Opinion Piece: Getting the Fundamentals Right in a Car.

Random thought I had on how a car should nail the fundamentals, everything else just feels unnecessary.

This is not a review of the Mercedes-Benz C200, I just had a general though that I needed to get out of my head and the C200 is the perfect example as I was driving it when I thought of this.

I was remembering about a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago with a friend who’s a sales representative for BMW, and we were talking about how the Mercedes-Benz C-Class in Indonesia is so much cheaper compared to the 3-Series, which is because Mercedes is currently overstocked and they’re selling their cars at large discounts, despite the sticker price actually being more expensive than the 3-Series.

Anyway, as a BMW sales naturally he was endorsing how the 3-Series is better, and I kind of forgot how the rest of the conversation goes, but I remember he then talked about those foot sensors underneath the bumpers, you know the ones where you swipe your feet and the boot lid opens automatically, where the 3-Series had one and the C-Class in Indonesia didn’t, and as I was driving earlier in the Mercedes C200 today I was thinking: do I really need that feature? I mean, what’s so hard about putting down whatever I’m holding and then open the boot normally? In fact, I don’t even use the boot all that often, most of the time I just put my things in the back seat.

Image taken from ConceptBuy.com

Image taken from ConceptBuy.com

Now, I can see how this feature can be useful, imagine this: you’re carrying groceries on your left hand and your 2-year old on your right hand, instead of putting down your groceries – or your kid, whichever you don’t mind putting on the ground really – to open the boot, you can use your idle foot. It’s convenient, but really how often are you going to need that? Once a week? Once a month? Once in a lifetime?

This got me thinking, how many more features I can live without? How many more features I can remove from my car until I think “okay, I need that feature for me to actually like this car.”

Features I can live without.

Let’s see, on top of that sensor, I can also do without the button that automatically closes the boot lid, I can also do without a sunroof, and surprisingly, I can also do without satnav. Satnav in cars are just so incompetent that you’re really just better off buying a phone holder for your car and put your phone there and use Google Maps, Waze, or even the infamous Apple Maps. Chances are they’re easier to use, more up to date, and will actually know where they’re going.

I remember when my dad was about to buy the Mercedes C200 in 2014, I told him to wait another year, so instead of a completely built up unit that was available that year, we’d buy a unit that was built in Indonesia that came with better features, one of which was a navigation system by Garmin fitted as standard, and you know what? It made no difference, apart from it was slightly cheaper.

It was the first expensive car that our family had, and definitely the first car we had with built-in satnav, but the system was so useless it was only fun playing around with it for the first couple of weeks but after that we’re better off with Google Maps, or asking for directions from total strangers in the area with the risk of being carjacked. With the latter at least you’d get some sort of weird nervous adrenaline rush.

The sunroof is also a feature I can live without; while it’s nice to have one but really why do you need one? So you can see the stars in the night sky? Have free drinking water every time it rains? Get Jakarta’s humid, hot, and polluted air inside? Really the sunroof has little to no function at all. Don’t get me wrong I like a good sunroof and I enjoy it, but really now that I think about it, it’s a feature that I definitely don’t need and I don’t mind my C200 not having.

Our C200 also came with standard steel springs instead of Mercedes’ AIRMATIC air suspension system, and at first I really wished that it had came with AIRMATIC but then as I drove the car more and as time goes on, I realized that I don’t need it. The steel springs in the Mercedes are good enough and fairly comfortable, definitely more comfortable than the Japanese family cars we’ve had prior to the Mercedes. It’s those run flat tires that I can’t live with.

A car is like a phone.

Okay, hear me out, cars are like phones: you don’t actually need the most expensive and newest phone, you just need the one that’s good enough, the one that nails the fundamentals. For example, I have an iPhone 11 which is Apple’s “entry-level” flagship phone for 2019; it has the newest processor, it has the same cameras as the iPhone 11 Pro, and although it’s missing the telephoto camera it still has exactly the same software, and the same amount of RAM. All for quite a lot cheaper than the iPhone 11 Pro.

The biggest difference between the two phones is in the screen: the iPhone 11 comes with an 828pixel LCD screen while the iPhone 11 Pro comes with an OLED screen with higher resolution, which allows for better contrast and better HDR viewing, as well as slightly better battery life thanks to the OLED technology. But is the iPhone 11’s LCD screen bad? No.

For most things, it’s more than good enough; there’s no noticeable discoloration or rainbow effect when you view the phone from an angle, 720p is good enough when you’re watching videos on a 6.1-inch screen, colors and contrast are still well calibrated, and there are no visible pixels. The experience I have with my iPhone 11 is largely the same with the iPhone 11 Pro, so why would anyone buy the Pro lineup? Two reasons; 1. They have more money than sense, and 2. It’s nice to have those extra features.

The iPhone 11 might not be quite as good or as fancy as the iPhone 11 Pro, but it’s still good enough and provide you with largely the same experience because it nails the fundamentals: it has good battery life, it has a great camera, it has great software just like its Pro big brothers, and the screen, despite not being as good, is still good enough for the average person.

These are the things that you interact with the most on your phone; you need good battery life so you can get through the day without being anxious about finding a charger and the iPhone 11 has that. The camera is above average so no matter what photo you want to take, 9 times out of 10 the iPhone 11 can take a good enough picture. The software which you use every time you turn on the phone is excellent and iOS14 is the same whether you’re on an iPhone 11 or iPhone 11 Pro, and of course the screen as your touchpoint and your “window” to your phone is, as I’ve said, more than good enough on the iPhone 11. So it nails the fundamentals, and the experience you get is still excellent.

Everything else, such as the telephoto camera, the better OLED screen, the slightly better battery life are just nice extra features that you get because you’re willing to pay extra, but really you don’t need it.

Cars are the same, you only really need the fundamentals; good engine, good steering, good suspension, good entertainment system, good A/C, and a few others. As long as those things are good enough and fits the purpose of the car – more on this later – everything else are really just extra features that are nice to have.

You don’t actually need a Rolls Royce or a Bentley or even an E-Class or a 5-Series, really for the most part the Mercedes C-Class, the BMW 3-Series, or even the entry-level A-Class and its rivals are good enough for the job, but yes it’s nice to have all of those extra features that you get in an expensive car, but when you think about it, you don’t need it.

I think most car enthusiasts already understand this; cars are not really about specs, it’s about the overall experience. That’s the key, you don’t need the very best, you just need the car or phone that’s good enough and provides you with the experience you want or need, which in my opinion, any car that nails the fundamentals will give you exactly that.

Nailing the fundamentals.

Okay, so what are the fundamentals? What are the key features that a car needs to have and nail in terms of quality in order to be good enough? Well, first of all I understand that different people have different needs, maybe some people will want more seats, or better fuel consumption, or more power and they’re willing to sacrifice other things to have those few key features.

Also, different cars have different purposes; an MPV needs to carry a family around, a sports car need to excite the driver and give them a stiffy, and a compact SUV needs to make you look a total prick, so different cars need different designs and engineering. However, as long as these fundamentals are met and designed in such a way that it fits the car’s purpose and price tag, I think it will be enough to make a good car:

1. The Driving

By this I mean the drivetrain, the steering, and the suspension and chassis as a whole package. I’m not saying it should be exciting to drive and comfortable at the same time, with great feedback to steering wheel yadda yadda yadda, all that usual car review stuffs, but I mean it should do what it’s supposed to do: a Mercedes C-Class should be comfortable, a MINI Cooper should handle well and exciting to drive, and a Land Cruiser should be comfortable when you run over a pedestrian.

Every car model has its purpose; a luxury sedan should be comfortable, a sports car should handle well and be fun to drive, and an SUV should be able to go offroad fairly well. If that car has a good enough drivetrain and chassis to do its purpose, then it nailed the fundamental.

For example, the 2.0L engine in the C-Class is smooth and powerful, the gearbox is smooth enough even though I don’t like the 7G-Tronic gearbox, and the suspension is comfortable. Sure, the car doesn’t handle like a sports car nor does the steering wheel give me great feedback while I’m driving, but it’s still a decent steering and the car is comfortable, just exactly what you would expect from a Mercedes-Benz sedan.

2. Interior and amenities.

The interior of a car doesn’t need to have expensive wood panels taken from a tree from Middle-Earth to be considered a good interior, it should simply feel like the price you’re paying for the car has been justified, it should reflect that price. In the case of the Mercedes C200 for example, it should mostly be leather, soft to the touch, with a few aluminium panels and switches here and there to make it feel more premium than your typical Japanese compact sedans, and of course perhaps most importantly is good ergonomics as well as build quality.

If it nails those things such as build quality, ergonomics, and decent enough materials to reflect the price of the car, then that's job done. Anything more such as expensive carbon fibre made in Italy are just excess that you don’t need in a compact sedan.

Amenities such as air-con for example also doesn’t need to have 12-zone climate controls with a perfume that smells like Kiko Mizuhara, it just needs to be cold. Cold enough to keep you nice and comfortable and not sweaty on a hot humid day.

Electric seats with lumbar support are also enough, you don’t need memory seats that remembers 700 different ways that you seat in a car with a masseuse inside the seats, really electric seats that you can almost infinitely adjust effortlessly is enough.

3. Entertainment system.

It should have radio, bluetooth, and that’s about it. As long as your smartphone can connect to the entertainment system wirelessly, that’s enough. You can listen to the songs on your phone, or your favorite podcasts, or make and receive phone calls while driving without taking your hands off the wheel. As long as it can do that, while also being fairly fast and responsive with good user interface, that’s enough.

Needs and wants.

Image taken from NetCarShow.com

Image taken from NetCarShow.com

I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy something like a Bentley or an S-Class, if you’ve done well in life then go ahead, treat yourself to a nice car. We all treat ourselves to nice things from time to time; I eat expensive Sushi once a month to treat myself and make me feel better even though a chicken burger from McDonald’s will do the job just fine, but I choose the sushi to treat myself and have a nice time. I can understand the joy that comes from appreciating the nice and expensive things in life.

If you’ve done well in life and you want to be chauffeured around in the back seat so you can do business deals even when you’re commuting, then an S-Class is obviously going to the better job than a C-Class since it has more leg room, reclining seats, and a bunch of other features that I don’t even know about since I’m a peasant. An S-Class will be exactly what you need, should you fit the description above.

It’s just that sometimes even car enthusiasts get so caught up in the spec sheets that we forget about what matters most: the driving and ownership experience. You don’t need a 500 horsepower sedan with sunroof and automatic closing doors, when a 200 horsepower sedan does the job just fine.

I don’t need a 3-Series with boot-lid sensors and automatic wipers and a perfume that smells like Angelina Jolie when a cheaper C-Class on a discount will still be just as nice to drive, if not better.

As I’m finishing this article, I don’t really have a point, this is just a sudden realization that I had in my head about how some features in a car are completely unnecessary as you don’t actually need it, but we get so caught up in the spec sheet sometimes and end up thinking the things that we want are actually what we need, where in reality you can do without those things.

Again, if you’ve done well in life and want to splurge, go ahead and buy that top of the line S-Class with all the optional extras ticked in with a big V12 engine, but maybe after reading this, you’d take a step back and reassess whether you actually need those things, or are you just caught up in the spec sheets and end up thinking of getting the most expensive things just because.

This is really difficult to summarize since cars and purchasing a car is such a big financial and emotional decision, and I understand that sometimes in life you just want to splurge, or you want the better and finer things in life, just because. I’m regretting writing this article, to be honest.

Anyway, if you choose to buy a V12 luxury sedan with twin-turbochargers, diamond wheels, and leather seats made with leather from Swiss’ most expensive cow just because you want to when you don’t actually need one, I’m not judging. All of this articles is coming from someone who’d pay the full price of a Lexus LFA when a Ferrari 599 or F12 would probably do the job for a cheaper price.

Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

All photos are taken by me unless stated otherwise. Please contact me should you want to use my photos for commercial purposes, or credit me for personal uses.

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