I recently started shopping for a new car (my lease is almost up), and was absolutely blown away by the cost of a new vehicle. To start, I looked at getting a newer model of the same car I was driving: the Nissan Altima.
Nevermind that the car hasn’t actually changed since 2008, when I bought my last one. It’s almost $3000 more expensive with the same options. What am I paying for? It has no new features, it’s just newer. That’s ridiculous.
I’m sure that everyone’s list is different, but here’s my list of “must-haves” for a vehicle. (DISCLAIMER: My wife drives a 2011 Honda Oddysey, and the car I’m describing rarely transports anyone but me. For long trips, or any kid-transport, the Oddysey is where it’s at.)
- Gas Mileage – no less than 28mpg city, 35 mpg highway. Higher is better.
- Bluetooth Connectivity – I drive and work (make phone calls) a ton. Not having to hold my phone is a must.
- MP3 Player Compatibility – I certainly understand that everyone but me seems to own multiple iPods, but I don’t. I’d still like to listen to podcasts and music while I’m driving without feeling like an outcast. At a minimum, I need an AUX jack.
- 4 Doors – From time to time, I do transport other adults, so the car has to be able to carry 4 adults comfortably for a short trip. Again, for longer trips, we would use the Oddysey.
- Leather Interior – I’m messy, especially when I’m driving a few hours to a conference, presentation, etc. Leather seats are a must for someone like me. Cloth seats would be stained within days of getting a new car. Leather seats wipe clean every time.
- Automatic Transmission – I haven’t driven a stick transmission since high school, and I don’t think I’m going to start that again. Stick is fun, but it’s not practical, if you can justify the price. I’m not driving this car for its handling or acceleration. I just need to get across town.
- Trunk Space – I’m a golfer, and I need a car that can hold 2 golf bags (minimum) in the trunk. That might be the only thing the trunk EVER gets used for.
- Power Everything – power seats, power locks, power windows. These should be standard on every vehicle.
There’s also the list of “nice” things that would be cool to have in a car, but aren’t going to stop me from buying something that doesn’t have them.
- Moonroof – I’m not getting a convertible (because they’re just too expensive), but getting some fresh air blowing in the car is always nice.
- Navigation – While I have free, turn-by-turn directions on my phone, there’s something nice about having it in the dashboard, on a nice big screen. If I was facing two equal vehicles, this would definitely tip the balance.
- Driving Itself – You may think I’m kidding, but you’ve already seen it in the commercials. Cars can parallel park themselves. I’d love a car that did that, but I certainly don’t require it.
- Back Up Camera – it would be nice to see how much room I have left behind my car, and would greatly benefit me if my car can’t drive itself.
- Voice-activated Communications – the ability to talk to my car and have it respond would be awesome. “"Lights on.” “Drive to Chipotle.” “KITT, come save me.”
- HD Radio – This is actually a really cool technology, and there’s plenty of new radio stations you’ve never listened to (with fewer commercials, too!)
- Heated Seats – These seem like such a frivolous feature until you jump in your car in January. Then they’re amazing.
To get everything in my list, I expected that I was going to need to start looking in the “luxury” category. But an entry-level Lexus, Acura, or Infiniti starts around $35,000. That’s significantly more than I wanted to spend on a car. I don’t have some ritzy image to portray. I don’t need a Mercedes. I need a car. And this is where the point of this article comes from:
What are we paying for?
There are not that many vehicles that can meet my long list of requirements. Almost all of them are in the luxury category. But why? I have been struggling with this fact for months. Why do I have to spend $35K (or more) to get the cool stuff? I’m obviously a technologist, and I want that technology. I don’t care nearly as much about your V6 engine, your sport-tuned suspension, or your fancy British accent in your commercials. At the end of the day, it’s a seat that transports me from one location to another.
In the past, I used to look at American cars. But over the past decade or so, I always felt like they were of lesser quality. My #1 judgement of the quality of a car’s manufacturing? Interior door handles. If they feel cheap, I’m never going to be able to get past it. However, with all of the noise that SYNC has been making over at Ford (especially as a Microsoft employee), I felt I owed it to them to at least check out what they were offering.
I decided to check out the 2011 Taurus (which looks very cool from the outside), and the 2011 Fusion. After pricing out the Taurus (it starts at $25K), it was almost as expensive as those lower-end luxury models I mentioned earlier. Plus, the gas mileage wasn’t very good, at 18/28. The Fusion, however, looked like I could get the features that I wanted, at a more modest price tag (it starts at $19K), and 5mpg better in both categories (23/33). I went for a test drive, and my fears were immediately confirmed. It just felt cheap. It was a nice car, but it just didn’t feel “nice” to me. I started to think that what I’m paying for is that “nice” feeling.
I went home and started over. I was determined to find a car that had piles of technology at a more modest price. Nissan. Nope. Toyota. Nope. Honda. Nope. Chevy. Nope. But during this search, I started considering slightly smaller vehicles. And this led me back to Ford.
I checked out the 2012 Ford Focus online. Not a name I generally associate with a great vehicle, my mind was open at this point. Every single feature I listed above, in both lists, was available on this car. For a reasonable price. How was this possible? I guess I need another test drive.
The car drove responsively, the nice chrome door handles were solid. It had enough space for my wife to sit comfortably in the back seat. And it had all of the bells and whistles I wanted. In fact, it had more than that. It had remote car starting. 10 speakers. And it even integrated with my Zune and Windows Phone. Huge. All for a pricetag under $25K.
Many of you, if you’ve kept reading this far, just thought to yourself:
“Yeah, but you’d be driving a Ford Focus.”
My answer to you is this: What are you paying for? A name plate on the back of your car? A V8 engine that allows you to dramatically accelerate to the posted speed limit? Sport tuned handling for driving in rush hour? A symbol that you make more money than your neighbor? I don’t want (or need) any of those things, and that’s how I ended up ordering a new 2012 Ford Focus.
What are you driving?