IRVINE, Calif. -- For fun, Mike Redmon tools around in a stock 1970 AMC Javelin, a sporty coupe that came equipped with the then-luxurious options of power steering and brakes, an AM/FM radio -- and not much else.
By contrast, his son Brandon bought a Dodge pickup crammed with so many standard features he says it took weeks to discover them all.
"I didn't even know there were fog lights," he sheepishly admits as they stand around at a car show in this Orange County community.
Many people contemplating an entry-level small car for the first time in a while -- such as gas-price-conscious buyers trading down or parents shopping for their 2008 college grad -- may be surprised at the features on today's models.
Listed below are options considered "essential" to car shoppers in 1985 vs 2007:
The stripped-down, entry-level econoboxes -- such as Pintos, Vegas and, yes, venerable Volkswagen Beetles -- and their "strippo" price tags are long gone. New cars today come brimming with just about everything a buyer could expect -- from air conditioning to air bags -- standard.
"When you put a 20-year-old into a car with a manual (crank) window, they act as if it came from the Stone Age," says Jesse Toprak, industry analyst for car buying site Edmunds.com.
The evolution is putting the brakes on profits, however, for an auto industry already coping with the economic slowdown. In the past, automakers sold stripped cars to buyers who saw them as the alternative to buying a fancier used vehicle. The cheapest models were offered with razor-thin profit margins on the assumption that most customers would add some higher-margin options and pad the bottom line.
Now, to compete for buyers, even low-end cars come loaded at the base price. Sometimes the extras include pretty fancy stuff: Suzuki told USA TODAY Thursday that its entry-level crossover, the 2009 SX4, will be the first vehicle under $16,000 to have a navigation system as standard equipment. It arrives in August.
"A lot of things that used to be optional equipment are fairly standard now, like air conditioning and automatic transmissions," says Art Spinella of CNW Marketing.
That leaves automakers less leeway in building profits on those small cars. The problem is growing for them as record gas prices boost sales of the small cars and leave more profitable SUVs and big cars sitting on dealer lots.
Blame higher buyer expectations for the change, Spinella says. In 1985, fewer than 12% of drivers considered backup lights, cup holders, rear-window defrosters, a car stereo, power seats or door locks to be essential when buying a new car. By last year, all of those features were rated as must-haves by half or more potential buyers, CNW found.
"The environment has changed," says Robert Davis, senior vice president for Mazda's North American operation. He says nobody buys "that stripped car."
Automakers still offer a few -- there might be one or two on a dealer's lot to lure shoppers by advertising a rock-bottom price. They know most buyers will be turned off and can be sold a more profitable model.
Hyundai, for instance, offers entry-level Accents with crank windows, but "it's a dying breed" and "we don't sell a heck of a lot of them," says Tim Benner, the South Korean automaker's product development manager.
Toyota, too, clings to roll-ups on its Corolla, but shoppers will have a hard time finding one on a lot without the $625 "power package," which also includes power door locks.
A Fit for a King
Honda has packed those and more into even its smallest, cheapest sedan: the Fit.
The base-level Fit, for a starting price of $13,950, also comes with front, side and side-curtain air bags, air conditioning, a 160-watt audio system with CD player and four speakers, anti-lock brakes and a rear-window wiper/washer, to name a few.
By comparison, the base-level Honda Civic of 20 years ago had none of those features standard (and some didn't exist). Even an AM radio was optional. It did come with a rear-window defroster, tinted glass and mud guards.
A comparison of cars then and now doesn't take into account something else that car buyers take for granted today: higher overall quality. By and large, entry-level cars no longer have poorly fitting panels, cheesy vinyl seats and no padding to dampen engine and road noise.
"You don't give up quality or good design when you go into a smaller vehicle today," says Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation, the country's largest new car dealer chain. With the "econoboxes" of yore, "You couldn't wait to get out of it," he says.
The Redmons, who live in Whittier, Calif., say they can see firsthand how things have changed. All they have to do is compare that Javelin -- handed down to the family from his wife's mother -- to just about any new vehicle sharing the street.
"You can get a stripper car and it has everything on it," says Mike, 50, a railroad brakeman. He says prices of the cheapest cars are low enough that no buyer will accept fewer features.
Brandon, 22, a machinist, says his Dodge Dakota "came with everything I wanted" and more, such as the fog lamps and an MP3 jack.
Among other factors beyond rising buyer expectations that are driving the growing lists of standard features:
Cars last longer, so drivers are inclined to want more creature comforts, standard and optional, in the belief they will be using a vehicle longer or that it will have more value when they sell it. The median age of a car on the road last year was 9.2 years, up from 8.4 in 2002, R.L. Polk reported.
Used car buyers eschew stripped cars. That's a key reason rental car companies, a large provider of late-model used cars in the market, typically buy cars with power windows, door locks, alloy wheels and other features.
One of them, Hertz, makes sure it has CD players in most vehicles and DVD players in minivans, says spokesman Rich Broome. He says cars need more features now just to be popular for rental. "The market has shifted. Now the features people want on their car at home, they want on their rental car."
Safety and environmental requirements have added features to cars and trucks. They began in the 1960s with seat belts and today include systems that tell drivers when their tire pressure is becoming dangerously low.
Consumer-safety concerns have led automakers even to pile on extras not required. Small cars often come standard with six front and side air bags that only recently were an optional setup in bigger, more expensive cars.
Some former options, such as air conditioning, have become so popular that it would cost automakers more to delete them from a small number of cars, so they go ahead and make them standard equipment. "It simplifies automakers' lives," Spinella says.
Also, some former options have fallen in price so much that it's cheaper to make them standard. Toprak says an automaker might typically pay only about $30 for an AM/FM stereo to also have a CD player.
Demand for electronics
Younger potential small-car buyers, such as this season's college graduates, grew up wired to PCs and iPods and expect that kind of tech sophistication in their cars. Cars are getting more power ports to plug in electronic devices and stereo input jacks for MP3 players.
Technology first seen on expensive vehicles is working its way down the value chain. Even the cheapest cars -- Fit and Corolla among them -- are getting built-in navigation systems as options. Suzuki SX4's standard navigation will include real-time traffic updates and the ability to guide you to the service station with the cheapest gas.
Ford says 40% of its entry-level Ford Focus sedans are being ordered with a $395 Sync system developed with Microsoft that lets drivers control the stereo by voice command and use Bluetooth-enabled cellphones hands-free. Many young buyers wouldn't consider going without such high-tech comforts. "We sit marveling ... at what they are buying," says Sam De La Garza, the brand manager for Focus.