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 Where applicable, some cars have been replaced by different nameplates, so we've noted that as well.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

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

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

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

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? 

2007 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer

2007 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer

Ford Explorer - No change

At the height of the SUV era, the Ford Explorer was rapidly making its way into America's driveways. The 1998 Explorer LX ran $22,010, but it was basically a work truck with vinyl seats and an anemic 160-horsepower V-6 engine. By 2007, Ford charged $25,995 as the price of entry for an Explorer XLT with 210 horsepower, an automatic transmission, four airbags, stability control, a tire pressure monitor (mandated for all cars thanks to Ford and Firestone's exploding tire debacle) and a bunch of other features unthinkable a decade before. Today, an Explorer without any options lists for $32,605. It has grown considerably inside and out and now rides on a car-based platform rather than a pickup-derived frame as it did a decade ago. That '98 would sticker for almost $32,600 today. 

1998 Jeep Cherokee Limited

1998 Jeep Cherokee Limited

Jeep Cherokee - 4 percent more expensive today

As long as we're on the topic, the venerable Jeep Cherokee that essentially invented the SUV class cost buyers $15,965 in 1998. At the bottom end, it was a basic two-door machine with merely 125-hp sent to the rear wheels via a 5-speed stick and it lacked any semblance of luxury aside from an AM/FM radio with a pair of speakers. By 2007, the Cherokee had been replaced by the $22,025 Jeep Liberty that came with a 210-hp V-6, a CD player, power windows and locks, anti-lock brakes, and stability control. The Cherokee was rebooted a few years ago and now it's not only 15 inches longer than the original, it's $24,590 with a 9-speed automatic and a 184-horsepower 4-cylinder, not to mention a full complement of airbags and a touchscreen audio system. In 2017 dollars, the '98 would run $23,600.

2017 Hyundai Elantra Sport

2017 Hyundai Elantra Sport

Hyundai Elantra - 5 percent more expensive today

Back in 1998, Hyundai was just starting to gain a foothold in the U.S. Its Elantra listed for $11,514, money that didn't buy you a radio, air conditioning, or even a folding rear seat. By 2007, the Elantra itself was far superior but still pretty Spartan; it had six airbags anti-lock brakes, and power windows, but you still didn't get a radio for your $13,995. Today's Elantra lacks little for $17,985. In today's dollars, the '98 would run about $17,200, a testament to Hyundai's value pricing over the years. 

Our findings

While not a comprehensive look at car pricing over the last two decades, our research indicates that some of the most popular cars are considerably less expensive today than they were decades ago when the value of the dollar over time is factored in.

Of course, today's cars benefit from the trickle-down effect of new car features over time. You'll be hard-pressed to find a new car today with window cranks and a multitude of airbags, let alone one without air conditioning, at least a couple of USB ports, and Bluetooth connectivity.  

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