By Eric Peters, NMA Member and Syndicated Columnist
Why would anyone spend twice as much (or more) on a car if the car that costs half as much (or less) has pretty much everything the car that costs twice as much (or more) has?
Consider — among other things — the ubiquity of the LCD touchscreen (and the related flatscreen instrument cluster). Go back ten years and very few cars had either, let alone both — and all of those that did were luxury (that is, expensive) cars. It was a way for the luxury car brands to tout what their cars had — and other (lesser) brands didn’t. The first time you saw a car with a sheet of glowing glass (or plastic) embedded in the dash you may have thought you’d boarded the Starship Enterprise; it seemed very “high tech” and it looked look like nothing you’d ever seen before — outside of watching Star Trek.
But today, you see them everywhere — and they look common.
And that’s a problem — if you’re trying to sell a luxury car that costs twice as much (or more) than a car that costs half as much (or less) that has pretty much the same thing.
Maybe the car-that-costs half-as-much has a smaller touchscreen and a less fancy flatscreen dash display. But even that gap is rapidly closing because unlike electric cars, electronics are getting cheaper. They’re all made in China — and they don’t cost much to make.
Indeed, these touchscreen displays are how the car companies — all of them — make more money, by charging you more for something that costs them less. Both to manufacture — and to install. Plug and play, as the saying goes. And it’s quite literally true. The car comes down the line and the iPad-like LCD touchscreen is plugged into place. No fine adjustments needed. And the iPad-like LCD touchscreen can be used to control most of the car’s everyday functions, such as the stereo and the AC/heat/defroster. No more switchgear to connect.
Just plug — and play.
It won’t be very long before every car — and crossover and SUV and truck — irrespective of brand or price — has a mostly “digital” dash. Probably two-thirds of all new cars already have them. And this may become a problem for the brands trying to sell “luxury” that has become merely expensive.
It is a problem magnified by the common-placing of what were until relatively recently luxury amenities, such as climate control air conditioning, seat heaters, full-power accessories and very good stereos. These are all features that used to be luxury car features — because most other cars did not come standard with them or even offer such things. Now you can get all of these features — as well as panorama sunroofs, LED headlights, in-car WiFi and smartphone chargers — in practically any car, including what are still absurdly referred to as “entry level” models such as the Toyota Corolla.
Once upon a time, cars like the Corolla came standard with a speedometer — and a fuel gauge. They had manual roll-up windows, plastic pop-off wheel covers (these were often optional) and a heater. If you had the money to pay extra for AC you could, but it wasn’t climate-controlled AC. Forget the heated seats and the panorama sunroof. If you wanted such things, you bought a luxury car — if you could afford to.
Now, most people can afford (or at least, can get a loan on) an “entry level” car that has many of the features only luxury cars used to have.
Entry level cars also have fantastic paint jobs and tight panel fitment, both formerly to be found almost exclusively in the luxury car class. And as this process has been elaborating, luxury-brand cars have been losing their larger, more prestigious engines — such as V8s and V12s. Many $50,000 luxury-brand vehicles now come standard with 2.0 liter four cylinder engines — and four cylinder engines used to define “entry level.”
So why not just buy the “entry level” car — and save yourself spending twice as much (or more) on the “luxury” car that’s become merely an expensive car?
It might behoove the luxury car brands to offer people of means something people of lesser means cannot get in an “entry level” car, because it would be too expensive to offer.
One such thing that comes to mind could be finely jeweled instruments rather than cheap plastic screens (even if the latter are sometimes faced with glass). It is not possible to make a cheap Rolex.
Not a real one, that is.
And that’s why people who have the means buy them. It doesn’t matter that a $15 digital watch keeps time just as well. The point is that not everyone can afford a Rolex. But it’s also more than just that, because it’s not just about being in a position to spend $20,000 on a Rolex. The point is the Rolex is a magnificent example of hand-made craftsmanship; it is not merely a way to keep time. It is a work of art.
It is not a piece of mass-produced disposable junk from China.
Real wood and chrome/metal trim (not plastic that looks like metal) could be added to the mix. Adding a V12 would of course be even better.
The result would be a car most of us could not afford. But it would be something many of us would love to be in a position to afford, one day.
In other words, it would be what a luxury car once was — and could be again.
Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.
Editor’s Note: The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the National Motorists Association.