A cheap car used to feel like what it was: a cheap car. That’s no longer the case, and it’s due in part to exceptionally careful cost-cutting. Car manufacturers trim pennies here and dollars there in ways not always obvious to consumers.
Here’s a look at a few tricks automakers use and how they’re passed onto consumers.
2019 Subaru Ascent first drive
1. Platform sharing
New cars are all about scalability, at least in terms of what you can’t readily see. Peel a new car’s fenders back and you’ll probably find a lot of things shared between models in the automaker’s lineup, even if they look very different.
Car manufacturers call it scalable architecture and it’s a relatively recent development that lets them stretch what’s underneath to make cars larger or smaller. Common mounting points for suspension and powertrain parts help automakers shave development and production costs.
For example: Subaru and VW are consolidating their lineups to just a single platform each for everything from compact cars to three-row crossover SUVs.
2018 Honda Civic
2. Forgotten features
The CD player has gone the way of the tape player, which bit the dust a few years after the 8-track. Eventually, wireless charging pads and streaming music will do the same for USB ports.
But not all features bite the dust due to irrelevance. Automakers sometimes restrict small features like one-touch power windows, map pockets, rear-seat air vents, split-folding rear seats, and illuminated vanity mirrors to higher-spec trim levels. These aren’t usually deal-breakers and they help automakers trim costs to keep models and trim levels price-competitive.
For example: The 2018 Honda Civic LX lacks a map pocket on the back of the passenger’s seat. The Civic EX has one.
2018 Toyota Camry XLE Hybrid
3. First class up front, coach class in the rear
On a test drive, most shoppers will tap their fingers across a new car’s dashboard and door panels. In all but the most price-conscious segments, automakers want shoppers to hear a solid thunk and to feel a soft-touch material—up front, at least.
What happens in the rear seat stays in the rear seat, at least at a certain price level. Most compact sedans and crossovers use cheaper materials on their rear-seat door panels. If your rear passengers are more likely to bark or to ride in a child seat, they probably won’t care. But now you know.
For example: It’s hard to pick on just one automaker for skimping on rear-seating area materials, but at some point (cough, Tesla) hard trim panels begin to look as inexpensive as they are.
2019 Volkswagen Jetta
4. Simplified suspension
A car’s suspension is arguably its hardest-working component, but it’s a cost-effective place for automakers to save money.
A torsion-beam rear suspension has long been a go-to for inexpensive cars for its simple, durable design. Compared to more complex multi-link rear suspension designs used in higher-end and sportier cars, torsion-beams have fewer moving parts. While they get the job done, there is often a trade-off in rough-road ride quality and at-the-limit handling that few drivers are likely to encounter with regularity.
For example: The 2019 VW Jetta moved from a multi-link design in last year’s model to a torsion-beam setup for this year.
2018 Hyundai Kona first drive
5. À la carte no more
Ordering a new car used to be a daunting task. Prospective buyers needed to spend time to whittle their way through extensive lists of optional extras.
Today, most new cars are offered in only a handful of configurations deemed easily sellable by an automaker’s dealers and its product planning department—maybe a few trim levels and an option package or two, rather than a bevy of individual options. Ford is the latest car manufacturer to announce plans to slice the number of feature and trim level combinations possible.
This simplification is both a boon and a detriment. For buyers who want to take home their new car immediately, it means that odds are good that one close to what they want is waiting on a dealer’s lot. Yet it also means that buyers are often be saddled with costly features they might not want. Or even, that they can’t buy the car in a color they like.
For example: Hyundai is perhaps the most extreme when it comes to funneling buyers into specific configurations. Want a Kona SEL in blue or red? The automaker says you’ll have to buy a $1,500 option package, too.