What Happened to Actual Cars?: NMA E-Newsletter #560

By guest writer Jim Millick

Automakers have made some big announcements this past year regarding cars—I’m talking about sedans, coupes and smaller runabouts that we have all owned in the past. The car companies have decided to stop manufacturing most related models. The SUV (“sport” utility vehicle) and pickup trucks, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has lumped into a “light truck” classification, are taking over the auto industry.

How did it come to this?

For those of us who still drive actual cars, and other road users such as motorcyclists and bicyclists, we are at an increasing disadvantage, and less safe. Many times, someone driving an SUV does not even understand how big their vehicle is and will frequently crowd a smaller car without even knowing it. That’s why I like my horn.

Also, if you are in the blind spot of an SUV or pickup truck, the driver cannot see you with their invariably misadjusted mirrors, and you, the car driver, have to be ever-vigilant.

There are advantages to owning a car; they are generally cheaper to buy and operate because of better gas mileage. Also, cars are easier to park in tight spots and the home garage. Some cars even have nearly equal cargo space to the SUV’s popular brethren, the CUV (compact utility vehicle), e.g., a VW Golf vs. a Porsche Macan. Another plus for cars, sedans, and coupes—they are more efficient, smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic, and more comfortable to get into—you don’t feel as though you need a commercial driver’s license to drive them.

But gas is cheap, and so consumers have decided they can afford to lease, rent, or buy the more massive machines. Americans love big and new, whether it’s a house or vehicle, and they vote with their wallet. As critics have noted, this light truck designation is a government fiction desired by the Detroit automakers to protect their high-margin, high-profit vehicles from the more stringent rules cars must meet.

Peerless automotive designer Gordon Murray states that a vehicle’s manufacturing carbon footprint is directly proportional to its weight, something in which 4,500-6,000 lb. SUVs and trucks do not fare well.

We’re not even talking about their aerodynamic inefficiency and fuel consumption. Did you know it takes about seven years for fuel energy consumption to equal the energy used in the manufacturing of any vehicle?

The European Union measures carbon dioxide output across the board, and a vehicle doesn’t get an emissions waiver because of size. EU climate groups have called for SUV bans (which probably means cars are next on the list). Europeans might be in for an unwelcome surprise with their train tickets, though, since high taxes on gasoline and diesel directly subsidize rail transport.

Crew cab trucks (with four doors) were once the domain of railroad and utility companies. The no-towing, no cargo-carrying 4-door pickups now function as an expensive, high center-of-gravity sedan, not a truck. A ladder is needed just to climb in, too (or better yet, an expensive, factory optional, motorized running board).

Of greatest concern, of course, for the motorist driving in the forest of SUVs and trucks on the highway and streets, is safety. At least 90 percent of the information needed for driving is the visual observation of the road. If you can’t see around large, vision-obscuring objects, you are at a distinct disadvantage, making it much tougher to anticipate any potential issues ahead of you on the road. This is especially difficult if one of these behemoths has darkly tinted windows. Parking lots can be frightening for owners with smaller cars—you have to hope for the best when you back up out of the parking space in between a darkly tinted SUV and a crew cab pickup, with the truck part higher than your car.

The other safety piece is the crash impact—especially in a T-bone collision. The lower mass vehicle will often come out the worse in the deal, though any body-on-frame SUV or pickup will have demonstrably worse crash performance than a unibody vehicle, all other things being equal. It may be bad for a car driver, but for the two-wheeler or pedestrian, it’s far more likely to be fatal. In the UK, a London lawmaker wants to restrict SUVs for this reason. The EU has “pedestrian friendly” impact standards for cars, believe it or not. The U.S. doesn’t bother with that wishful-thinking fiction, and it would be nearly impossible to do that with heavy-mass SUV and pickups, anyway.

After the numerous disadvantages, are there any pluses for the average car driver in this SUV-pickup trend? Not in a net way, but at least there are a few.

Parking spaces may become wider and longer, which means, though, there will be fewer of them—especially with the proliferation of road diets around the country. Having a wider and longer parking space could indeed lower the probability of careless door-dingers whacking your car’s flanks or perhaps hitting a bicyclist or scooter rider in a bike lane.

I found another unexpected development on a recent trip to California. Apparently, nobody wants “full-size” rental cars any more. This category of rental car was once the province of the most expensive tier, now dominated by—you guessed it—SUVs and crew cab pickups (along with vans). The full-size car now costs just one step up from the tiny penalty-box 3-cylinder import machine. Even an ordinary “compact car” rental costs more than the full-size car!

Passenger cars are becoming the minority vehicle on the road, which means their drivers need to be more vigilant than ever before.

If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of the SUV craze, including why they’re so popular, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s seminal work, “Big and Bad, how the S.U.V. ran over Automotive Safety.”

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this newsletter are those of the author.

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