The price of the car, as well as the rent, is too high

From the December 2023 issue Car and Driver.

For the past two decades or so, it has been my unfounded but firmly held belief that new cars should not cost more than $30,000. I’m not saying this makes sense, just that my financial perceptions were calcified a long time ago and it’s hard for me to deal with. Boy, how much is this lemonade? It should be 25 cents a cup, at most. Corvettes should be around 50k and most plane tickets should be $300 round trip. I’m only pleasantly surprised by prices when I buy a TV and find that the 32-inch Samsung is no longer $2,500. And when I drive a Chevy Trax, it causes a sort of rear sticker shock.

Yes, there are cars that cost less than the Trax’s base price of $21,495. But most of them wear their penury like a scarlet letter, reeking of cheapness and offering the bare minimum of equipment. And hey, if you want to rub your cost per mile to the carpet and increase the mileage of the Mitsubishi Mirage, much respect. But the Trax doesn’t make obvious cheap cuts—and believe me, I looked. Satellite radio uses an actual satellite dish, not a cell-based app (hello Lucid). Physical switches don’t get multiple functions (Tesla, Volkswagen) or reimagined as touchscreen buttons (everyone, basically). He even carries a real spare tire instead of a box of ACME Puncture-B-Gon. Okay, how did they do it? In search of some answers, I called Scott McLain, Trax’s Lead Development Engineer.

One path to the Trax’s affordability, McLain says, is the drivetrain’s simplicity. “By not having three engines and two transmissions, you can concentrate on making that one package the best it can be.” And the three cylinders are cheaper than the four, with the turbocharger tightening the torque curve so no one will feel the difference. There’s no four-wheel drive, but cutting a frugal price is an exercise in compromises – ideally ones that go unnoticed.

Michael Simari|Car and Driver

“The things you touch should feel like a more expensive vehicle,” McLain says. So the $24,995 Trax 2RS gets a wraparound steering wheel but no power seats. These seats are upholstered in faux leather, not real, but today’s synthetics look better than some of GM’s real leather from not too long ago. Perhaps internal cost-cutting strategies have advanced along with horsepower gains. An automotive interior designer once told me, “I was at Nissan and they told me to take $1,000 off the interior of the car. So I went to Bentley.” These days you have to hire a termite to tell which wood trim is real.

Some features considered high-end a few years ago, such as LED headlights, have followed the trajectory of flat-screen TV costs and are now considered standard fare. “Active noise cancellation is interesting,” McLain says. “All the way to the base equipment we have active noise cancellation. These things are becoming more common.”

The Trax goes without a high-end stereo, which I guess is an indication that no supplier could hit the set cost target. When the $18,985 Nissan Kicks debuted with an optional Bose stereo on the higher SR trim, a Nissan product planner told me, “It’s impressive what they’ve been able to do with it. If you give someone a budget of, say, $100 per car to build a stereo, they have to be creative.” That $100 per car statistic sounded like it wasn’t hypothetical.

Many of the cost increases of the past few years smack of companies jacking up prices because they can, blaming the pesky nebulous boogie of inflation. I hope the Trax and other good affordable cars—the Mazda CX-30, Subaru Crosstrek, Honda Civic, and Toyota Corolla to name a few—see their sales swell along with the backlash against rising prices. Two decades ago I decided that $30,000 should get you a damn nice car. Despite everything, it still is.

Main photo by Ezra Dyer

Senior Editor

Ezra Dyer is a Car and Driver senior editor and columnist. Now he’s in North Carolina, but he still remembers how to turn right. He has owned a GEM e4 since 2009 and once drove it at 206 mph. These facts are mutually exclusive.

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