As the Editorial department's original member and resident fossil who worked to launch the site in 1998, I've been asked to comment on how vehicles have changed over Cars.com's 20 years. And boy, have they ever changed! Except for the ways they haven't.
Related: 20 Years of Cars.com
It became pretty clear to me how things were going to go when I began producing Cars.com's original car reviews almost 20 years ago. The first car intended for a Cars.com Vehicle Profile (lost years ago to a sitewide replatforming) was a 2000 Lincoln LS, a new rear-wheel-drive sedan that was a sister of the Jaguar S-Type, which Ford Motor Co. owned at the time. If it sets the scene, recognize that the Cadillac CTS was still three model years from existence and the prospect of a rear-wheel-drive American luxury sport sedan was pretty exciting. So was the notion that the LS had an all-aluminum, dual-overhead-camshaft V-8 engine and a five-speed automatic transmission when four speeds was still the norm.
I was definitely excited — more like appalled — to discover the worst accelerator lag I'd ever experienced. What was behind this? In the review, I ultimately compared the transmission to a flashy baseball pitcher who engages in too much windup before the pitch.
Wondering if it was my imagination, I got in another test car I also had at the time, a 2000 Chevrolet Impala. By contrast, there was nothing modern about this car's drivetrain, which included an optional 3.8-liter V-6. It had an iron block and head, and two pushrod-actuated valves per cylinder, versus the Lincoln's four overhead-cam valves. It was nearly the same engine that had powered my mother's horrific 1981 Buick Century sedan. In fact, this storied engine's history dated back to a 1950s Buick V-8 from which two cylinders were amputated before it appeared in a 1962 model.
On paper, this engine was a joke, paired with a four-speed automatic transmission. Here's the thing: I got in that car, and it charged off the line like a murderous bronco loosed from a pen. I tried standing starts, low- and high-speed passing — everything I could think of. Without exception, when I hit that accelerator, the Impala and its old, crude, outdated powertrain replied, "Yes, sir!"
This reinforced what I'd already learned as a consumer product journalist with only modest automotive experience: Formulas don't matter. Results matter.
Here are some other things I've learned.
Cars Aren't Cars
To be clear, I'm using the term "car" to mean vehicles of all types. But for what it's worth, if you point out that sedans are taking a beating in the market versus SUVs, vans and pickup trucks, it's also fair to point out that some SUVs (especially subcompacts like the Mazda CX-3 or Chevrolet Trax) are actually cars. They ride higher and typically offer all-wheel drive, but the efficiency and space compromises of 1998's SUVs are greatly minimized. The smallest 2018 SUVs are hatchback cars, and the environmental downsides aren't quite as dire as they may seem if your perspective is outdated.
Body-on-frame SUVs, which were the rule in 1998, are now the exception, as most SUVs employ lighter, more space-efficient unibody construction like cars. And for what that's worth, some unibody models have towing capacity to rival body-on-frame SUVs and are as good or better off-road — which is precisely why the term "crossover," which might have had real meaning for a few years, is completely obsolete, and I wish everyone would stop using it. Please.
Cars Are Much Less Crappy
When the www.cars.com site launched in 1998, cars were a lot crappier. Indeed, the difference between a crappy car and a good one was far more stark than it is today, and the job of the car reviewer far simpler (this is where I get no sympathy). But even today's "bad" cars are pretty freakin' good. It was about five years ago that I had to concede that today's cars almost always fundamentally drive well enough that aspects we used to consider trivial have become major determining factors for the average shopper. I'm talking about characteristics like multimedia or dashboard controls, and how well the car connects to your music player or phone — things that previously didn't exist or weren't important enough.
We used to learn to live with seats or controls or other things we didn't care for because we wanted a car that drove right. In 2018, almost everything drives right — or right enough. I'm humbled to recognize that matters of aesthetic preference or the presence or absence of a particular feature can sway a shopper more than almost any insight I, as a reviewer, can share. And the reason for this is that today's vehicles are really, really good.
The reason, obviously, is technology. Cruder forms of fuel injection than we enjoy today had proliferated among new 1998 models, but at that time there were still plenty of carbureted vehicles being driven that required you to set a choke before starting, that might have struggled to fire up in the cold and whose engines could be flooded (I'm not talking about water, millennials). That's all a distant memory.
The past 20 years have seen some of the quickest and most dramatic improvements in motor vehicle history. As in so many areas of industry, the global economy and life itself, the cause of this revolution was the computer. It starts with the way vehicles are developed, in which computer modeling has accelerated design and advancements in vehicle crashworthiness, but most of the improvements in efficiency, emissions, safety, reliability and longevity comes from having microprocessors, microcontrollers and extensive unseen networks on board the cars themselves.
Technology Is Less Crappy
The onboard diagnostic system that primarily oversees emissions performance, in the OBD-II specification, had become mandatory in 1996, so Cars.com's early years were marked by a system that admittedly often seemed to do more harm than good (whose day isn't ruined by a check-engine light?), but it was the beginning of computerized control of the entire vehicle and the benefits that come when various subsystems work in tandem to maintain efficiency, pollution control, safety and features we couldn't imagine until they appeared over the years.
Thanks to countless sensors, all cars know how fast each wheel is turning, and some sample how compressed their shock absorbers are at any given microsecond. They may know if they're climbing or descending a hill, whether it's raining or not, what type of road surface they're on, if the car is spinning or sliding laterally — plus a whole lot about what's around the vehicle thanks to some mix of cameras, radar, lidar and sonar.
Thanks to GPS and telematics, they know where they are, the elevation and the weather forecast. If the car you currently own doesn't use some or all of this information to adapt its behavior for the circumstances at hand in the interest of safety, performance, comfort or convenience, rest assured that it's only a matter of time.
The cars of 1998 had very few of these capabilities, and those that did exist — like antilock brakes and traction control — have improved dramatically. ABS was always intended to help the driver maintain control while braking, but unfortunately the earlier forms often extended braking distances under some conditions. Likewise, overly conservative traction control often kept you from gaining any forward momentum on loose snow or sand, requiring you to shut it off. These systems now are far smarter, sample faster and can adapt to different conditions either automatically or as commanded with a choice of driving mode. Many advancements have relied on the spread of electronic throttle control — another worthy development that flat-out sucked for a number of years, delaying response even in otherwise sporty cars with no turbos or automatic transmissions to muck up the works.
Cars Are More Trouble-Free and Long-Lived
Under computer control, today's engines and transmissions work much better together. The benefit is more than just efficiency, emissions control and smoother shifting under all conditions — it's longevity. Electronic nannies save both driver and cars from themselves. Spirited driving in a 2018 model certainly produces more friction and wear than does docile driving, but it's nothing like the beating a 20-year-old car's drivetrain would endure under wide-open throttle. New cars are harder to break.
Replacement and service intervals for everything from spark plugs to automatic transmissions are now longer, extending in some models almost as far as the average life expectancy of vehicles, which now nears 12 years, according to IHS Markit. We don't know about 1998, but in 2002 when IHS began its tracking, the average age was 9.6 years.
Despite all of this computerized interference and smoother shifts that necessarily slow a car's progress, today's vehicles are far more capable than they were 20 years ago, such that we barely take notice when a family sedan can do zero-to-60 mph in 6 seconds. It's partly the sportification first of luxury sedans, then followed by everyday sedans and hatchbacks, that has cooled American demand for dedicated sports cars. Once a crude muscle car, today's Chevrolet Camaro (despite visibility limitations bordering on negligence) is a sports car that could spank some of the most capable performance vehicles of 1998. Frankly, some of today's sports sedans come pretty close, too.
Cars Are Much Less Fun
I said cars are more capable, but that doesn't mean more fun. Quite the contrary. As cars have become less flappable, driving has become less engaging unless you're among the relative few who take to a racetrack to explore a vehicle's limits — or don't mind breaking laws on public roads.
Factors like increased structural rigidity and more sophisticated suspension design combine with always-evolving tire technology to ensure that a 2018 car's limits are further from reach than a 1998's were — under traffic conditions that make testing those limits less possible anyway.
Without question, today's cars are much safer than they were when Cars.com launched, but the same designs and systems that allow the car to do the work for you also suck a lot of the joy out of driving — at least in normal, legal driving. This is why I find an aged Mazda Miata on all-season tires more consistently fun in normal use than many of the current racetrack-bred sports cars and sports sedans I test.
If you're a gearhead, lateral torque vectoring, to use a proliferating example, is so fascinating that you might not realize immediately how much fun you're not having learning to hold a line yourself in your perfect car that does it for you. Modern cars make you feel like you're a better driver. In truth, it's the opposite. Is it any wonder crude, unfettered beasts like earlier generations of the Dodge Viper (1992-2010) had their fans? Contrast the Porsche 911 generations that emerged during the same period, the all-wheel-drive option of which was enough to turn this legendary handful of a car into something of a bore on a daily basis. The Viper inspired me to devote myself to figuring out how to control it. The 911 4S inspired me to wonder what my cat might be doing at that moment.
The Emperor Is Still Naked
Cars may be better overall in many ways, but what hasn't changed in 20 years is how often our expectations, based on anything from marketing claims to common sense, aren't met.
The number of gears in the latest automatic transmissions is now twice that of the problematic 2000 Lincoln LS V8, and still only some of the various six- through 10-speed transmissions in today's cars respond as quickly as they should when you hit the pedal. There are good reasons for transmissions to have more and more gears, and to shift more frequently as a consequence, but we've never found it acceptable when a vehicle fails to do so quickly in response to the driver's action.
Twenty years in, we're still waiting for automakers to give up on touch-sensitive non-button buttons, for Lexus to abandon its touchpad, for other manufacturers (Mitsubishi, Acura) not to follow them off that cliff, and for all brands to recognize that giving Google and Apple a role in their dashboards is an inevitability.
Though I tested the Lincoln LS first, I chose as the inaugural Vehicle Profile my examination of a new SUV called the 2000 Nissan Xterra. The Xterra was marketed heavily toward Generation X with much talk about younger people and active lifestyles (a concept that marketers continue to flog all these years later), and it seemed appropriate to me that our first review in a relatively new internet medium, which appealed primarily to younger people at that time, be about a model that does the same. Also, I can't say I was 100 percent on board, but I suspected the SUV craze might be more than a fad.
The Xterra, which I very much enjoyed on its merits, proved to be a shining triumph of results over formula. Pitched and received as the next big thing, it was little more than a funky body on an old pickup-truck frame, with an on-hand V-6 the preferred engine and simple part-time four-wheel drive. There were more modern, sophisticated vehicles available, certainly, but the Xterra made a lot of people happy and Nissan a lot of money for 16 model years, more than twice as long as the LS.
To be honest, Cars.com had a lot of Xterra to it: a flashy new body on an old frame — a decidedly not new framework of newspaper and magazine people who provided the same kind of advantage a traditional ladder frame had granted vehicles since the dawn of the automobile: a foundation on which to build a hardworking and successful vehicle. Cars.com's Editorial department holds to the same principles today that it did when granted the opportunity to be a part of this endeavor 20 years ago. For me, another 20 years seems unlikely, but Cars.com Editorial will keep at it for as long as we're able.
Cars.com's Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com's long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don't accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com's advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.