The Demise Of The Cheap Car

One of the first cars I ever drove was a brown Ford Maverick. The Mav, shown in a sales poster above, looked pretty good, seated four people reasonably comfortably, got decent gas mileage, and had a bit of get up and go to it. Marketed as “the simple machine,” the Ford Maverick retailed for $1,995. It was one of many examples of the cheap cars that were available at low end of the automotive market.

There aren’t many cheap cars left. In fact, if you are a cheapskate like me, you’d say there are none. The average price paid for a new car in March 2023 was a stunning $48,008, according to the Kelley Blue Book. In fact, only three cars on the market sell for less than $20,000, and the cheapest of those–the Nissan Versa sedan–is listed at $16,925. The cheapest new vehicle offered by one of Big 3 American manufacturers is the 2024 Chevy Trax SUV, which is offered at $21,495. In effect, Ford, GM, and Chrysler have turned away from the affordable car end of the market, where they used to offer cars like the Maverick.

Why isn’t Detroit competing for the buyer looking for cheap cars? Part of the reason is inflation, of course, and some of the cost increases are due to safety features and expensive gadgetry that would never have been added to stripped-down cars like the Maverick. In large part, however, the reason is simply that car manufacturers find it a lot more profitable to build vehicles–primarily SUVs and pick-up trucks–that are loaded with bells and whistles and high-end features and that retail in the upper five-figure range. That’s what is driving up the average price of new cars to that mind-blowing $48,008 number.

Can it really be that there are not budget-conscious young people out there who want to save up their hard-earned wages, make a down payment, and buy a brand-new “simple machine,” like the Maverick, that gets them from point A to point B, without all the bells and whistles, for an affordable price? I find that hard to believe. As it is, that segment of the market must forsake their chance to take deep breaths of that wonderful new car smell, and focus on the used car market instead.