The Best Kept Secret

The best-kept secret about new cars is how little you have to spend to get a luxurious car. The car industry doesn’t want you to know this, of course — so it has shifted the definition of luxury in order to get you to spend luxury car money.

The definition of luxurious used to mean tangible amenities that made the car particularly pleasant to drive and — critically- which ordinary cars did not possess.

Air conditioning, for instance.

At one time, only luxury cars had AC. Or at least, AC was considered a luxury feature. It was not standard equipment in most cars and was still an optional extra in the lower fourth of new cars as recently as the 1990s. Today, AC in a new car is like hot and cold running water in a house. It’s expected. But the fact is that AC in a car used to be something special that most people had to do without — just as most people once had to do without hot and cold running water.

A good stereo — with several speakers. This is another new car given that didn’t used to be.

What used to be the case is that even luxury cars had terrible stereos — by modern economy car standards. This was also true as recently as the 1990s. There was a whole industry dedicated to rectifying this — in particular, the absence of decent speakers, or an insufficiency of them. Many cars came with just two. Some had four. The latter was considered pretty high-end.

Sometimes, there were no speakers at all.

Or for that matter, even a radio. Mark that. Not a stereo. An AM receiver, monaural. FM was extra. Sometimes, you didn’t even get that.

As recently as the early 2000’s there were new cars that came standard with a “radio prep” package — but not an actual radio. They had some of the necessary wiring. It was up to you to do the rest.

Today, there isn’t a new car on the market that doesn’t come standard with at least a four-speaker stereo that’s superior in every way to the most ultra-premium systems put into “luxury” cars within the living memory of anyone in his 40’s today.

All new cars — even the least expensive ones — have body integrity, fit and finish and paint jobs that would have been considered Rolls Roycian not that long ago. Leaks of any kind are considered intolerable. This includes wind leaks. Draftiness is unheard of in a new car.

Any new car.

They all have a full set of gauges — another thing that used to be optional in the majority of new cars — and things like power windows and locks and cruise control are standard equipment in probably 95 percent of all cars currently in production.

The $12k Nissan Versa I recently reviewed (here) comes standard with intermittent wipers — in addition to AC and a very good four-speaker/Bluetooth-enabled stereo.

You can order the Versa with an LCD touchscreen, leather trim and a sunroof and still roll out of the dealer’s lot for less than $15k.

It is certainly luxurious — in both historic and real terms. At least, to anyone who can remember what it was like to drive a car without AC on a hot summer day. Or a car with a drafty, uninsulated interior on a cold day. Who can remember doing without a radio? And having to deal with an underpowered, balky drivetrain that gave a top speed just slightly faster than the highway speed limit . . . if you had the wind at your back.

The Versa’s fuel-injected engine starts as immediately as the engine in a $100,000 Mercedes and has power enough to get the car to 60 in about 9 seconds and to well in excess of 100 MPH on top.

More is fun but we’ve long since passed the Rubicon of basic.

So what defines “luxury” today?

It includes things like climate control AC — which differs from manual AC only in that you set a specific temperature (e.g., 70 degrees) rather than “warmer” or “cooler” via a knob rotated in one direction or the other.

But climate control AC doesn’t give you colder — or warmer air.

It does cost you more, though. Both up front — to buy the car so equipped — and probably down the road, when the electronic controls fritz out. Manual AC is inherently more long-term reliable and because the controls are simpler (usually, mechanical knobs) they are easier to repair when needed and cost less to repair if needed.

The ’18 Versa’s “crude” AC controls “Luxury” is also defined in terms of gadgets — such as LCD gauge clusters in place of analog (needle and number) gauges. But both provide the same essential information — and the LCD clusters are more prone to aesthetic as well as functional obsolescence, in the same way — and for the same reason — that your smartphone is a technological artifact two or three years after it was the latest thing.

Whether this is “luxurious” — or frivolous — is a matter open to discussion.

Higher-priced cars also have or offer electronic systems designed to partially absolve the driver of the need to drive the car. Or at least, to pay attention to his driving. Things like emergency automated braking and lane keep assist. A car such as the Versa lacks these things — and they are without question impressive in terms of the sophistication of the technology. But luxurious? Does it make driving the car more comfortable?

Only if one prefers to not drive much.

The one meaningful thing — other than a much higher MSRP — that sets the modern luxury car apart from the non-luxury-priced pack is power and performance. A Nissan Versa will not keep up with a $100,000 Mercedes — either in a straight line or in the curves.

But a $27k V6 Camry comes awfully close.

In another few years — assuming the government doesn’t succeed in destroying the car industry — it’s entirely possible that the humblest Hyundai will out-accelerate the V8 supercars of the ’70s and ’80s.

Scratch that.

They already do.


*** Photo courtesy of Caricos

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