How To Buy a Low-Tech Car
Car-Shopping Tips for Technophobes
If Bluetooth's a bother, navigation systems make you nervous and drilling down is something your dentist does, you are in a distinct minority these days. And you probably find car shopping a chore.
Technology's the name of the game now. For many car buyers, connectivity trumps horsepower. For them, the best instrument panels have sprouted slick touchscreen displays and infotainment systems that control everything and replace those once-familiar knobs and switches.
But what's a poor technophobe to do? Is it possible to find a low-tech car?
You might not guess it after strolling though a few dealerships, but cars and trucks with limited technology still can be found if you are willing to work at it. And there still are plenty of low-tech used vehicles: even some that haven't yet been classified as classics. To find them, though, takes patience and willingness to compromise.
Low-tech vehicles usually don't come with much in the way of interior or exterior upgrades, and they certainly aren't highlighted in automaker and dealer advertising. In a few more years, the things that are now considered advanced technologies may be commonplace on even the most basic models.
There has been huge growth in the number and complexity of electronics features on passenger vehicles, says Paul Green, a research professor at the University of Michigan. Green's specialty is identifying ways to make vehicle technologies safer and easy to use.
How bad has it gotten? In tracking just one model, the Infiniti G, over a seven-year period, Green found that the total number of pages in this entry-level luxury car's multiple owner's manuals grew by an average of 30 a year. That means the owner of a 2013 Infiniti G has to read the equivalent of a small novel to understand how to operate all the new features that have been added since 2006.
What Low-Tech Car Shoppers Want
Just as all cars are not alike, technology-averse car shoppers don't all slip from the same mold.
There are, of course, the traditional Luddites: people who believe technology diminishes humanity and want nothing to do with it.
But there also are those who'd rather avoid complex technologies because they can't, or won't, take the time to learn how to use them.
Some want to avoid technology that they see as increasing distraction because it requires drivers to look at information screens while operating the vehicle.
There are motoring purists who want nothing to come between them and the hands-on driving experience.
And there are some car buyers who rankle at automakers' propensity to bundle groups of technologies so they must pay for things they don't want in order to get the things they do. Why should you have to buy a navigation system when all you want is Bluetooth and an iPod connection?
Most of what these low-tech car shoppers want to avoid are the features that are lumped under the heading "infotainment." These features are increasingly being fitted into systems that replace knobs and switches with joysticks, touch-sensitive buttons and sliders and voice commands, or some combination thereof.
It's often not what the technology offers that's a problem. It's the real or perceived difficulty in using the systems, or learning how to use them, that pushes some buyers away.
Play With Technology Before You Buy
The best thing to do if you want a car with the least complex and intrusive electronic systems is to limit your shopping to brands that have tended to lag behind in adopting new technologies, says automotive infotainment systems expert Doug Newcomb. He and several Edmunds.com reviewers all mentioned Kia, Mazda and Subaru as good brands to check out.
Or look for an automaker that has taken pains to keep operation of its infotainment offerings simple. Newcomb's suggestion in that category is Nissan.
And whatever you do while you're shopping, "get in the car and play with whatever technologies it does have," Newcomb says. "Make sure you can figure them out and get used to them."
Otherwise, no matter how much you like the rest of a car and its features, you won't be getting the full benefit. In some cases, you might not even be able to figure out how to tune a radio station or adjust the climate control system without reading a thick manual or watching an instructional DVD.
Whatever your reason for wanting a low-tech car with minimal infotainment options, here are several strategies that can make it easier to find a vehicle that will be a good fit.
The easiest way to find a low-tech car or truck is to avoid the new vehicles that come laden with the stuff. Buy older, previously owned models. The older it is, the more likely it is to be low-tech.
Most of the high-tech automotive infotainment systems came in with the advent of smartphones and the technologies, such as touchscreens and hands-free controls that made them work. Increasingly, the ability to link a smartphone directly into a vehicle's infotainment center is enabling automakers to offer richer (and more complex) systems.
The technology tipping point was 2006, says professional auto shopper Christopher F. Abrahms, owner of the Cars for All brokerage in Burbank, California. Cars and trucks built before then are less likely to be overloaded with complex technology systems. Of course, a real Luddite might concentrate on pre-1970s vehicles to avoid almost all of the modern era's entertainment technologies.
A good strategy for low-tech car shoppers, especially for those who want to buy new, is to look for vehicles that are at the end of their model cycle, meaning that they are about to be replaced with upgraded, redesigned versions in the next model year.
Cars typically undergo significant updates once every four or five years, with smaller, often cosmetic, changes in the model years in between. Grabbing a 2013 model that is at the end of its cycle won't get you a tech-free car or truck, but it almost certainly will get you one that has fewer gadgets than does a model that was new or redesigned for the 2013 model year.
Buy Base Models
Technology packages escalate a vehicle's price, and increase in complexity as the prices go higher. A luxury model is far more likely than the base model in any lineup to be loaded with the latest in audio, navigation, communications and climate-control technologies, along with the voice- or touch-command operating systems that run them.
"If you buy a base model, you avoid a lot of the more difficult-to-use technology, and you avoid having to pay for it," says Jay Green. The 35-year automotive retailing veteran has been finding cars and trucks for customers of his Los Angeles-based AutoSeek.com for more than a decade.
If your taste and budget runs to the deluxe version of a car or truck, finding it in a base model can eliminate most or all of the technology you don't want. You can always move the vehicle upscale with fancier wheels, leather upholstery and other non-tech upgrades from automotive aftermarket companies, or often directly from the dealership.
Special Order It
Another avenue for those who prefer new low-tech cars to used ones and don't mind waiting is to special order a model from a dealership.
Most carmakers allow special orders, says Abrahms, whose customers include a number of entertainment-industry personalities and sports figures whose demand for custom touches have tested many of the special order systems.
You can start with a base model and add the things you want, he says. It's not always possible to select items one by one, however. Some come bundled in preset packages. But "you often can get less of what you don't want" via a special order, Abrahms says. It is also possible with many special-order vehicles to replace the base model's often small, underpowered engine with a more powerful one.
The drawback is that special-order vehicles take time. Abrahms says most domestic brands can turn out a special-order vehicle in 60-90 days. Most import brands are on a 90-120-day schedule. Some manufacturers have fairly limited selections on their special-order menus. American Honda, for instance, offers only preconfigured packages that don't provide customers the ability to select individual features from a master menu.
Hire a Shopper
In the search for the right low-tech car, a shopper could spend lots of time poring over hundreds of makes and models. The number climbs to thousands if the shopper is considering used vehicles as well. One way to tackle the search is to hire a professional.
Some call themselves car brokers; others say they offer car concierge services. Whichever description they use, both types charge fees and say they will get you the best deal possible. Check their Web sites and independent sites for consumer reviews and interview a few before you make a decision.
If you do decide to go with one of them, make a list of what you want and don't want and let your expert do the hunting.
Surrender... a Little
A final avenue is to welcome these new automotive technologies, but only on your own terms. Shop for cars whose onboard technologies are relatively easy to use and don't require lots of manual reading or continual interaction every time you get behind the wheel. In other words, find infotainment systems that are pretty much automated and give you "set it and forget it" capability for most major functions. Besides that, you can pare down your list of candidates by zeroing in on vehicles with less expensive tech options.
The Two-Car Option
That's what Jon Warshawsky did. The 46-year-old Southern California-based technology consultant is neither a Luddite nor someone unable to comprehend and use the electronic technologies that come on most modern vehicles. What he does object to, though, is technology that he sees as unnecessary or overly expensive.
To solve his problems, Warshawsky takes a two-pronged approach. He keeps a 1956 Porsche 356 in the garage for those days when he wants nothing electronic to come between him and his driving experience. And he consciously shops for modern cars that provide only the technologies he absolutely needs or has to have to facilitate other things.
"I just leased a 2013 Audi TT, and it has a $2,000 navigation system that I don't think is a very good one, but I had to get it to be able to link my iPhone," he said. "Audi also offers rear parking sensors for the TT, which I thought was mind-blowing. If you can't park an Audi TT without help from back-up sensors, you shouldn't be driving a car."
Paying for Obsolescence
One thing that drove him to the TT, Warshawsky says, is that he'd also looked at a new Porsche Boxster "and I'd have had to spend $7,000 for a navigation system to be able to connect an Apple device. I already have navigation on my iPhone, so why spend that much? The Audi was a cheaper alternative."
Warshawsky bridles at being forced by automakers to buy technologies that are hard-wired into his car and that he knows will become obsolete before the car wears out. In that, he echoes leasing specialist Jay Green.
That $3,000 navigation system in your new car's dashboard "is most likely going to be outdated in three years," Green says. He estimates that a $2,500-$3,000 navigation system on a 2013 model car will lose most of its value and add no more than $300 to its resale value in three years when compared to a 2013 base model.
Get Used to It
Car companies say their new cars and trucks are tech-heavy because customers demand it. The vast majority, they say, want to be able to replicate in their personal vehicles the connectivity, choice and control they enjoy at home with their remote- and voice-operated smartphones, tablets, personal computers and customized music playlists.
It's clear that high-tech information, entertainment and safety- and performance-enhancing systems aren't going to go away. Those who prefer low-tech cars ultimately will have to learn to adjust, or resign themselves to owning only older vehicles.
"People who don't want technology in their cars are a distinct minority," says infotainment specialist Newcomb. "People stand in line for two days to buy the latest iPhone and the car companies want those customers. You can't stop progress."