In Praise of the Stripper

My parents love strippers. Wait, let me rephrase that: my parents love minimally optioned automobiles. Growing up, I thought all cars sported dashboards and consoles festooned with blank plastic squares, all transmissions were manual, all windows were hand-cranked, and all air was decidedly unconditioned. I thought power windows were the exclusive domain of guys who asked one another for Grey Poupon at stoplights, and I practiced rolling down my window at a constant speed, with a minimum of upper body motion, in the hopes of fooling passersby into thinking that I was one of the power-window-enjoying elite.

In our cars, upholstery was either vinyl or a textile that was defined as "cloth" but more closely resembled the carpet you'd see in a cruise-ship hallway. And the engines . . . we successfully made it through the 1980s without owning a vehicle that had more than 95 hp, and that included a full-size truck, the Big Dodge Ram. You see, my parents hate driving, so they always bought the minimal vehicle possible to get the job done - which only perpetuated their hatred of driving, as they sweated through summers and endured pedal-to-the-metal white-knuckle merges onto the freeway.

I just spent a month driving some pretty inexpensive automobiles - the Suzuki SX4 Sport and the two four-door Scions - and it struck me that the concept of a stripper has changed drastically in the past fifteen years or so. True, the cars that manufacturers provide for journalists are typically loaded to the gunwales with every available option, for the car companies recognize that auto writers are delicate creatures who might wilt like a neglected flower if forced to drive a vehicle without foot-massaging, leather pedals and Bluetooth-ready cupholders. So I wasn't surprised to see that these cars, which range in base price from $14,895 for the Suzuki to $16,270 for the xB, were well-stocked - all three had power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry, four- or six-speaker CD sound systems, and a full complement of air bags. What did surprise me, though, is that you can't get them any other way. In fact, Suzuki so takes power windows for granted that they're not even mentioned on the SX4's standard equipment list. Of course it has power windows. What do you think this is, a Tata Nano?

Clearly, Suzuki is trying to distance itself from the stigma of the stripper. The thing is, I actually like strippers. Everyone should own a stripper at some point, because driving a car with zero frills makes you appreciate the little things. For instance, a friend of mine used to own a stripper Jeep Cherokee, a penurious form of transportation indeed. One day I was riding shotgun and flipped down the sun visor to discover a strange, rectangular bulge in the vinyl. "What's that?" I asked, wondering if I'd happened upon an ill-hidden drug stash of some sort. "That's the vanity mirror," he replied. "It's an option. All the cars have a mirror inside the visor, but if you don't order it, they don't cut away the material to reveal it."

My parents favored cars that didn't throw their stripper status in your face quite so blatantly. In fact, both our 1987 Dodge Ram D150 and our '89 Subaru DL wagon attempted to convince you that they had some expensive features, both by way of giant red buttons in the interior. The Big Dodge Ram's button was the size of a Monopoly board and was surrounded by several square yards of black plastic that helped draw the eye to the backlit control at its center. "It looks like a button that would destroy the vehicle. Or launch a nuclear attack," one of my father's friends once remarked admiringly. In fact, it activated the cargo light.

The Subaru's giant red button, mounted atop the shifter, was somewhat more functional, since it engaged the part-time four-wheel-drive system. The drawback was that front-seat passengers, particularly those under the age of ten, could seldom resist pushing it, which meant that forays onto the interstate were always preceded with stern warnings about the permanence of one's grounding should severe transfer-case damage be incurred at 70 mph.

Thanks to cars like the Subaru and the BDR, some part of me retains an appreciation for features like a passenger-side exterior mirror (absent on the Subaru) or a sound system with more power than an audio greeting card (the BDR came with a single speaker of a size normally found in hearing aids). But the Scion/ Suzuki troika got me wondering: is there still such a thing as a stripper, in the manner I'd recognize?

A tour of a few Web sites confirms that there is. Props to Mazda, for one, because while a decked-out Mazda 3 is basically a very small Mercedes-Benz S-class, complete with a Bose stereo and a pop-up navigation screen, the Mazda 3 iSport is a proper stripper. It has no power windows, power door locks, or power mirrors; no cruise control; and no A/C. Its equipment list includes such surprise-and-delight features as "steering wheel - urethane." OK, as opposed to what? Steering wheel - cardboard? A pair of vise grips clamped on the end of the steering column?

Looking for further stripper-induced automotive copywriter futility, I turned to the world of trucks, and the Ford Ranger didn't disappoint. The Ranger XL packs a vinyl seat and a two-speaker sound system. Under "interior features," the Ford wordsmiths clearly faced a mighty struggle to portray the base Ranger as something other than the Spartan machine that it is. The roster of equipment includes "mirror, rearview - day/night," "inside hood release," and my favorite of all, "instrumentation panel - color-matched full-width pad, side window de-misters, air registers, color-coordinated appliqué." If I'm not mistaken, this is an elaborate way of saying that the 2008 Ranger comes standard with a dashboard.

Since I was already driving full-speed down memory lane, I opened up a Dodge brochure to see what kind of amenities you'd get in the modern incarnation of the Big Dodge Ram, the 2008 Ram 4x2 ST. I'm happy to report that the bare-bones Ram still looks as luxurious as an Eastern bloc orphanage, sporting an impressive list of "comfort and convenience features" that includes "dash-liner insulation" and "floor-tunnel insulation." And of course, they don't forget to tout the fact that there's a cargo lamp. I hope it's operated by a giant red button.

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