Automotive democratization

Every new car (even the Nissan Versa sedan, the least expensive new car you can buy) comes standard with air conditioning — and most come standard with power windows and locks, too. Push-button keyless ignitions and cheerily glowing LCD touchscreens are becoming common and will likely soon be as expected (and standard) as AC and power windows/locks already are.

No one sells a car without a full set of gauges and a decent stereo. Some may remember the not-so-long-gone world of cars that came with a speedometer (85 MPH!) a fuel gauge — and an AM/FM radio.

Maybe not even FM.

This has democratized new cars — leveled meaningful creature-comfort distinctions between inexpensive and expensive cars. If you were to teleport a 2017 Corolla back to 1997, it would be a nicer car, in terms of amenities and gadgets, than anything Lexus was selling back in ’97.

This is great news for the not-rich who no longer have to suffer going without basic features that have become the automotive equivalents of hot and cold running water (and electricity) in a house.

But this leveling has put Lexus — and other luxury brands — in something of a bind. How to justify the price of the luxury car when formerly “luxury” amenities are just like hot and cold running water in a house?

You up the ante.

It’s no longer AC (climate control AC) that’s for-the-rich-only. It’s massaging seats. Night vision. Reclining rear seats. And uber-gadgets like the “gesture control” BMW puts in its top-of-the-line 7 Series sedan, which allows the driver to adjust the stereo’s volume up or down by twirling his finger. The Mercedes S-Class I test drove last week had a gas door that sensed my presence and popped open obligingly as I approached to fill ‘er up.

Some of these are basically baubles that are no hardship to do without. But massaging seats? Once you’ve experienced them, it is a hardship to go back to standard chairs; as rough as driving to work in summertime heat in a ’79 Chevette… without AC.


It’s not surprising that massaging seats are unavailable in any car without a six-figure price tag (or very close to that). But that firewall is pretty fragile. Competition in the middle of the market (the Camry-Accord part of the market) is so fierce that it is probably only a matter of a couple of years, at most, before someone decides to offer massaging seats in a . . . Camry.

Wait and see.

Would you have thought a Corolla would come with an LCD touchscreen (and heated seats)?

The same forces that made that happen are just as applicable to things like massaging seats (and heated and cooled cupholders, something else that — for the moment — is hard to find in cars that aren’t “luxury” branded… and priced accordingly).

The infrastructure is already there. New cars no longer have marginal electrical systems, for example — just barely enough amperage to fire the spark plugs and light the (sealed beam) headlights. The juice necessary to run the array of electrical stuff that all new cars have lays the groundwork for juice-hungry amenities such as seat massagers. And almost all new cars already come standard with or offer LCD touchscreens, the means by which things like massaging seats are controlled. It’d probably be no bigger a deal than bolting them in — and plugging them in.

The massagers themselves are only expensive because exclusive. Once economies of scale factor in and “everyone” offers them, it won’t cost much to offer them. And they may (and almost certainly will) come standard in mid-tier models like the Camry and Accord.

Wait and see.

It’s as inevitable as the mass-marketing of cruise control — another used-to-be-exclusive feature that pretty much every new car now comes standard with. Probably half the new cars currently available have adaptive cruise control — an upgraded type of cruise control that automatically adjusts the car’s speed in relation to traffic, without the driver having to touch the brakes or the accelerator pedal.

Another amenity that will likely become available — if not standard — in most new cars within a couple of years: Those heated and cooled cupholders mentioned above. These keep your coffee hot — and your Coke cold. Heating and cooling elements are built into the cupholders; push the button once to heat — a second time to cool.

It’s almost as nice as massaging seats.

At the moment, you will find them in higher-end cars only. However, it would be even easier to add these to any car than seat massagers — because the basic technology (the heater coils and the cooling mechanism) aren’t in and of themselves expensive and the electrical infrastructure (high-output alternators) is already in place. The only reason heated/cooled cupholders haven’t yet filtered down to bread-and-butter family cars is because — so far — no one has decided to offer them.

Wait and see.

The market pressure to do so is growing because even things like paint quality, the durability/quality of the car itself — have achieved a new (very high) standard across the board. Take a look at the paint job on a new Corolla — and compare it with the paint job of a new Lexus. See whether you can tell a difference. Both will probably still look great 15 years from now, too.

No new car leaks. They all have fantastic headlights (LED, HID). Excepting the occasional lemon, they’ll go 150,000 miles and more without requiring much, if anything, in the way of major service. It is no longer a miserable experience to drive an “entry level” car — and the experience of driving a high-end car is no longer as spectacular as it once was.

Except, of course, for those massaging seats.

But wait and see . . .


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