A decade of great trucks and crummy cars

In the words of the great Yogi Berra, it’s deja vu all over again! I fell in love with cars during the Seventies, a decade which had much in common with the one just ending now. There was a recession, a general panic about the climate—although back then it was global cooling that was going to kill us all, rather than global warming—and a foreign war that killed young Americans with numbing regularity but seemed to have little effect on the self-indulgent behavior of young rich kids. There was also a kind of universal consensus among automotive enthusiasts that went something like this: This year’s new cars are worse than last year’s, and next year’s will be worse still.

That consensus wasn’t far off the mark, at least as far as the classic-car market is concerned. You’d be hard-pressed to find any 1979-model-year vehicle which is considered more desirable or interesting than its 1969-model-year predecessor, particularly among the domestic brands. I can’t help but have an emotional attachment to the so-called “Malaise Era” cars, and if I ever win the lottery you’ll know it because you’ll see me driving a pro-touring-style 1978 Olds 98 Regency with a 502 rat motor and an interior where everything including the power-window switches will be covered in dark green velour. Most Hagerty readers, however, will remember the Seventies as automotive history’s darkest hour.

After some thought, I’m afraid that the 1979-to-1969 situation also applies pretty well to most 2019-model-year automobiles. This decade has seen a Malaise-esque explosion of weight and size for pretty much every single automobile on sale with the exception of the Mazda Miata. At the same time, mass-market cars have seen a winnowing of engine and transmission choices coupled with a gradual reduction in available power. Even the rich folks are having a hard time of it; just take a look at what’s happened to the engine choices in AMG-badged Benzes and M-powered Bimmers. They might be a little faster, but they’ve becoming startlingly generic along the way. Last but not least, the real-world price of new cars is rising quickly after a long period where inflation-adjusted costs held steady or even declined.

2020 BMW M8

You want examples? I have examples. And I won’t cherrypick ‘em, either. I’ll take good cars and compare them to their predecessors. Start with the 2019 Civic Si. It’s a very good car. Compared to the 2009 Civic Si… well, it weighs more, it doesn’t make any more power, and it’s significantly more complicated.

I bought a new Audi S5 in 2009. It was gorgeous and it paired a 40-valve (!!!) V-8 with a six-speed manual. The 2019 model looks like an off-brand Chinese copy of my car. It makes do with a pressurized V-6 and an automatic transmission. It’s no faster nor more exciting. About all you can say is that it’s a bit cheaper in real dollars.

What about mass-market sedans? There aren’t many left, but the Camry is still with us. Same weight, same power, more complexity as 10 years ago. At least you can still have a V-6—that option has been unceremoniously stricken from the order sheets of its competition. On the sporty side, the Subaru STI has done nothing but gain pounds and dollars over the past decade. 

Subaru WRX STI Type RA epic mountain road parked
2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA James Tate

We’ve lost most of the small cars that were available 10 years ago. They’ve been replaced by pint-sized crossovers which cost more and consume more while offering nothing in exchange for those penalties. The same is true for mainstream sporting cars, which are almost entirely absent from today’s lineups. Scion got the axe, as did Pontiac. On the other side of the market, the big SUVs from Land Rover and the like became bloated catastrophes, with the so-new-it’s-old G-wagen being the perfect example of function following form at a more-than-respectful distance.

Let’s talk Corvettes. The C7 is a brilliant car, and the C8 has a lot of promise, but neither of those will ever match the raw purity and brilliance of a stick-shift LS7 Z06, nor will either of them ever tiptoe across the scales like that Z06 did. Don’t laugh, Porschephiles; this was the decade where both the 911 and Boxster started looking like frogs with thyroid problems and interiors that mimic the Panamera in both style and width. My 2004 Boxster S Anniversary was far from a good car of any sort but at least it was nice and cozy for first dates. Today’s “718” imposes a Bering Strait’s worth of buttons between driver and passenger. 

In fairness, I should mention that the pony cars all got considerably better. We’re in a golden age of Mustang/Camaro competition right now—but the historically-minded will also recall that the brightest days of the Sixties pony cars happened right before the apocalypse. 

2020 Shelby GT500

This was also the decade where the manual transmission took a final bow everywhere from Ferraris to ¾-ton Dodges. In its place, we got a nightmare assortment of “assistance” devices and two different standards for smartphone integration. Wheel size swelled, taking tire cost along for the ride. More and more replacement parts are actually integrated collections of components built by lowest-bidder suppliers. Consumer Reports noted that the new Odyssey minivan was worse than the previous one. 

You get the idea. I’m not saying there weren’t bright spots. The 9th-generation Accord V6 was so good that I bought two of them. The ND-generation Miata is a revelation. We’ve also seen the rise of McLaren and Pagani as suppliers of exemplary automobiles to the truly #Blessed. Last but not least, the final Vipers were probably the finest American automobiles of all time. But these are exceptions which prove the rule.

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata 30th Anniversary Edition 3/4 front
2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata 30th Anniversary Edition Mazda

Things were much brighter on the body-and-frame side of the house. Ford reimagined the full-sized truck in aluminum; Chevrolet did the same in steel; RAM (née Dodge) proved that you could ditch the solid axles and replace them with Imperial-style interior appointments. We have two pretty good domestic-brand compact pickups now. The Lincoln Navigator makes the Rolls-Royce Cullinan seem irrelevant. There’s never been a better time to tow or haul with a pickup truck.

While it might frost the flakes of the outrage-culture millennial autowriters to say so, the modern pickup is even a fairly efficient proposition. My 2017 Silverado 6.2 crew-cab 6.50-foot bed 4×4 manages 21 mpg on the trot, will likely last 250,000 miles or more in hard service, and is chock-full of recyclable materials. Compare that to a Porsche Taycan which weighs about as much as the Silverado does, contains a laundry list of materials which are horrifyingly poisonous, and which will likely hold up for one-third as long.

None of that changes the fact that this has been a tough decade for those of us who love cars. Is there a “Morning In America” ahead for us, the way there was for the poor folks choosing from the showroom offerings of 1979? I’d like to think so, but the cynic in me says that now is the time to buy that classic car you’ve had your eye on. Even—or particularly—if that “classic” car is just a decade or so old. Don’t you wish you’d bought a bunch of 1968 cars in 1981? It’s deja vu all over again.

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