The Problem with New Cars

Today’s post talks about several problems I’ve noticed regarding brand new cars. Here are the four key points of this long-winded rant. I believe that:

1. Automobiles of today are more reliable, safe, and affordable than ever before and are nearly indistinguishable from one another.

2. Automobile engineering has hit a plateau, and as a result automakers are forced to differentiate themselves by adding non-essential features like in-dash screens, Bluetooth connectivity, and other small changes that really aren’t needed and aren’t significantly better or worse than the previous model year. Also, people are very excited to read about the latest small changes in the automotive press.

3. Today’s automobiles are so reliable and so similar that automotive industry journalists don’t really have much to complain about. They are forced to invent reasons why one car is superior to another based on minute, precise measurements of things that are imperceptible to an average driver.

4. When shopping for a brand new car, it doesn’t really matter which one you buy. All new cars have excellent safety, reliability, power, and very similar styling. In many cases the technical differences between two competing cars are so small that they can only be measured by using high-tech equipment. A human driver will never feel the difference.

Argument #1: Brand new cars are better than ever
To illustrate my point, I would like to start with an example:

In 1947, the Raytheon Company produced the world’s first microwave oven. It was very different from the microwaves we use today.  It stood five and a half feet tall, weighed 750 pounds, and cost $3,000 dollars! It could only be run at full power and consumed 3 kilowatts of electricity! As you can imagine, these early models didn’t sell very well.

By 1967, the design of the microwave oven had improved greatly. Raytheon produced the first countertop model available for home use, the RR1. It weighed 90 pounds and cost $495 dollars. It had just two buttons: Start and Light. But the story doesn’t end there…

Over the years, engineers found ways to cut costs and improve the quality of the microwave oven even further. Today you can buy a brand new Sunbeam microwave oven for $44 dollars at every Wal-Mart store in America. It weighs just 28 pounds and has a digital timer and display, auto and time defrost, a clock, and presets for different types of foods. This wonder machine can heat food more thoroughly and evenly while using just 700 watts of power.

While they were once a high tech device available only to the wealthy elite, technology has improved the microwave oven to the point where over 90% of households have one today, according to a 2010 survey. Microwave ovens today are so affordable, reliable, and well built that we simply take them for granted.

In fact, I dare say that the microwave oven has matured in its design. I predict that companies won’t be able to make them any cheaper than they are right now; that there are no major improvements left to be made. As long as you are power-cycling a magnetron in a metal box, I believe this is about as good and cheap as it’s going to get.

I believe that the design of the automobile has reached a plateau, just like the microwave. Think about it: Karl Benz patented the first automobile in 1886. Over the last 127 years, the design of the automobile has been improved tremendously. If the purpose of a car is to carry people and cargo safely, comfortably and efficiently, for long distances and without breaking down, well I would say we achieved that goal long ago.

In 2009, Nissan brought a new compact car to the United States called the Versa. At a base price of $9,990, it held the distinction of being the cheapest brand new car in America. In spite of the price, the Versa is a highly advanced car. It comes with six airbags and a 1.6-liter inline 4-cylinder engine that makes roughly 110 horsepower. It gets 26 mpg city and 34 mpg on the highway.

This car is the equivalent of the $44 microwave. It’s cheap, reliable, and does the job without a fuss. Yes, there are other cars which are faster, more luxurious, and have more features. But for the majority of drivers, this car is all they really need.

The fact that Nissan (and other manufacturers) can offer a mass-produced, high-tech car with a sophisticated DOHC engine, good crash test ratings, and a low price is incredible. You get in, turn the key, and it works every time.  It’s something we take for granted. Today’s brand new cars (such as the Versa) are more reliable, efficient, and inexpensive than ever before. As long as it has wheels and an engine and runs on gasoline, I don’t know that cars can ever get cheaper than this.

Argument #2: Engineers focused on cosmetic changes, not better engineering
To illustrate this argument, let’s revisit the microwave example for a second.

Even though microwave ovens are at an all time low price and are tremendously better than earlier models, the companies that make microwaves still need to remain competitive. They begin adding new features which go beyond the original intentions of the product.

They add superfluous features like defrost modes, door alarms, and buttons for special food items like hot chocolate, popcorn, or bacon. These features are “pushed” by the manufacturer instead of being demanded by the customer. It’s called “feature creep,” and I believe that the same thing is happening in today’s auto industry.

Every time a new innovation is made, whether it be side airbags or LED lighting or direct injection, it’s not long before other automakers copy it. One manufacturer decides to put LEDs in their headlamps and the next year, everyone’s got them. One puts chrome trim around the side windows and everyone else follows suit. This is so widespread that all new cars basically have the same features and options. You can pretty much count on every new car having cruise control, a satellite radio, and Bluetooth.

The copycat effect goes far beyond creature comforts. Car manufacturers copy each other’s engineering, too. As a result, you can shop for over 20 different mid-size sedans in America that all have very similar wheelbases, engine sizes, and dimensions. In many cases, the difference between two models is just enough to avoid infringement. The wheelbase or interior room may be just a fraction of an inch more or less, there may be a difference of only a few horsepower under the hood.Seriously, if it weren’t for the badge on the front, who could tell a Passat from a Camry from an Accord or an Elantra? I feel that several decades of engineering has greatly improved the cars we drive today, but the trade-off is that cars have lost a lot of their magic. They have become homogenous and boring. They are all too much alike.

Argument #3: Soft Automotive Journalism
The automotive press including AutoWeek, Car and Driver, Motor Trend, Consumer Reports, JD Power,, and make a business out of writing about cars. They run road tests, comparisons, and reviews on all the latest models. I would argue that these cars are all so similar, there’s really not much of a comparison between them. That just means the press has to dig deeper to find any discernable differences between models.

It cracks me up when they have to decide which midsize sedan is “best in class.” “Well this one has 6 more horsepower than that one!” “Well this one has 0.3 more inches of legroom than the next model!” “Well this one is rated 2mpg better than that one.” They get their panties wet over the latest bullshit features to creep into cars, like an ever-so-slightly revised grille or a new paint color option. It makes me want to pull my hair and scream at them! They are splitting hairs over truly insignificant facts!

My opinion is that it doesn’t really matter which brand new car you buy. It seems to me that all new cars (from like 2007-ish onward) are all just really, really good now.

My “all cars are pretty much awesome, cheap, and reliable machines now” theory extends beyond the highly competitive midsize sedan segment – it applies to other segments of the car market, too.

Information Overload
For the last 4 or 5 years, I have received a free subscription to Motor Trend magazine. Every other issue has some kind of comparison test where they pit two or more cars against each other. One month it was a 5-way shootout to find the best SUV. Another month it was a 3-way contest to find the best subcompact car. They even put a new Mustang and a new Camaro around a race track to find America’s best sports car. In the Mustang/Camaro test, each car was outfitted with a variety of high-tech sensors to measure things like g-forces in corners and highly precise lap times.

In every one of these tests I’ve read over the last 4 years, they pick the winner by a hair. “Ohh the Mustang pulled 0.96g in Turn 2 but the Camaro pulled 0.98g, the Camaro wins because it’s grippier.” What?! Well let me ask you something, can you actually feel 0.02g of difference between two cars? Can you actually feel that 0.3 inches of legroom or the 2mpg difference between one car an another? I don’t think you can.

When was the last time that Motor Trend compared two cars, and one of them just totally kicked the other one’s ass? Not since I’ve been a reader. I would argue that if Motor Trend and those other car publications didn’t use a bunch of fancy electronic instruments that can measure g-forces down to the tenth, I maintain that they wouldn’t really have anything to write about at all!

Argument #4: Drive What You Like
I bet that if you were to put an average person behind the wheel of several new midsize sedans, without any hair-splitting technical facts, they would proclaim the cars to be equally good (which for all intents and purposes, they are).

The Bottom Line is that cars today are not only unbelievably good, they are also VERY similar to each other in price, performance, styling, and just about everything else. Buy the one that you can afford or the one whose styling you like the best. Other than that, it doesn’t really matter.