In the last few days you’ve probably noted a flash flood of gushy articles about the latest new cars in the Main Stream Media (MSM). Well, the auto show season has begun, with the season opening with the monday press preview day at the Detroit Auto Show. Being a lowly irreverent blogger Gearhead Grrrl wasn’t invited, just as well ’cause I’ve got better sources anyway… More on that in a future post. And no surprise that the MSM tends to swoon over the automakers latest offerings… Look at all the ads the new car ecosystem buys!

But all is not well in that new car ecosystem. A half century ago in the 1960s when the driving age population was half what it is now, new vehicle sales in the U.S. hovered around ten million units a year. Way back in 1978 sales peaked at 15.4 million, and sales set an all time record of 17.8 million in 2000. After dropping to around ten million a year at the peak of the recession, sales have “recovered” to around thirteen million in 2011.

Recovered? Heck, given that the driving age population has increased at around one percent a year to double what it was in the 60s, twenty million sales should be about an average year.  Meanwhile, the average car’s age has about doubled since the 60s as the life of cars has been forced to double from 5 to 10 years since the 60s. The “fleet” is shrinking too, as for the first time since World War II more cars are being junked than built. There are less drivers getting behind the wheels too, as less young folks are getting licensed. I know- I’ve got two teenage nephews who have no interest whatsoever in getting their driver’s licenses!

So we’ve got a bit over two hundred million licensed drivers in America, still around two hundred fifty million cars and falling, and only thirteen million new vehicles added to the fleet every year. And an increasing proportion of those few sales are to fleets. So of our two hundred million plus drivers, maybe only ten million lucky drivers are able to afford new cars each year. We’re approaching the ownership pattern you see in impoverished third world countries, where only big companies and the wealthy few can afford new vehicles and everybody else drives ancient clunkers, cheap small displacement motorbikes/scooters, bicycles, or transit.

More statistics tell us the average length of new car ownership is around five years. That means maybe fifty million of the couple hundred million drivers in the U.S. can afford new cars, around 20 percent. Not surprising, given that a lot of the formerly middle class folks who bought a new car every half decade or so aren’t making middle class wages anymore and have joined the rest of us used car shoppers. No wonder used car prices are rising!

So that’s why new cars are becoming irrelevent, given that four out of five of us can’t afford them. So Gearhead Grrrl won’t be flying off to the auto show press day on anyone’s dime… Heck, a “used car comparison test” would make more sense. Not that some of the new cars aren’t impressive- Ford knocked it out of the park with the new Fusion. But the Fusion is the third rung up the price ladder at Ford, and good luck finding any new Fusion for $20k, and surely the Fusion hybrid will go for $30k and even more $$$ for Ford’s exclusive Fusion plug-in hybrid.

Then again, take a look at Ford’s “price leader” Fiesta S for under $15,000- gives you just about everything you need (and get in the pricier Focus and Fusion) for thousands less. There’s five different Fiesta trim levels with prices increasing about a thousand dollars at each step, but Ford wisely includes all the really useful safety and performance bits in the cheapest model. Sure beats the hell out of an over hundred thousand mile beat out SUV for the same money!

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