• May 20, 2023

The nice thing about buffets is you get to pick what you want and how much of it. Buying a car was once a lot like that.

The car, itself, was just the starting point. Kind of like the empty plate you walk up to the buffet line with and then proceed to fill up, as you please. A little of this – some more of that. And – key thing – none of that. You could pass on the dishes that you didn’t want – and weren’t forced to put some of that on your plate in order to get what you did want.

New car buying is a lot like being made to eat whatever someone else slops onto your plate – and pay for it, too.

Many dealers stock only loaded examples of a given model and won’t order the car you want a la carte. And even if they are willing, it doesn’t really matter as there are fewer options to not buy because most of what was formerly optional is now standard. The obvious examples here being air conditioning (usually climate controlled air conditioning), power windows and locks and automatic transmissions. These once-optional features have become de facto standard equipment, even in “base” versions of the lowest-cost cars. Which accounts for the fact that even the latter have become astoundingly expensive cars.

Try finding a new car with a base price less than $20,000. Even a car like the Toyota Corolla – a great little car but (historically) an “economy” – car stickers for just shy of $22,000 to start.

How much less might an “economy” car like the Corolla cost if you could skip the AC, power windows and locks and automatic transmission it now comes standard with? In the Before Time, economy cars always came standard with manual transmissions, because they were more . . . economical. A manual-equipped car was (still is) usually less expensive than a car with the (formerly optional) automatic, which typically added $800 or so to the car’s price.

For the most part, people no longer have the option to not pay for that.

Same goes for once-optional extras such as power windows and locks.

Other things have been made standard, too – such as LCD touchscreens and peripherals (i.e., the sensors and cameras) made mandatory by government mandates. The federal government mandated that all new cars have back-up camera systems, to Band Aid the problem of poor rearward visibility – also caused by government mandates pertaining to rear-impact standards; the latter are why the asses of all new cars are so fat (and tall). And that resulted in a few kids being run-over by parents who could not see that they were playing behind the car.

Thus, all new cars must have back-up camera systems – and so come standard with LCD touchscreens, which you can’t delete from the standard equipment list. The government also mandated that all new cars come with “passive safety restraints” – the bureaucratese for air bags. All new cars have at least four – and each adds at least $500 in cost to the price of the car. That’s $2,000 added to the cost of an “economy” car – accounting for why there are no such things anymore.

Some will argue the cost is worth the price – but that misses the point. Which is that others now decide what’s worth the price, rather than you, the person who is buying the vehicle (and paying for all of this). It will probably be difficult for those in their 20s today to believe it but there was a time when people were free to buy what they wanted to pay for – and almost everything that’s now standard was optional.

It was also a time when what was available was largely determined by what people were willing (and able) to pay for it.

This was something called the free market.

It existed before the government took over the market and began to decree what would be made, what could not be made – and that we’d pay for it all.

The car companies went along for the ride, too. Though there was some resistance, at first, they came to realize that more money could be made by selling people more expensive cars, even if they couldn’t afford them. The solution to that problem was to increase the time it took to pay for them. It is why the duration of the average new car loan has more than doubled since the 1970s – from three years to six-plus. And – even so – the average monthly new car payment is currently more than $700.

You get what you’re forced to pay for.

It’s a lugubrious exercise to contemplate what we might be paying – if force were taken out of the equation and the market were free once more.

Not being made to buy four air bags would free the car makers – maybe not the current ones, but new ones that would rise to meet the demand – to design cars without air bags. Such cars could be made much lighter and much more economical to drive – and would be far less complex and so cost much less to own as well as buy. Many people do not appreciate that is not just the air bags themselves that add cost. There is also the cost of designing the car around the air bags.

Of course, it’s not just the air bags.

It’s everything else, too. And it adds up to a lot when you’re forced to put it all on your plate.

. . .

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