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Top Gear Philippines

My mobile phone gave me an idea recently. You see, my phone is equipped with a two-megapixel camera, a feature that I never use. If I need to take a photo of something, I have a proper 10-megapixel camera to handle the task. So it got me thinking: I actually paid for a gadget feature that I didn't really need. Actually, I was indeed looking for a cellular phone that didn't have a camera, but couldn't find one. (I probably saw one or two, but they looked like disposable lighters.) In the end, I was forced to buy a phone that was over-spec'd for my personal needs. Needless to say, this meant paying more for what I really wanted.

Which brings me to over-spec'd cars. My car, for instance, has dual airbags. But I travel alone and the passenger seat is almost always empty. I could have really gone for a car that only had a driver-side airbag. I can also do away with the vanity mirror on the passenger-side visor. Sure, the occasional female companion might look for it, but I could then tell her: "Use your compact mirror, which I'm sure you have in your purse."

Or what about many of the new models being launched these days? I go over a typical spec sheet and I spot several features that are not really essential, but which carmakers put on a vehicle anyway just to enhance its appeal. Take the sunroof. While I don't doubt that there are people out there who truly appreciate the presence of a sunroof, I also believe that there are far more car buyers who'd rather take the savings than get a hole in their car's roof.

Paddle shifters? I know people who don't even have the patience to use them. I personally don't like them. But you see many compact cars now being sold with a pair of these--at an extra cost, of course. Reverse sensors integrated into rear bumpers are also increasingly becoming standard, but I and a host of other drivers don't really need them. There are actually people who have decent parking skills, you know.

You see midsize SUVs now with headrest-mounted LCD monitors, but what if the owner happens to be a single guy who merely happens to lead an active life and simply needs the vehicle's room to shuttle a mountain bike and other stuff?

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Carmakers keep unleashing supposedly desirable features like HID headlamps, side-mirror turn signals, seat massager, beverage cooler and start/stop ignition button. This is well and good, except that the extra features translate to more cost on the buyer.

Of course, you're thinking: "Well, that's what different variants are there for. If you don't like many of the features found on a top-of-the-line model, then just go entry-level." The thing is, when you go for a lower variant, you usually end up spending on upgrades--upgrades that do matter to you. When I got my car, I almost immediately chucked the 14-inch stock wheels for 16-inch alloys. Then I discarded the pathetic Mickey Mouse horn and got two manlier-sounding cones. I also got rid of the stock audio head unit and the whimpering front-door speakers, and personally put together a system that could accommodate my iPod and bombard the cabin with heart-thumping bass. Finally, I had to install a water-temp gauge because my car originally didn't have one (okay, sure, this one was mostly for my personal satisfaction).

The problem, I now realize, is that individual car owners have different wants and needs, and it's just impossible for carmakers to introduce vehicle models that will please everyone and cater to every whim. The variants that ultimately reach the market are basically the most balanced packages that product planners can possibly come up with. And even then--even with the countless trims and options--many car buyers still wish for something more personal and specific to their needs.

I just accompanied a friend to a Honda showroom because she was so taken by the Jazz. She loved everything about the car, save for the modular center console that housed the radio. She still bought the car, but did so with some hesitation.

I've got just the solution to this. How about car companies sell vehicles that are built to order? I know BTO is not exactly a new idea in car manufacture. It has been employed mostly by assemblers of low-volume expensive cars, many of them hand-built. Common business sense dictates that this production approach would be disadvantageous to carmakers that need to churn out high-volume vehicle models. But with the efficiency of online communication today, I don't see why it can't eventually work.

Imagine that: You go to the website of Toyota, for example, and put together your personal car based on the available specs and features. This way, there is not a single item on your car that you won't like or need. Which really means there is not a single useless item that you will have to pay for. Of course, there are parts that you can't tamper with--parts that are essential to the vehicle's safe operation, like the brake pedal (hello?).

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To confirm your order, you will have to pay a significant order-placement fee, which you pay online via credit card. This is simply to protect carmakers from no-life pranksters. A P20,000 confirmation fee should be acceptable to both parties. No sane buyer would renege on an order and risk forfeiting the fee.

In an era of fastidious personalization, I think there is a market for spec-it-yourself cars. If we can choose the exact ingredients on our pizza or handpick the colors on our sneakers, why can't we tailor our cars to our specific demands? Maybe this will finally spell the end of the hideous faux-wood dashboard treatment.

Vernon B. Sarne
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