Mike Stevens | Oct 24, 2008

For years now, car companies have looked at the options list as the place to bolster the bottom line. Margins on the car itself were cut razor thin to keep the advertised "starting from" price as low as possible. The practice here is to shave every last cent off the sticker to entice people into the showroom.

This is not without its traps, of course. You might be able to land that great family sedan for a 'song', but then you'll pay the price when you start ticking off even the most basic options. How many people have shaken their heads in disbelief at the price of 'genuine' floor mats for their new car, amazed at how the salesperson doesn't bat an eyelid when quoting a price that's multiples more than the cost of similar mats from your local auto accessories store? Want a roof rack, tow bar or side steps? Prepare to lose an arm.

Top Gear has a blog post saying that the Ford Motor Company is looking at reducing the options list on their vehicles. It's being driven by CEO Alan Mulally, who, some of you may be aware, used to work at Boeing. He said:

"At Boeing we used to have 47 different cupholders for the cockpit of the 747. Every airline had different china so they wanted a different shape. And they all had to be engineered for 16g!

"But then airline deregulation happened. They had to cut costs. They couldn’t afford to be fussy any more. Then it was just the one cupholder."

Mulally goes on to talk about standardising things like colours and trim levels, and offering different extras as packages rather than à la carte.

Mulally thinks the dealer network would prefer it. (Remember when Henry Ford famously said, "You can have a Model T in any colour as long as it's black.") The principle is that people don't miss what they never had.

I think that Mulally has a point here. I read an article in a local rag, a while back, where one of the motoring journalists got to spec out a Bentley by Mulliner. With the Mulliner division, you can customise practically anything. The journo was stumped when the Mulliner rep asked him what colour he wanted the seat belts. His initial reaction was, "I've never thought about it before," and the myriad options had him flummoxed. Honestly, how many of us care what colour the seat belts are?

If Ford plays this smart, and creates options packages for items people generally group together, then it would streamline their manufacturing processes, thus reducing costs while making things easier for customers by limiting choices.

You know, and I know, that more does not equal better; 'bundling' options may be a winner with car buyers.

The only thing I find ironic about the whole situation is that one of the first volume 'affordable' production car - i.e. not a custom coach built vehicle - to offer an extensive options list that enabled customers to make their ride "their own" was... the Ford Mustang. Pontiac may have started the trend, but the Mustang took it new heights, and to new levels of profitability for Ford US at the time.

[ Top Gear ]

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