Image Isn't Everything

Image Isn't Everything

Image Isn't Everything

Remember that line in Bull Durham? No, not the one about the Bermuda Triangle. I'm talking about when Kevin Costner's character (Crash) gives his little diatribe to Susan Sarandon (Annie) about what he believes in. Honestly, I'm not a huge Costner fan, and I'm really not that big of a Bull Durham fan. But I did find this particular dialogue an effective method for conveying a lot of information about a person in a short span of time. Because this is my first official editorial column, and considering that you're reading it on the hurry-up-and-get-to-the-point Internet, I feel a similar method can be employed to get you quickly up to speed on who I am and what this column is going to be about.

Seatbelts fastened? Here we go...

I believe that there is no perfect car, but there are several perfectly horrid cars. I believe the rear wheels should be used to push a performance vehicle, leaving the front wheels to the simple, yet crucial, task of steering it. I believe that if you want the ultimate sportscar, the engine has to sit behind the driver, but if you want a solid entertainment device, a front-engine vehicle works just fine (as long as the proper wheels are pushing it). I believe that BMW building a tall, all-wheel-drive station wagon may border on heresy, but when this same company, which claims to build the "ultimate driving machine," lightens the steering in the 3 Series, it is a full-scale tragedy. I believe that being correct is far more important than being politically correct. I believe that far too many automotive journalists rate cars based on driving them in a perfect world rather than living with them in the real world. I believe that individuals who have never experienced poverty shouldn't assume they know what's best for the poverty-stricken. I believe that GM has the ability to design and build a truly fantastic car (Corvette); I just wish they'd exercise this ability more than once every seven years. I believe that it shows far more knowledge and wisdom to come up with a better system than it does simply to tear down the current one. I believe that attaining fame and fortune does not automatically make you an expert on: the environment, human (or animal) rights, or parenthood. I believe that image is everything for those who have no imagination, and, similarly, I believe that you can buy any vehicle you'd ever really need for less than $30,000. Oh, and just to steal one line, verbatim, from the movie that inspired my own diatribe, I also believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Any one of the above topics could generate an entire editorial piece and, in future columns, they probably will (except for that Lee Harvey Oswald bit — talk about a subject that's been revisited a couple dozen times too often). For my opening piece, however, I'll explain why you never have to spend more than $30,000 for a vehicle.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the $30,000 price point, you should know that automotive manufacturers are well aware of this figure. They understand that once a vehicle crosses the $30,000 price point, the target audience changes dramatically. Buyers of sub-$30,000 cars usually think in terms of necessity. Buyers over the $30,000 barrier are interested in luxury and perceived image. Certainly there's nothing wrong with image, but never forget that, at least in the world of high-end cars and trucks, it costs money (which raises another interesting question; specifically, what truly makes a person cool or not cool? We'll save that topic for yet another future column). Money, of course, is a quantifiable, measurable item with real value, while image offers only the value you think it offers — or the value you think other people think it offers.

With this in mind, it stands to reason that if you don't require anything more than functional, utilitarian transportation, you need never spend more than $30,000. Want some examples? OK, the minivan market. Depending on the model you want and the options you desire, you can easily pass the $34,000 mark. But a Honda Odyssey EX with everything you'd ever really need, plus some cool toys like power-sliding doors and a GPS system, goes for around $28,500. Admittedly, this particular vehicle is in high demand and is often sold for more than MSRP, but I didn't say it was always easy to find the right vehicle for under $30,000, just possible. Do some work and find a dealer that values long-term customer loyalty over short-term profits. They're out there, trust me.

But maybe you feel that example is too easy. OK, how about the SUV market? That segment has been a hotbed of corporate profits for nearly a decade, but does that mean you have to help the manufacturers fill their coffers with the high margins they reap on this vehicle type? If you want the premium name brand, the answer is a resounding yes. A two-wheel-drive Lincoln Navigator, for example, stickers at $43,915. But the same vehicle with a Ford badge, the Expedition, goes for $29,990 — and our current True Market Value (TMV®) lists it at $27,087. Heck, if you want to go with TMV, get a four-wheel-drive Expedition for $29,606. And, if you really need seven-passenger seating capacity, but don't actually need a big, honkin' SUV, consider a Dodge Durango for around $26,000 (less, if Chrysler is running its usual incentives) or even a Suzuki XL-7 (yes, this vehicle will hold seven average-sized adults and is quite capable off-road) which starts at around $20,000. Admittedly, the Suzuki nameplate is far down the image ladder from Lincoln, but both the Suzuki and the Dodge will provide the same basic people-hauling and off-roading utility (actually, the Durango is better than the Navigator/Expedition off-road).

Minivans and SUVs — not exactly where it's at in terms of driving fun, right? What if you have passion for driving but, like me, still can't justify more than $30,000 for a vehicle? Got a hankering for a mid-engine sportscar but can't cough up the $40,000-plus for a Boxster? Check out Toyota's new MR2. As fast and furious as the Porsche? No. As fun? Undeniably, yes. And, at half the money, far less frivolous.

What about a sport sedan? You can get a base model BMW or Audi for less than 30 grand, but add the sport package and some basic options to make these "premium" sedans actually feel premium, and you could easily blow the $30,000 barrier — and we're still talking base engines here. Try the new Subaru WRX, instead. Again, Subaru isn't a premium brand, but if you're really after a sport sedan, not an image builder, the WRX is a premium ride. Or if all you care about is the premium nameplate, with performance as a secondary concern, snag an Acura TL, sans Type S hardware or nav system. Short of buying a used car, the Acura TL is an impossible value to beat.

If all-out, seat-of-the-pants, second-childhood type of performance is your goal, a loaded Firebird or Camaro, including luxury items and performance options, will barely crack $28,000 while delivering 320 horsepower and 0-to-60 times in the low 5-second range. Even a limited edition Cobra SVT Mustang, complete with independent rear suspension, lands under $30,000 and still boasts 320 of its own ponies.

Now, am I suggesting that no one should ever spend more than $30K for an automobile? No, I'm just making it abundantly clear that no one ever has to spend over 30 grand to get a vehicle that covers any and all needs of the American driver.

OK, these cars might not cover every need, but impressing the neighbors or trying to land a supermodel doesn't count.

I can't put a value on those needs, because to me they're worthless. But negotiate a screaming deal on a pony car, SUV or minivan that will do everything its "premium" brothers do at half the price, and I'll show you the definition of value.

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