Have cars actually gotten more expensive over time?

March 12, 2017

It's a common complaint we hear from shoppers: new cars have gotten too expensive.

The math, at least on the surface, seems to agree with this statement. The average transaction price of a new car rose to over $34,000 last year, compared to about $28,800 10 years ago and under $20,000 a decade earlier.

A buck today goes about as far as $1.15 did a decade ago, or as far as $1.50 back in 1997, however. Clearly it's not quite so simple.

It's not just about money. Cars cost way more today, but they're also packed with far more features.

Two decades ago, power windows and air conditioning were extra-cost items. Ten years later, it was somewhat uncommon to find something without a multitude of airbags, while rearview cameras, touchscreen audio, and navigation systems were reserved only for luxury cars. Today, you'll find all those features as standard equipment on just about everything under the average new car price.  

With that in mind, here's a look at how much some of today's most popular cars cost 10 and about 20 years ago. We've dug through our library for Consumer Guide pricing guides from 1998 and 2007. We've also included a handful of additional features that were made standard over each decade. Where applicable, some cars have been replaced by different nameplates, so we've noted that as well.

1998 Toyota Camry LE

1998 Toyota Camry LE

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Toyota Camry - 7 percent cheaper today 

In 1997, the Toyota Camry became America's best-seller for the first time. Twenty years later, it's still on top. Back in 1998, a new Camry CE ran $17,398 with a 5-speed manual. Ten years later, $18,890 bought you a CE with a stick that included cruise control, power windows and locks, air conditioning, and five additional airbags. Today, a new Camry LE is $23,955—with an automatic transmission, Bluetooth, and a few more goodies. That's a big increase in the last decade, but the '98 would run you about $25,800 in today's dollars.

1998 BMW 3-Series Coupe

1998 BMW 3-Series Coupe

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BMW 3-Series - 13 percent cheaper today

BMW has taken its 3-Series sedan dramatically more upscale over the last two decades. Back in 1998, a 318i featured a mere 138 horsepower and, while hardly basic, it did come with hubcaps and not alloy wheels for your $26,720. By 2007, the 328i sedan had become the base model and ran $33,095 with a considerably more luxurious feel. Since then, BMW implemented a new base version called the 320i—but it's still peppy with 180 hp from a turbo 4-cylinder. Today's 320i stickers for $34,445. Adjusted, that pokey '98 ran a hefty $39,600 in 2017 money.

1998 Honda Odyssey EX

1998 Honda Odyssey EX

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Honda Odyssey - 16 percent cheaper today

Honda's minivan has changed considerably over the last two decades—most notably by adding sliding rather than front-hinged doors. In 1998, an Odyssey LX ran $23,955 with a 4-cylinder engine. By 2007, a new generation of Odyssey stickered for $26,240, but it came with a much more powerful V-6 and a whole host of safety equipment like airbags. Today, you're in $30,790 for a base Odyssey LX. Adjusted, that basic '98 Odyssey minivan would sell for about $35,600 now. 

2017 Mitsubishi Mirage G4

2017 Mitsubishi Mirage G4

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Mitsubishi Mirage - 21 percent cheaper today

Caveat: The Mitsubishi Mirage took some time off and wasn't around in 2007. But in 1998, the cheapest Mirage 4-door was $12,640. That money didn't buy you a radio, air conditioning, power steering, or a tachometer. You got four doors, some glass, some seats, and 13-inch wheels. Today's Mirage G4 is still pretty darn basic, but it has a four speakers hooked up to a CD player with a USB port, seven airbags, power windows and locks, and even a remote key fob. It's $14,830, whereas the '98 would be a staggering $18,700 in 2017 dollars. Can you imagine such a basic car being sold for that money today? 

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