In my other life where I have a job which I must attend every day, my role comes with a mandatory company car. Attempts to convince the company that a Fiat 131 Abarth or a BMW 3.0 CSL would fit the bill have not been successful, so this means once every four years I have to enter into the world of having to specify a new car from scratch.
This is going to come across as the very definition of a first world problem, but it’s a confusing process. I am a resolute inverse-snob so there won’t be any S-Line, M-Tech or AMG nonsense going on here. I always try to select a functional, practical vehicle that won’t lead the neighbours to mistakenly believe I’ve won the lottery, but even shopping at the lower end of the aspiration curve has its perils. Attempting to navigate the fiendishly difficult internet “configurators” invariably gets me nowhere. Instead I must spend hours performing word searches on downloaded PDF copies of brochures to avoid painting hard copies with so much highlighter pen that the whole document becomes uniformly luminous. Get my selection wrong and I’ll have to live with the result for four years with no time off for good behaviour.
In the days before company cars, I only ever bought one brand new car using my own money. It was a 2006 Ford Fiesta and I don’t recall it being particularly difficult. I flipped open the brochure and looked for the cheapest variant equipped with aircon. There were some young, free and single Mediterranean ladies clearly having a marvellous time in a Tango Red coloured Zetec, so I figured that’d do for me. I thought perhaps we’d get to meet up and I’d end up marrying one or several of them. That’s how marketing works. I had a short but productive conversation with the local dealer about prices and signed up. The car arrived exactly as described and I happily tramped around in it for a few years until an ill-advised job move meant I got issued with a moribund Vauxhall Disastra, and I had to sell the Fiesta at pretty much the worst point of the depreciation curve. However, times have become significantly more complicated.
I have been steeling myself for the looming company car renewal date when my broadly suitable current chariot will be “terminated”. As such I’ve spent more hours than should be necessary becoming confused by choice. I do have form for getting it wrong; most notoriously not bothering to test drive a Golf that turned out to have bounce-o-matic suspension, and assuming the big screen in a Mazda was a built-in satnav rather than an “infotainment system” that I still can’t adequately operate 60,000 miles later. This time around it’s even more tortuous than I remembered. Back when I used to work in the motor industry, reducing complexity was a hot topic as complexity drives production line costs. Simplification was naturally at odds with the aims of the marketing department who wanted to offer the customer almost infinite ways to tailor their cars. A fudged happy medium was the introduction of equipment packs, where certain options would be grouped together to give the consumer the impression they were getting more for their money whilst reducing the number of individual variants. Whereas once you might have individually selected front fog lamps, headlamp washers and heated mirrors, you now have the bundled “Winter Pack”. This works to a point, until you find the one option you really want involves paying for things you don’t and you have to deselect a seemingly unrelated feature to make it all possible. You’d like sports seats? Certainly, you’ll find those in the “Comfort Pack”, along with a docking station for your smartphone and automatic climate control. Of course, you’ll need to deselect the radio with a CD player and buy the “Connectivity Pack” with the upgraded DAB infotainment system because you can only access the climate control settings through the touchscreen. What do you mean, how will you play your CDs in the car? Don’t you rent all your music monthly and store it in the cloud, Grandad?
Navigating through an overwhelming choice of options is one thing, but I now need to worry about a whole new range of rapidly developing technology. It’s hard enough to find a car with a cable operated handbrake anymore, but there’s far worse on the near horizon. Since the Euro NCAP organisation started grading and publicising car safety performance in the late 1990s, there is no doubt that structural integrity of bodyshells and passive safety have improved significantly. However, legislation and the development of active safety systems, which offer the ability to avoid an accident in the first place, have taken the concept of Euro NCAP stars in a different direction. A car that provides a survivable cocoon for its occupants is no longer deemed enough. Stability control, brake force distribution and automatic emergency braking are no longer enough. The car is expected to be constantly on the lookout for danger and actively tug at your sleeve to warm you. I recently spent two weeks driving a Vauxhall Insignia that, if it were human, would have been on pills for its nerves. It expressed its concern for my welfare via piercing red LED strobe lights mounted on top of the dashboard and aimed directly into my eyes. The lights were triggered when the car detected hazardous situations such as slowly manoeuvring past parked cars, spotting traffic approaching from the opposite direction in their own lane as normal, or pedestrians safely minding their own business on the pavement. Any intended safety benefit was completely self-defeated each time by distracting me and dazzling my vision. We live in a small window of time where it’s still possible to avoid this stuff, but only by paying very close attention to the configurators and brochures. It wasn’t this difficult in the old days, by which I mean a few months ago.
I have a very small but growing degree of sympathy for the plight of the new car salesperson, because it’s impossible to remember all of these features and simultaneously keep pace with the constant evolution of “Product Actions”. Given that people increasingly just click to buy online in the comfort of their own homes, perhaps it doesn’t matter and sales staff will gradually become endangered and eventually extinct. They’re not even called salespersons anymore, more often they’re given misnomers such as “Product Experts” which belies the truth that their earnings still hinge on selling you more than you intended to buy. There is simply too much choice and I increasingly find myself trying to avoid features rather than add them. I am clearly not compatible with buying a new car.
As if you needed any more persuading, spending any time choosing new cars is the best advertisement for keeping it retro. When you buy used you eliminate the risk of missing a critical box on the options list or cocking up on the configurator. I prefer that the burden of choice is taken away from me. I happily accept that not every car I buy will be exactly the way I would have specified it if I had started with a blank page, but at least I can see what’s in front of me and check what works and what doesn’t. I can instantly discover if there’s a feature that I just can’t live with, and I may find delight in something I would have never considered. Accepting the odd compromise makes us better people. Once in a while, you may land on your perfect specification finding that someone 20, 30 or 40 years ago thought exactly the way you do today. But more commonly, you’ll have to accept a variance from your ideal because old cars don’t grow on trees. So next time you have second thoughts about a classic car because you really wanted Pascha upholstery, Ronal wheels or a Webasto roof, consider that someone else once did all the hard work and all you have to do is turn the key and drive away. Compromise is good and far more relaxing. Choice really is overrated.