We’ve all done this exercise when shopping for wheels: once you’ve narrowed down your choice to a make and model, you choose the engine type and size (usually with far greater outputs than what you actually require) and select the transmission of your preference. Next up, you might wonder whether the vehicle’s paint finish bears any resemblance to its name… Think about Iridium Silver – how many people know what Iridium is, let alone what it looks like? Lastly, you want to know what’s standard and additionally specified on the cars on your shortlist, because those specs might be deal-breakers.
Could it be that, when it comes to purchasing vehicles, South African motorists are more concerned with their Flake chocolates and colourful sugary sprinkles than they are with their disposable cups of soft serve?
The first time this question sprung to my mind was when I was only 23 years old. Having procured an entry-level Japanese compact saloon through a windfall, I toyed with the idea of selling it to a used-vehicle dealer in North End, Port Elizabeth and using the cash yield as a deposit on an Italian chariot on which I had my eye.
The response from said dealer was frank and blunt: “Look, apart from the fact that this car is still new, it’s a kaalgat car. Buyers in the used market want cars with extras, otherwise they’d rather buy something new off the floor.”
Having overcome my brief dejection, I subsequently traded in my windfall car anyway and purchased my first Alfa Romeo with the help of a friendly banker … and vowed to never own a basic car again, unless I was to be reincarnated as a varsity student, scale down for my retirement or start a car-rental business.
These days, there are very few kaalgat cars in the market. At least most of those classed as entry-level will have power steering, airconditioning and ABS. Few come without central locking and one or two airbags and, in the light-car segment, you’re likely to get electric windows up front even if there are windy-windys at the back. In fact, the Korean
and French marques have managed to add a lot of standard kit even into their runabout models and, as a result, automotive consumers have become rather discerning … and a little lazy.
If ever you needed proof that we’ve become a motoring public that is hooked on the convenience offered by on-board electronics, look at the plethora of automated systems that
are on offer: automatically activated lights and rain-sensing wipers, self-dipping rear-view mirrors, multi-function steering wheels, cruise control (assisted by radar guidance, in some cases), climate control, etc.
With respect to products offered by the majority of German marques in our market, those indulgent gizmos are generally costly options on anything other than compact executive saloons and more expensive models. They present nice-to-have features for those who buy generously specified vehicles secondhand but, when those bargain hunters take delivery of their new vehicles, they’re bound to suffer a letdown…
Many people prefer to drive with their lights on permanently (the traffic authorities promote it) and, when it starts to rain, we have to activate the automatic wipers by using a stalk, anyway. Electro-chromatic mirrors help if the odd oaf leaves his vehicle’s lights on high beam while trailing your car in night-time driving conditions. Cruise control is great for the odd long-haul journey to a holiday destination but pointless for the daily trundle in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Unless you live in a climate in which ambient temperatures can fluctuate as wildly as the price of Brent crude, the odd minor adjustment to a knob or press of the air-con button isn’t such a hassle!
But, before you’re tempted to pen hate mail in response to this (what may seem to some as a technophobic rant), I would consider features that contribute to drivers keeping their peepers glued to the road absolutely worthwhile. Multi-function steering wheels and hands-free Bluetooth phone kits have become very important safety (as opposed to convenience) features.
I recently made an afternoon road trip from George to Cape Town in an entry-level example of the latest Ford Focus saloon that didn’t feature any of the nice-to-have specifications that I listed above, yet I wrung what I could from its honest 1,6-litre engine and five-speed ‘box and arrived home feeling no more tired or stiff (if at all) than if I had made the journey at the wheel of a luxobarge.
And lastly, a caveat – electronic sophistication may be a joy to owners when their vehicles are new, but those nice-to-haves are likely to cause lingering unease about reliability and fears for costly repairs once the gizmos go out of warranty.
* The column first appeared in the September 2011 issue of CAR magazine South Africa