be more affordable, deleting things we’ve grown accustomed to and taken for granted might just teach drivers a thing or two about how complicated driving really can be. Texting, and talking on cell phones, might just become a thing of the past due to the increased need for driver involvement. For the first time in a long time, driving could once again become an activity in and of itself. Status, however, will still be asserted and luxury car makers will still be able to make a profit. People will always want 3 Series, TLs, Corvettes, and Miatas, so bringing the price down to their level might just be a way to make everyone happy in an era that is nine tenths depression. Frivolity is a thing of the past, at least for now, and we are looking at a time when the basics are more than enough. So if some people who have taken cuts on their salaries and been able to survive, can still afford the same kind of car they are used to with a few slight deductions, the hit won’t hurt quite so bad.

This theory might sound a bit extreme, but when gas prices began to skyrocket a few years ago, people began to shift their focus to less flash and more efficiency. If an increase in gas prices can cause a paradigm shift in the way people view a car purchase, perhaps a drastic reduction in the amount of money those same people earn could cause carmakers to start looking back instead of ahead. The future of cars might just be behind us, and a very different window sticker might not be light years away after all.

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