30 Years of Stagnation

  • October 15, 2023

I began test driving new cars some 30 years ago, so I have driven thousands of them over the years. Many of them are now antiques  – which implies I’m becoming one also. But that aside, test driving all these new vehicles has given me a fairly unique perspective as to the changes that have occurred over all of these years.

And truth is, not much has changed – relative to the changes that came before.

Before I began test driving new cars, when I was still too young to be driving them at all (legally, at any rate) there will still cars, first of all.

Sedans, coupes and station wagons. There was no such thing as a “crossover” – or an “SUV.” There were a few (as in fewer than about six makes/models) of 4x4s. These were models such as the International Scout, Ford Bronco, Toyota Land Cruiser and Chevy Blazer. The handful of people who bought them needed or just wanted off-road capability and accepted all the compromises that came along for the ride.

These 4x4s were not comfortable or pleasant to drive anywhere except off-road. They were geared for low-speed slogging and in those days, there weren’t overdrive transmissions to compensate for that. At 60, it felt (and sounded) like you were doing 100. Most of the interior surfaces of these 4x4s was made of the same material as the outside in that both were made of metal. There may have been some rudimentary carpet and a dashpad but  the rest was just exposed (albeit painted) metal. Most had manual transmissions, roll-up windows and you put it into 4WD by getting out and locking the front hubs, by hand.

And that’s why most people drove cars.

Almost all of them were rear-wheel-drive, too. Even most of the economy cars, such as the VW Beetle and early Datsuns and Subarus. Fuel injection was almost unheard of. The vast majority of cars had carburetors – and did not have computer controls of any kind.

By the time I began test driving cars in the ’90s, every car had a fuel-injected, computer controlled engine – paired with an overdrive-geared transmission, whether manual or automatic. There were SUVs – a new type of 4×4 that could go off-road but that was as easy and comfortable to drive on-road as a car. Lighter-duty crossover variants of these – more like cars and equipped with all-wheel-drive – began to appear.

Trucks were becoming more popular than cars.

But since the ’90s, the changes have been morphological and to a great extent superficial in terms of any improvements that could be characterized as comparable to the huge strides made prior to the time I began test driving vehicles in the ’90s.

The first vehicles I test drove are now antiques – yet they are functionally modern. For example, the ’95 Mustang Cobra R press car (that’s what the new cars loaned to journalists who write about them are called) I used to make a Banzai! run up to New York City from the Washington, DC area where I then lived is now almost 30 years old yet one could drive it or any other car made in 1995 today just as easily as any car made today. Its fuel injected engine would start just as immediately. It would not balk or overheat or feel like it was shaking itself apart at 70 MPH (or 130 MPH, for that matter).

The gas mileage delivered by cars of the ’90s was often better than the gas mileage achieved by new cars. By new vehicles. And the gasses “emitted” by cars made in the ’90s were almost nil, in terms of harmful gasses – which is to say, those that objectively worsened air quality. Those had been all-but-eliminated by then, though the public has been led to believe otherwise. They are told that the latest round of emissions control standards will reduce emissions “by 25 percent” (as an example). What they are not told is that it will be 25 percent of a fraction of a percent. In other words, a meaningless (in terms of air pollution) reduction.

But it is very meaningful in terms of the cost.

This includes long-term durability as well as repairability. The vehicles made back in the ’90s and through the early 2000s were 20-year vehicles and even more than that, if treated well. Most required very little regular maintenance and – usually – nothing major had to be repaired until they were at least in their early adolescence. Most could be depended on to remain dependable until they were old enough to buy beer.

I cannot recall a single new vehicle I  test drove back in the ’90s that glitched. Probably because while they had computers, everything wasn’t controlled by computers. Over the course of just the past month, I’ve had three new press cars glitch on me. The touchscreen in one of them – which they all have now – went comatose for awhile, which meant no stereo for awhile as the stereo is controlled via the touchscreen. Another slammed on its brakes as I was trying to merge (this is “advanced driver assistance technology,” which all new vehicles come  standard with, notwithstanding most people didn’t ask for such “assistance” and would likely choose not to have it, were that option available to them).

They have become much more complex, in other words – but that is not necessarily an improvement. They are certainly much heavier on average, which is not an improvement – if you’d rather a lighter vehicle that used less gas (and produced less, thereby).

There are electric vehicles, of course. But they aren’t much improved, either, relative to the EVs I test drove back in the ’90s. Except insofar as they are much quicker, which they are to distract people from the fact that they are still functionally restrained by not being able to travel very far – and needing a lot of time to be ready to travel again.

I often wonder how different the vehicles of today might be if the government hadn’t caused vehicle design to homogenize (in order to comply with all the regulations) and to stagnate, in terms of meaningful improvements.

I imagine new economy cars that got twice the gas mileage of the economy cars of the ’90s and that cost less (in real dollars) than they did. I can’t even begin to imagine the different kinds of vehicles that might have been available, if the car companies were still free to try out daring and so different designs, rather than superficially different cosmetics. There would be more rather than fewer brands – and every vehicle (just about) would not be a crossover or an SUV.

These are idle the thoughts and reminisces of one who remembers because he was there – and thought you might like to hear about it.

. . .

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