When he was president of Ford Motor Company and car prices were scooting through the roof, Chrysler chairman Lee A. Iacocca used to point to what he said would eventually be a $10,000 Pinto. It was up to around $5,000 or $6,000 at that time. But with inflation and the federal government's safety and emissions legislation on the march, car prices were hitting the clouds.
If the Pinto were still around, Mr. Iacocca might not have been too far off the mark.
No matter what the base price, however, few people buy a ''stripped'' vehicle these days. Most buyers follow the option route, which can easily boost the price by $2,000 or more.
Remember that the car dealer gets a discount on the base vehicle itself as well as on all of the optional equipment he can persuade you to buy. The more heavily loaded the car, the more money the dealer stands to make and the more you'll have to pay.
You can't buy a new car these days for $3,500 or $4,000, let alone $2,295, the base price of the Mercury Capri when Ford first brought it to the United States in the 1960s. Nonetheless, there really are bargains out there, depending on what the word means to you.
A $40,000 exotic sports car might be a ''steal'' to a motorist who is looking for something specific and finds he can get it for somewhat less than he was prepared to pay.
You can buy a brand-new Chevrolet 3-door hatchback Chevette for around $5,000 . In today's pricing language, that's a good deal, assuming that the styling of the Chevette appeals to you.
The price has to be a major contributing factor to the longevity of the car. In the 1984-model year, in fact, GM sold 180,341 of them.
A 3-door liftback Renault Encore lists for $5,959, while a base Renault Alliance 2-door sedan goes for $6,161, but obviously that's only for starters.
Going up the ladder, a top-of-the-line Alliance Limited 4-door sedan lists for $7,861, while there are premium-priced S, LS, and GS versions of the Encore.
Hard as it may be to find a base-level car, here are some low-end prices that can put you on a set of new wheels.
(With a few exceptions, all prices are for 1985-model cars. Prices do not include preparation and destination charges from factory to dealership.)
Chevrolet Chevette 2-door ($4,990).
Dodge Colt 3-door ($5,372, tentative).
Dodge Colt 5-door ($6,029).
Dodge Omni 5-door ($5,999).
Ford Escort 2-door ($5,499).
Mercury Lynx 2-door ($6,058).
Plymouth Horizon 5-door ($5,999).
Plymouth Colt 3-door ($5,372, tentative).
Plymouth Colt 5-door ($6,029, tentative).
Pontiac 1000 3-door ($5,621).
Pontiac 1000 5-door ($5,824).
Nissan Sentra 2-door ($5,454).
Honda Civic 1.3-liter (5,399).
Mazda GLC 3-door ($5,195).
Subaru 3-door ($5,995).
Toyota Tercel 3-door ($5,348).
Volkswagen Rabbit '84 diesel ($6,390).