2018 Toyota Camry XLE HybridEnlarge Photo
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 JettaEnlarge Photo
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 driveEnlarge Photo
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.