Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why are cheap cars unattractive?

I thought this was a thoughtful and interesting question, so I posted it to Quora (a site where "experts" chime in on queries, mostly - though not entirely - business-related). Figuring I'd noticed a "thing", I hoped to spur interesting discussion of a range of related issues. Alas...nothing.

Why are cheap cars unattractive?

I understand why inexpensive cars aren't mind-bendingly beautiful. That'd require top designers and fancy production techniques.

But somebody designs these cheap cars, and I can't imagine the second or third string designers at big auto companies have really horrible taste.

After all, if you sell a million cheap cars, adding $1 to each would enable a million dollar design at minimal per-unit cost! And maybe the result wouldn't be stunning, but why should it be ugly, or even plain?

....unless big auto companies deliberately uglify their cheaper cars to protect the premium edge of their more expensive ones. But, if so, then why hasn't that encouraged smaller manufacturers to make nice-looking cheaper cars and gobble up that end of the market?

I'd ask the same of many other realms: why should ugly be that much less expensive than decent-looking, unless human beings are so terrible at design that only a handful of (very expensive) designers can create non-horrendous products?

Update - I think I may have answered it. See the comments, below (which include an interesting but, to me, slightly opaque posting by El Seth)


Seth Godin said...


Cheap cars are unattractive because the majority in the market for a cheap car WANT it to be unattractive.

If it wasn't, it would be suspicious.

Suspicious to my friends, who wonder where I got the money to waste, and suspicious to me, wondering where in the car the money didn't go...

The clothes at Men's Warehouse would cost more if they were in better colors or styles? Yet you can buy a grey shirt with a grey tie and a grey jacket there. Because, as you have taught us, not only is taste relative, but taste sends a signal too.

Seth Godin said...

typo in last paragraph, of course...

The clothes would cost NO more...

James Leff said...

Don't know if I buy that, Seth. Cars are mass-market products. If my Ford Escort were Lamborghini sleek (and, per my article, I don't understand why it can't be....even if the paint's not as lustrous and the dashboard might creak when you hit a bump and the thing does 0-60 in a half hour), people would certainly know the truth. Your friends wouldn't suspect you're a stealthy zillionaire, they'd be well aware of the scene.

And same for the converse (i.e. "where the money didn't go"). I'm not asking why cheap cars aren't tremendously wonderful. I'm asking why they're defiantly ugly, given that ugly doesn't cost less than attractive. Yeah, of course, my Ford Escort would still be a Ford Escort. I wouldn't be pretending otherwise. I'm not suggesting some huge status/quality elevation. Cheap cars would be inferior in all the same ways as now, but just wouldn't be butt ugly.

I'm afraid I don't totally grok what you're saying about Men's Warehouse.

James Leff said...

We're experiencing some social media fragmentation! Parallel discussion's happening on FaceShnook:

Here, fwiw, is where I wound up in that discussion:

Maybe it's a simple answer. Its so hard to penetrate the car market that the big makers can get away with intentionally underdesigning the cheap products (in order to protect expensive products). Upstarts can try to fill the gap, but can't produce/finance/market in anywhere near enough scale to pose a threat

James Leff said...

Also, if you improve the design, the shortcomings might be much more apparent and untenable. We're naturally conditioned to accept crappy quality from crappy-looking things.

Maybe that's what you were saying, Seth?

Richard Stanford said...

Begging the question there a bit, aren't you?

I'll agree that cheap cars used to be unattractive, but these days there are many that are - while not as highly and complexly stamped as their more expensive stablemates, certainly far better designed than they used to be.

Look at the modern Fiesta, the Mazda 2, or even the Fit. The FR-S is hardly ugly, and most of today's Kias look better than many of yesterday's Chevys. As for Chevy, the Spark and Sonic may not be to your taste (or mine frankly), but I doubt that either one of us matches their target audience.

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