In December, the sticker price on the average U.S. automobile hit $38,616, a level not seen since "Tesla" evoked the image of an electrical engineer. Come summer, carmakers will probably break that price record again. It's true, there are still plenty of cheap wheels to be had in the reasonably priced basement. It's just that the top of the market is speeding away.
Perhaps the greatest engineering feat in the auto industry this century isn't mechanical but financial: getting people to spend luxury money on milquetoast vehicles -- turning Ford and Chevy hamburgers into steak. The swankier brands have been torquing top prices quite a bit as well. Now Detroit wants a taste, too.
Consider the Dodge Challenger, known in some circles as the poor man's Ferrari. At the moment, 15 Challengers are on offer, from the $27,200 base model to a mind-blowing $85,500 SRT Demon, a Mad Max fever dream at Porsche prices. It's not alone: Choose virtually any mainstream, mass-market vehicle and you can find similar, gold-plated price-tag tuning.
Of all the vehicles sold in the U.S. at the moment, the least expensive iterations average $46,000, while the most expensive versions of the same models settle around $63,000, according to analysis from Edmunds.com. The gap between those two levels -- the no-frills machines and the fully loaded ones -- is more than double what it was in 2000.
Vehicles, by and large, aren't getting more expensive, but some of them are -- and drastically so. "Because that's where the profit is," explained Truecar.com Analyst Eric Lyman. The Ford Focus RS, in particular, gives him a chuckle. At $41,200, the starting sum for the souped-up hatchback is more than double the lowest "get in" price of a plain, baseline Focus.
Why the swelling stickers? For one thing, there's more stuff. Back in the 1990s, a car was an equation of fashion and power. Cloth seats or leather? V-6 or V-8? Perhaps a customer would like to spring for velour, power windows or floor mats?
Today, there's a third, more powerful variable: automobile as personal electronic device. Tire-kickers can agonize over the size of the in-dash screen, the number and type of USB ports, Wi-Fi, wireless charging and -- if they stray into Mercedes territory -- what scent is atomized into the cockpit, an option that used to be outsourced to little trees hanging on the gas station cashier's rack.