A few years ago I was suckered in by the prospect of a driverless tomorrow. My children would ping around from city to city on future-y trains that could pick them up without ever stopping. Or on moving sidewalks. Or in self-driving cars, with banquette seating and open bars! I believed in that last one hardcore. I figured we were mere years away from never having to set foot to pedal to get wherever we wanted to go.
I should’ve known better. I was already old enough to know that the world I live in is always ready to let me down, and yet I thought the auto industry, out of everyone, was somehow exempt from that rule. Reader, you’re not gonna believe this, but it is not. I wanted flying cars. Instead I got a pandemic, hoax miracle buses, bug-infested driverless cars retrofitted to deliver shitty pizza, a deteriorating American infrastructure that will never be repaired, and more goddamn cars. Our real future, one unfolding before us right now, is one where cars not only remain legion, but where the expensive ones dominate.
I know because I live in the Washington, D.C. area, where you can’t get out of bed without stumbling into some asshole lobbyist’s X3. Last year, during the pandemic, wealthy Americans bought even more cars than they usually do, which artificially inflated the average price of new cars sold across the board. Given that the K-shaped economic recovery has already begun in earnest, that artificial inflation may soon become permanent with cars, just as it has with homes and private schools.
Now, you can still buy “affordable” cars, like a base-model Honda Civic that retails for just under $22,000. Or the lowest trim-level of the new Toyota Sienna, which clocks in at $35,000, give or take. But in terms of style, comfort, and amenities, many of those base-model cars treat you like absolute shit, and everyone on the road knows it.
I know it because I test drove a base-model Honda Odyssey, which I despised. I felt like I was driving the Spirit Airlines of cars. Then I test drove an Elite model of that same minivan and suddenly—whether it was the blue ambient LED lighting on the dashboard or the air-conditioned seat that made me feel like Irish forest nymphs were fanning my otherwise gruesome ass—it was like I was driving a whole different vehicle. I was upsold. Spiritually, a Honda Odyssey should never cost more than $100. But after my encounter with the base model, I gladly paid $40,000-plus for the Touring edition. (The top-spec Elite was just a hair too elite for my taste). It became the most expensive new car I’ve ever bought, and it was a goddamn Honda Odyssey. But at least it was a nice one. And now I understand that $40,000 represents the entry barrier to any new car I’d actually want to drive.
I’m not alone in that. It’s why rich people kept on buying cars in the middle of a death plague while the rest of America had to exercise even more fiscal restraint than usual. Whether you’re rich or poor, you still know the exact difference between a really nice car and a merely mortal one. Knowing that difference—whether it’s through test drives, or Uber rides, or the simple wonder of advertising—is enough to make you want to save your money and wait, or never buy a new car at all. I didn’t buy that fancy new Odyssey ten years ago. I bought a piece-of-shit used Sienna instead. It did the job, and that’s all it did. It had little in the way of aspirational value. And I have now lived long enough to see that kind of value expand far beyond the luxury brands. You can find it in a Toyota Sienna now, just as you can find it across every class of car. For a price.
As a result, there is no middle class of new car anymore. You’re either driving a really nice new car, a deeply unsatisfying new car, or a very old used car. As a result, the median age of new car buyers here in America is well over 50 years old, the top half of the market has blown sky-high, and the average car on the road is older than it’s been at any time in this century.
In theory, all of this should be enough to wean Americans off of cars—if not in totality, then at least partway. All of the cultural prerequisites for an alt-transportation future America are already in place. The pandemic gave city dwellers an affinity for all-pedestrian thoroughfares. Americans are putting off getting their driver’s licenses longer than they ever have. Young Americans are more liberal—and therefore more openly hostile toward big industry—than they’ve ever been, which sounds like a rerun but actually isn’t. Uber, despite being Uber, remains a heavily-used mode of transport. And everyone who owns an e-bike won’t shut the fuck up about it. We have everything we need to render most new cars obsolete, which would be good for both the planet and for your atrophying gluteal muscles.
Have we? Fuck and no, we haven’t. Americans personally love nice cars and will go to great lengths to stay in them. They’ll take advantage of low interest rates or ever-longer loans to buy ones they can’t afford. They’ll pick an SUV over a sedan for the sake of their own ego (Stellantis head designer Ralph Gilles told me that utility vehicles are by far the largest selling auto segment in this country, and all you have to do is look around to know he’s right). They’ll read this magazine. They’ll buy electric cars, but only those with the imprimatur of a high-end brand like Tesla or Porsche. And they’ll buy multiple cars because the idea of splitting just one car between the whole family is horrifying to them.
I fit into all of those generalizations. I could have paid the fat repair bill on our base 2011 Sienna and kept driving it. Or I could have ditched it altogether in favor of ride-sharing and just plain walking. I didn’t. I bought a new car instead. An exclusively gasoline-powered one, no less. And now I’m side-eyeing my other car (it’s a 2012 Kia Soul Exclaim with houndstooth interior that cost me less than $20,000; none of what I just told you is a joke) and daydreaming of the time when I’ll be able to swap that out for a sterling new Alfa Romeo or some other cool shit. Big Car has my consumer profile nailed, and it’s more than happy to cater to my whims to prevent its own obsolescence.
To that end, Americans aren’t sick of cars. If anything, we’re in the midst of a frenzy to get our hands on any car we can find—especially with a global chip shortage denting our current supply. And we want that car to be as nice as advertised.
So, as with fancy houses and college tuition, cars now occupy their own economic bubble of expensive, outmoded goods; a bubble that has been institutionally and socially engineered to never pop. I hope good cars get cheaper. I hope that you, the Road & Track reader, don’t have to borrow from your dream home renovation fund just so you can afford a decent version of the Toyota Camry. I hope you never need any Camry of any sort, really. But if this year has taught me anything about cars, and about everything in general, it’s that people will stop at nothing to get whatever they, and the world at large, cannot afford to have.
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