Many expensive cars are simply no longer worth it

Posted on August 27th, 2006 in Opinion by Julian Edgar


It’s a truism to say that car technology is improving. What is really happening is that the level of base car technology has dramatically improved in the last five years – especially here in Australia – as the trickle-down of features previously available only on prestige cars now greets the masses. Lots of airbags, stability control, ABS, sophisticated engines – even sat navigation – were once things that you had to pay a huge amount for. But, wonderfully, not any more.

So what happens when you now step into an AUD$80,000 car? Well, the short answer is that you don’t see a helluva lot for your money. Even in Noise Vibration Harshness (NVH), the differences are now minimal between an $80K car and one that costs half that. When analysed in terms of the engine, suspension, in-cabin features, NVH, handling, safety, comfort and space, the advantages of these more expensive cars simply aren’t there any more.

And that’s a dramatic change. To be blunt, I think many manufacturers (especially the Europeans) are now trading solely on their reputations – and buyers are being blinded by the marketing bullshit. In fact, I can’t think of a car I’ve driven in the $80,000 – $100,000 category that shows huge advantages over a locally built car – like a Falcon – that costs less than half.

I can forgive you if you’re rolling your eyes and suggesting what I’ve written is rubbish. In fact, that’s exactly what I used to do when reading Australian car mags in the Seventies and Eighties that continually suggested the local cars were world class.

Except for the pushrod engines.

Except for the primitive rear suspensions.

Except for the lousy aerodynamics.

Except for the crap fuel consumption.

But to take the Falcon as an example, its dual variable cam timed, variable intake manifold, DOHC engine really has got world-class technology. Don’t think so? Well, quickly name a more sophisticated six cylinder engine built anywhere. Apart from some now having direct fuel injection, it’s damn hard to think of an engine with more features.

Or take the Falcon rear suspension. As alluded to above, rear end design is where Australian RWD manufacturers lagged behind the rest of the world for decades. Horrible solid rear axle designs – some even with leaf springs – that were continually praised by the companies making them. [Cue at this point: email writers….] Trailing arm rears that were straight out of the Sixties. But now the Falcon has a rear end closer to brother Jaguars than trailers, and the new Commodore has got technically competitive rear suspension.

The Mitsubishi 380 has engine technology that does lag at least a decade behind, but in its ride and handling (in manual transmission, sports suspension form) it’s the best handling front-wheel drive I’ve driven. Like, in the same weeks I had the 380 VRX I also had an $80,0000 Saab Aero 9.3 and a $60,000 Peugeot 407 – and the local Mitsubishi handled far, far better.

One of the very best engines I have ever driven is in the current Honda V6 Accord. Incredibly fuel-efficient for its power, it’s an engine that would previously have been found only in very expensive Europeans. (But then I have to admit the Accord’s handling is lousy.)

To gain a distinct and clear advantage over $40,000 cars I think you need to spend well over $100,000. And even then, some of the cars that we’ve tested – eg the mega expensive Audi A8 – were nothing special in the way they drove. (In electronic gadgets, yes. But not in performance or handling or ride or NVH.)

All of this is great news for Australian buyers – but only if they take advantage of what’s before them. Many car enthusiasts (including for years, this writer) thought that the locally built cars could never be taken seriously in terms of being good cars. Now I think that they’re extremely good cars, and screaming bargains to boot. Especially when bought when a year old, the Falcon, Commodore, 380 and Camry V6 are incredibly good cars for the money. In fact, just the other day I saw a 12 month old all-wheel-drive Magna VRX for $24,000. It was a country car and had 40,000km on the odometer, but to come close to a car with the interior space, handling and performance, you’re talking something like an Audi A4 at three times the dollars. And there is no way in the world that such an Audi is three times a better car.

So if in the past you’ve been a bit of a car snob, before plonking down the dollars for an Audi, BMW, Saab, Mercedes Benz, Peugeot or any of those others, go drive some of the locals. The showrooms won’t be as swish, and the salesmen not so cultured, but take off the blinkers and you could easily save many tens of thousands of dollars.

Now what we need is a local with a turbo diesel…

2 Responses to 'Many expensive cars are simply no longer worth it'

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  1. Mitchell said,

    on August 5th, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    This is a great article and there is definately some truth to it. BMW,Audi, Mercedes etc no longer hold a huge technical advantage; merely status and to a lesser extent, style (although that has somewhat diminished of late with BMW) . I hope more people start recognising the merits of modern Australian cars.

  2. Bob jay said,

    on June 7th, 2008 at 11:15 am

    OH NO! The secret is out now.
    For many years now I have shopped older benchmark European cars against later model locals for similar money on the used market andended uobuying local.
    For example Ive always wanted a 5 Series BMW eg 528 or 530 but each year, despite an open mind, I wind up with a newer Falcon or Commodore or Magna Sports(very under rated sports sedan and the AWD at half the used price of a Liberty GT or 3.0 is way more than half as good).
    Last year $20K bought me a BA 11 XR6 – a day test driving first a 528, then a much more expensive 530, then new Mazda 6 and a used BA 11 XR 6 left me discovering that the XR 6 is a standout machine for the money.
    Badge buyers just don’t know what they are missing, though if I win lotto Mercs, Ferraris and a collection of WRX, Silvia, Skyline, SS, XRs turbo and 8 etc will grace the machinery shed….Bob Jay