If you could, would you buy a "back to basics" new car? By that I mean a car without the comfort and safety features we take for granted today -- things like, for instance, air conditioning and power steering. And power brakes.

Back in the 1970s (and even into the 1980s) those amenities were often optional -- still considered "big ticket" (especially AC) on even medium-priced cars. Of course, things like GPS navigation, ABS brakes, multiple air bags and factory-installed stereos with CD players were unheard of. ABS brakes were rarely found on ordinary, family-type cars -- let alone economy cars -- until rather recently (mid-1990s).

We now take many of these features for granted -- or at least, we expect them. I doubt many buyers today (especially younger ones, who have never been near a genuinely "basic" car) would consider buying one, even if it were possible for the automakers to build one. (Which it isn't, due to myriad federal regulations and mandates having to do with things like occupant safety and emissions controls, among other things.)

Things like air conditioning have become essential, mainly because of traffic and ever-longer commutes. In the '60s, one could live with a non-air-conditioned vehicle because they were built with lots of vents and so long as you were moving, there was enough airflow to keep the occupants comfortable. But when you're inching along on I-95 and it's 95 degrees outside, the situation is unendurable without AC.

This is the main reason why AC has become like heaters once were; that is to say, it is now standard equipment on virtually all new cars, even "economy" models. There are a handful of passenger cars left that still can be purchased without AC -- but with each passing year, their numbers decline. And the AC is almost always on the options list anyhow. (It's put there as an "option" mainly so that the automaker can advertise a lower base price for the vehicle -- even though most buyers will end up ordering the AC for the reasons just explained.)

Ditto ABS. Most new cars come with it as standard equipment -- and those few that don't usually offer it as optional equipment. Like AC, it has become a feature that few of us could imagine not having in our next new vehicle.

And we have no choice about things like air bags (and soon, perhaps, electronic stability control), which the federal government requires be installed in all new vehicles sold. At first, the mandate was probably necessary -- if the object was to put these features into widespread use. Today, however, it's probably true that few, if any, buyers would want a vehicle that didn't at least offer air bags -- whether required by Uncle Sam or not.

Think about all this in terms of cell phones and the Internet. Go back less than 20 years and neither existed outside of very rarified circles (cell phones) or academia (the Internet). Today both are so integral to our lives that doing without is almost unimaginable.

It's the same with the features and amenities that have made new cars more expensive and complicated -- but at the same time, given us things we've embraced and which we would have trouble giving up.

The price we pay for this is a bit more hassle -- and a bit more of a bite whenever we buy a new vehicle or take it in for service (and of course, we do take it in for service -- because most f us are not capable of servicing a modern car ourselves).

It's an inexorable process that's impossible to resist. Change happens -- and we are carried along with the flow. Some of us (myself included) would love nothing more than to toss a wrench into the works -- the whole enchilada, not just the ever-increasing complexity of new cars but of the societal and economic trends that have pushed everything in that direction -- but we are in the minority. Most people seem to love their cell phones -- and their ABS-equipped, air bag-laden, air conditioned, GPS-navigated new cars, too.

It's perfectly understandably -- even if it's a bit lamentable.

Such is life.


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