The Bamboozled American Driver?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Just the other day I saw a TV commercial for the 2011 Infiniti M56. It has a 420 hp 5.6 liter V-8 engine. It can reach 60 mph in about 5 seconds and will run to more than 150 mph, flat out.

I know, it makes me excited too.

But how many of the middle-aged urban/suburban manager/professional types who buy a car like this will ever drive it faster than 100?

Or even 90?

And how often will they do even that?

Even the young and eager can’t make use of such power. See what happens if you drive 100 mph (or faster) for any length of time in the U.S.

I don’t like it, either — but it’s the reality.

How often do you see people (teenagers excepted) blasting 0-60 as fast as the car can go?

Not me.

I drive a lot and all over the country and what I see much more often is cars — including 400 hp cars like the M56 — easing away from lights just like the minivan in the next lane. The cars all pretty much grouped together, none going much faster than the others — and all of them going pretty slow. Maybe 10 mph or so over the posted limit.

If there’s no cop around. That’s about it.

How often do you see a car doing 0-60 in 5 seconds? Or running 20 or more mph faster than surrounding traffic. It happens, yes. But it’s rare — and when it does happen it’s usually a kid in a souped-up Mitsubishi with a huge wing on the trunk, not a 40-year-old businessman in a $57,000 Infiniti (or Benz or whatever).

In this country, a 400 hp car is as useless as a jet ski in the Mojave. We can’t drive really fast (much over 80) for any length of time, at least, because if we do, we will be roughly treated by the police — then the courts — and then by the DMV and the insurance cartels.

Adults — who are the only people in a position to buy a car like the $57,000 M56 — know this. They may have a teenaged son or daughter who would kill to drive the M56 to the fullest extent of its capability (and may just do it) but the adult owner won’t because he’s aware of the consequences or is just too old for that kind of stuff.

Reality check. It sucks, but it’s the truth.

Equally true: A modern fule-injected 200 hp V-6 will get you to 100 without breaking a sweat — and to 80 or so (about the fastest we can realistically drive here for any length of time) and maintain it, easily.

And it wouldn’t get 16 mpg (or cost $57k) like the 420 hp M56 does.

But, we’ve been convinced by the marketing and PR wizards that a V-8 more powerful than Ferrari V-12s were in the ’80s is an absolute Essential — or at least, very desirable — even if we have neither the inclination nor the opportunity to ever actually use two-thirds of that capability.

Current luxury cars are more juiced up than Arnold Schwarzennegger during his Mr. Olympia days — and like him, built mostly for show-only.

In Europe (Germany especially) really powerful cars do get used, so it makes some sense. But there’s something symptomatically American about millions of 300 and 400 hp luxury cars loafing along at 64 mph — their engines burbling, their chrome plated 20 inch rims spinning… like Arnold flexing his biceps, but never actually doing anything with them.

Virtually all current-year luxury cars are really sports cars. They have sharply raked windshields and low-cut rooflines, hold-you-tight-bucket seats with floor (and paddle) shifters and consoles and huge hooded gauge clusters with tachometers and 8,000 RPM redlines. They ride on 18, 19 and 20-inch light-alloy wheels with tires that have sidewalls as skinny and hard as the 20-year-old flatbelly who teaches aerobics at the gym.

Which is lovely, if you do track days — or drive on public roads like you do on track days.

But 95 percent of the people who drive these cars, don’t. As Bob Dole once said: You know it. I know it. The American people know it. But they don’t care. They willingly pay fifty or sixty grand to cram their not-so-flexible, not-so-young-anymore backsides into a tight-fitting, hard-riding sports car with four doors and pay $300 a pop for 150 mph-rated tires that never see the high side of 80 — in order that they may feel youthful and virile and whatever-else, as conditioned into their heads by the PR maestros who make it so.

My father in law drives a Cadillac Sedan de Ville from the early 1990s — the era when Cadillac still built luxury cars. It does not have bucket seats. It has flat, three-across bench seats. They give when you sit down — and are perfect for 15 hour drives to Vegas. A pull-down column-shifter controls an automatic that is automatic. It does not require or expect you to tap paddle shifters or engage “sport” mode. There is no “sport” mode. Its job is to transition between gears without the driver or passengers noticing or feeling anything.

That was the whole object of the exercise, you see.

It has pop-on (and off) wire wheel covers on 15 inch rims — with smooth-riding all-season radials wrapped around ’em. The suspension is soft. You don’t feel potholes. The steering is one-finger effortless — and the car is incredibly comfortable.

True, it doesn’t “handle” in the way that almost all modern car reviewers require for their approval. But it wasn’t meant to. What it was meant to do is glides along, smoothly and quietly — relaxation in motion.

Which is what used to be what luxury meant.

I miss it. Don’t you?

On the other end of the scale, we have economy car buyers who don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the automakers to produce subcompacts that can take a T-bone impact at 60 mph like a 5,000 pound S-Class Benz, yet also knock down 40 MPGs but still do 0-60 in less than 8 seconds; that feature GPS, power windows and locks, Bluetooth wireless — and still be priced under $15k.

Economy cars — the real deal — can’t be sold here. At least, not recently. Remember the three-cylinder Geo Metro? That was an economy car. It got better gas mileage (50-plus MPGs) than a 2010 Prius — and it cost half as much.

Naturally, no one bought it.

People also snicker at 40 mpg diesel tanks like the old Benz 300D. Too slow. Not “sporty” enough.

Meanwhile, people bitch about $3 gas.

Meanwhile, millions of hausfraus putter around suburbia in 5,000 lb. 4WD SUVs and AWD “crossovers” that will live their entire lives on the tarmac.

Am I the only one left who can see the man behind the curtain?

Go back 25 years or so and the only people who drive 4WDs were country people or working people who needed them and actually used them. All-wheel-drive was nonexistent, but all of a sudden, almost every new car has it or offers it. Millions of car buyers suddenly believe they’ve just got to have it.

The PR flacks created a need — and the industry is eager to fulfill that need.

It’s capitalism, of course.

But that doesn’t mean it’s smart.


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