Sunday, January 3, 2010

I'm not against cars

It may not be apparent by the title and content of this blog that I used to be, and still am to some extent, a real car nut. See, I'm sort of like the guy from the film Adaptation, who lives life by learning all he can about something, and then abruptly getting bored and starting a new obsession. I'm currently in the bored w/cameras, interested in bikes phase, but only a few short years ago it was cars, and not cameras or bikes.

I do drive a lot, and I still enjoy it, although my point of view on driving and cars has always been different from other car nuts. I like unique cars that stand out from the crowd, even in a parking lot full of interesting cars. I'll yawn at the Woodward Dream Cruise and its oceans of muscle cars, but take me to the Lane Motor Museum and I go nuts. Chevrolet Impala? Neat, but I don't think I'd buy one. Give me a Subaru Brat or a Citroën DS any day.

One of the things that drove me away from the car hobby is the kind of groupthink that is rampant in both the car industry and the enthusiast community nowadays. Reading a car magazine is to me an exercise in frustration. They complain that some compact cars don't have enough power, give high marks to expensive sedans such as the BMW 3 series, and do not value originality or value in any way. Truth be told, every car made today is reliable and powerful enough to move itself comfortably down the freeway at 80 mph for a good 100,000 miles and not break a sweat. Perhaps that's why car magazine writers and enthusiasts have to reach to find things to set cars apart from each other in such trivial ways. In the old days, it was easy to say a car was underpowered, when the Volkwagen Beetle took 30 seconds or more to get to 60 mph. Or a car was unreliable or unsafe, when the Pontiac Fiero burst into flames from electrical fires on dealership lots. But today, to say a small car with more than 100 hp is underpowered, as my first-generation Honda Fit was often claimed to be, is simply ridiculous.

In other markets, like Japan and Europe, car companies make interesting small cars with incredible fuel economy, but car companies are too afraid to bring them to America because of the American automotive journalist's penchant for power over economy. Let's look at one clear-cut example: the Scion xB. Take a car like the Japanese-market Toyota bB, a small-on-the-outside, big-on-the-inside people mover, and within a generation of hitting US shores as the Scion xB all of a sudden it has ballooned in proportions (add over 600 lbs!) and engine size (1.3L in Japan, now 2.4L in the US!) to the point that it suffers in fuel economy and price. I still believe that if the Toyota bB and Scion xB were offered for sale side by side, the Toyota would kill the Scion in sales, but the automotive press would slam it ruthlessly for its power deficit.

Japan's Toyota bB 1.5L 109hp engine, 2,200 lbs, 37 mpg! (also available with a 1.3L engine)

The Made-for-America Scion xB: 2.4L 158hp engine, 3085 lbs, 25 mpg

The fact that cars like the Toyota bB can move easily down the highway, accelerate on the onramp to cruising speed in an adequate time somehow never registers with the press. They live in a world where the number of seconds that a car takes to go from 0-60 mph - an exercise that rarely if ever matters in the real world - determines what car is good and what car is bad. A recent US press review of the japanese-market Nissan Cube, for example, deemed its 0-60 time of 13 seconds "life-threatening." Over-the-top rhetoric like this, meant to scare the reader into believing they will somehow get killed if their car can't get to 60 mph in under 9 seconds, is sensationalist at best. At the very least, it is crap like this that is keeping fuel-efficient cars from being imported into our market.

My 1992 Honda Civic VX was made for one purpose and one purpose only - to get great miles per gallon while not sacrificing drivability. It had 92 hp (20 more than the base model that year!), came in under 2100 lbs, and was geared to turn an ultra-low 2000 rpms at 75 mph. I regularly get 50 mpg in this nearly 20 year old car that seats 4, and though it'll never set any land speed records, I've never had a problem getting on the highway or driving along at 75+ mph. Turn the keys over to most any current auto mag writer worth his salt, and I'd guarantee he'd try to record the 0-60 time and complain about its lack of power, though that would be missing the point entirely in a car like this.

The Honda Civic VX, beating out hybrids, almost 20 years ago.

It seems to me that people in America, especially in the press, have lost perspective in what's important in car design, especially in regards to so-called economy cars. A no-frills vehicle designed to get you from point A to B frugally, efficiently, and safely has no reason to be timed on a 0-60 or quarter mile run. If it gets you on the freeway, cruises comfortably at 80 mph, and has decent handling to avoid accidents, that's really all you should care about. Were I in charge of an automotive magazine, I'd outlaw all acceleration timing equipment on cars like this, and put the priority back on fuel economy. I guarantee most entry-level cars could get an extra 10 mpg if the press wouldn't nitpick on acceleration and power so much.

3 comments:

aduthie said...

I agree completely on what's wrong with the automotive enthusiast press. I do still see a value to quoting acceleration figures: there is a certain limit below which I'm somewhat uncomfortable merging onto the highway. In my case, that standard was not met by my 1990 Volvo 240 wagon. It was fine on straight-line on-ramps but not on curved ones, which essentially shorten the full-throttle portion of the ramp, since the 240's handling limits speed around the bend. That was the ONLY properly-running, quasi-modern car I've driven that failed my personal spec.

As for assumptions about the name of your blog -- I'm of the "can't we all get along" mentality, which is to say that I enjoy bicycles, motorcycles, cars, and trucks in relatively equal measure. So while I respect people who brag about "going car-free" and think that's a worthy challenge, I can't ignore the utility (and fun) of each class of vehicle, hence my collection of all-of-the-above.

Though I still sometimes think it would be an interesting challenge to drop down to just one of each... I think that's largely a how-little-can-I-spend on insurance challenge.

Erich said...

I have another post coming on what I've seen in the biking community that doesn't sit well with me, so it's not like the bike community and the car community and press are all that different. I can understand the Volvo being a bit slow for your tastes, although Holly never really had a problem with hers.

Joshua said...

I drove a 1991 Honda Civic DX for 110,000 miles over 9 years and loved it. Even when I had 100,000+ miles on the odometer and without routine tune-ups (ignorance/laziness) I still could get 42+ mpg when I drove 65mph on the highway.

Now we have a 2006 Civic LX with a lot more doodads, size, and power. Soon after we got it, I managed 45mpg on a trip to Madison with the cruise set at 63mph. I like the new car, but sometimes I miss that trusty, (slightly) rusty old Civic.

I do wish there were more fun small cars available here in the US so that people could discover just how great they can be.

I'd still rather be on a bicycle most trips. :)