What Makes a Car “Loaded?”

Today, I was thinking about, how, as new features are introduced and eventually make their way from luxury models to the more pedestrian ones, the expectations of the buying public increase.

Think about just the past 20 years. Back in 1987, what kinds of bells and whistles were offered? Power windows, power locks, power steering, power trunk release, air conditioning, cassette player, cloth seats, rear defroster, and a V6.

Ten years later, in 1997, many of the above features were standard, other than the V6. But ABS, dual airbags, traction control, leather seats, and CD players were also goodies that you could add to your new car.

Now, in 2007, most cars have everything from 1987 (except for the V6) standard, but now options are curtain and thorax airbags alongside the mandatory front airbags, stability control, satellite radio, CD changer, satellite navigation, a hybrid powertrain, Bluetooth cell phone interface, iPod integration, and more. Is it any surprise that cars now weigh more than they did in 1997, and far more than they did in 1987?

1975 Honda Civic – a passenger-side mirror was an option

In the car buying universe – and in life itself – it is difficult to “take a step backwards” into something less comfortable, less powerful, and of course, less prestigious. Few people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s want to move into a smaller house than their current one. Few want to trade in a Lexus for a Toyota. The fact is, as consumers get used to having features in their vehicle, there is a collective expectation that every car sold should have certain features. My wife used to drive a Saturn L200 that was pretty much bare-bones. It had an automatic and a four cylinder, but also had power windows and locks, an AM/FM radio, rear defroster…basically, this bare-bones 2004 model car was equipped similarly to the “loaded” Pontiac Grand Am I used to drive in high school in the early 1990s.

I’m not criticizing society or its car buyers in all of this – just making an observation. Those options are all great to have. In fact, I’ve been so spoiled by 8 or 10 years of leather seats, sunroofs, V6s, etc. that I don’t ever see myself buying another new car without at least those as a bare minimum. And in the four years since I bought a new Honda Accord, the bar has been raised even further. Now, I expect my next vehicle to have all of the previously mentioned equipment plus satellite radio, stability control, thorax and head curtain airbags, and a navigation system. Bluetooth cell phone integration would be nice, too. And, unless we decide to go with a hybrid for the next car, it sure would be nice to have more power from my V6. I mean, there have been times that the Honda V6’s 240-horsepower has not quite seemed like enough…

So what’s going to happen in 2017? How long will my (and the typical car buyer’s) “must have” list get? Self parking, ventilated/massaging seats, satellite video, wireless Internet access…who knows?

The lesson in all this for the auto industry is that people are going to want more and more features and amenities all the time, so it’s best to be prepared. It’s also prudent to not make the car buying process more confusing than it already is. There’s no need to have a ton of standalone options; Honda’s model works well. Just have different trim lines, and throw in everything (except maybe navigation) in the top one (big engine, leather, sunroof, nicer/larger wheels, XM, etc.), then one step down throw in a little less, then two steps down have the base model. For people like me, who want to get pretty much everything available, it is often times cheaper to get a model that’s automatically loaded with everything than having to check every option box. Manufacturers make a lot of money on standalone options – the markups are much larger than on the base-model vehicles – but by making their cars more standardized, they could probably save some of that same money by making production more efficient. And, on the dealership side, it would be easier to move inventory because there’s not going to be some oddball model that nobody wants – they’ll all be the same except for the color.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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11 Comments

  1. I remember my father buying a new Chevrolet in the late Seventies and the ‘premium’ radio option was two speakers instead of one (but still not stereo) and it cost $24 extra. Or, you could get the ‘radio delete’ option and save yourself a whopping $41. Times have certainly changed.

  2. There are things on the new car I own that I never or rarely use. I guess there will be more stuff on future cars that I never or rarely use. I don’t agree that the option packages are always a good thing because I would like to pick my options cafeteria-style on a new car.

  3. Since I live in Washington state, I need fog lights on any car I have, and fog lights are usually not available except as part of a sport or appearance package. All I need is the fog lights out of that package but I have to get the whole package. Fog lights are never available on a base model by themselves, it seems.

  4. “Deluxe” hubcaps instead of the regular hubcaps on a 1977 Toyota Corolla were an extra $32. The first new car my mother ever owned.

  5. I have bought option packages in the last couple of years that cost 3000.00 or even as high as 5000.00 just so I could get half of the things in the package. WHich I couldn’t get by themselves. It’s a big waste of money, but what can you do? Thi things I wanted were things I had to have on the car, so I rolled over and got the whole package.

  6. And yet a car will still be advertised as “loaded” if it has power windows and power locks, and perhaps a power driver seat. The use of the term has not kept pace with the change noted by this insightful blog entry.

  7. I second the comment about foglights. Foglights are required equipment for some parts of the country and should either be standard or available by themselves in those areas. I live in Oregon and you need foglights here. They are not an appearance accessory.

  8. As I see it, different market segments will have different definitions of “loaded.” My base model SX4 lacks only one feature (cruise control) to make it seem “loaded” for a vehicle in its price range (circa $15,000 USD). The Sport SX4 adds such features as cruise control, Electronic Stability Package and a 6-CD changer for around $1500 USD. OTOH, a $30,000 USD vehicle ought to have all the SX4’s features (except, perhaps, for AWD), plus many others (such as heated mirrors and heated, height-adjustable seats), in order to be considered “loaded.”

  9. Ha! I remember those days of paying extra for a passenger-side mirror!

    I guess that makes me pretty old. Of course, when I was a kid in the 1960s, my parents got in a huge 4-day fight about whether to get air conditioning on their upcoming new Dodge. My father wanted it, and my mother considered it be something akin to hiring girls to peel grapes for you. She thought AC in a car in a place as far north as New York was the height of decadence, and if you were hot, you should just open a window and stop complaining. Things sure are different now.

  10. Gotta have good tunes in a car. I don’t need a lot of luxury stuff, but I definitely NEED a kicking stereo with an MP3 interface, lots of good speakers (with midrange, lowrange, and bass speakers in there), and would like to have a hard drive in the car on which to store tracks. Don’t care about leather or the car parking itself, or radar imagging, etc.

  11. I agree about the foglights. You should be able to get them as a seperate option, because in some parts of the country you really need them, it’s not just for looks.

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