Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Hard choices.

Husband's come back from America a bit shocked. I'm a bit shocked too listening to his observations. He was shocked about the size of cars compared to Europe. He was shocked that an average MPG was below 30. He was shocked that so many people say they won't have a car smaller than a V8. Granted this was Oregon where it's mountainous and snowy. Hearing the panic some people have about the prices of gas (Double that for the UK, folks. Double. Over $8 a US gallon), people filling their tanks and running from the stations.

What struck me was the size of vehicles in the USA today. I can't help it, but I was thinking back to when I was a kid and your average family car was a boat. Land barges we called them. Mobile homes for some if yours had bench seats. My best friend's first car was an 83' Ford Bronco, another had a 78' Malibu, another a 74' Cadillac. My first car was Ford shitbox that died not too long after I got it, but my heart was with the 84' Skylark I got as my second car. I loved that car. I understand how people can love their cars. You form a relationship with it. You know it's noises, tweaks, perks, feel. It becomes an extension of yourself. I was all right with my four cylindars. Sure it shook like mad at 80mph, but then the speed limit was 55 so I shouldn't have been driving at 80. So I'm wondering why so many people need an extension of themselves that, let's be honest - a behemoth! Why must the extension be a tank? Is it to show ostentation? Is it for protection? Has 9/11 sent folks into the tanks and land barges? Is it machismo, and if it is why are so many women driving the behemoths?

I've talked about this briefly with a few American friends and they tell me what the European presses aren't; auto companies can't shift the behemoths anymore even with cash incentives or free gas for a year. People are choosing bikes and using public transport. So how long before the car companies - who've been through an oil crisis before and should've predicted this seven years ago - start to make affordable cars with smaller engines? Will the speed limits drop again, because it's kinder to a four cylindar engine? Using history as a guide, it may be so.

In case you're wondering, we have a 2005 Alfa Romeo 156 with a 1.9 liter diesel engine and gets 42mpg on average. It costs £75 to fill the tank and it'll last nearly two weeks. This is a very perky car with a turbo and it loves to be driven.

So where is the future of automotive going? Well, you choose.


Ree said...

I drive a 4-cylinder, (Dodge Avenger) but even it only gets about 27 mpg on the highway. We have a pickup for when we need to haul stuff, but that the ONLY time it gets driven.

I live on a road where every neighbor drives either a gas-hogging, 8-cylinder pickup truck OR some sort of SUV. I don't get it myself.

And your husband is absolutely right. The dealerships can't move the big vehicles, even with huge incentives. I saw an advert the other day for a Ford F150 (a big pickup, to be sure, but middle-of-the-pack as far as some go), and the incentive was a $159/month lease. If it was driven any more than 350 miles/week (i.e. 25 each way to work + the weekends), then it would cost $159/WEEK just to keep gas in the tank.

Amazing, isn't it?

And now, small-er cars are selling for over sticker price.

Oh, and let's not forget, they're closing the truck manufacturing plants - which is putting MORE people out of work.


jmc said...

I live in the US and I, too, am shocked by the auto industry. Two family members work in it (peons, not management), and I've been asking them about the low MPG and large size for a couple of years now.

I drive a 99 Plymouth Breeze -- it's a four door sedan-type. The MPG is okay, about 30 highway, 24 city. Living in the city, parking is always at a premium (no assigned spaces!), and large SUVs and their drivers who don't know how to park are the bane of my existence. I can't imagine driving a larger vehicle and am certain that my next car will be a smaller one. I am not the typical American driver, though -- my 9 year old car has only ~80,000 miles, which is below average. I use public transportation for my daily commute, and move my car only once a week or so because of the parking problems in my neighborhood. The tank holds 15 gallons, which would cost about $60 to fill, except I try not to let it get below half full. I use maybe one tank a month now, although it used to be two tanks.

I'm fortunate, though, because public transportation is available to me. Baltimore's public transport is not stellar, especially in comparison to DC, NYC or Chicago, but it is better than what is available in many places across the country.

I'm always boggled when I visit family in Houston. There is so much sprawl -- nothing is nearby, everything must be reached by car, not walking, no bike lanes -- and it seems like 80% of the vehicles are SUVs or large trucks.

jmc said...

The Washington Post has been covering the car trends lately. Check out this article or this one.

Anonymous said...

Living in the land of the snowflake, gigantic SUVs and trucks are the norm in these parts. I drive a Neon now (former minivan driver) and it gets around 40mpg. It was hard to find a used small car as everyone seems to be clinging to them nowadays! We have a truck that hubby drives but it's a six cylinder, it has an extended cab so we can all fit in it, but it's a mid-sized pickup with four-wheel drive for snow.

The giant oil companies are doing what Al Gore could never do. They are forcing people to look at other fuel alternatives. I believe that big changes lie ahead!

Doug said...

We have a Camry and a Miata. Both get under 30, which I'm not thrilled about. We bought the Camry because of its safety record, the Miata for fun. You'd think a tiny car like that would get better mileage, though.

Overboard said...

My hot US lover drives a VW turbo diesel hatchback that gets 60mpg. We'd fill the tank and wouldn't have to stop for gas for days. Travel felt so free again!
Diesel is the way the big car companies should have gone way back in the 70's. They got close to doing that but guess what happened!! Ralph Nader, yes that champion of consumer rights, put a stop to that.
So big gas guzzling cars became the norm. Even the hybrids are crap. Another blogger was saying how her hybrid gets 35mpg. That's crap if cars like the VW diesel are getting 60mph.
Oh yeah, we always coasted down hills too to get even more out of the tank. I loved asking, 'ooh are we coasting?' and he'd say, we've been coasting for the past ten minutes'
Wow. Free wheeling.

Overboard said...

60mpg not 60mph.

Lyvvie said...

Ree - see now that's stupid to close the companies. just put a new car down the line. A new model. I don't know about car manufacturing but I know they make shitloads of profit and can re-programme the robots to bolt in a new place. that's car companies making excuses to fire folks to boost their margins rather than seeing this as the new avenue - or let's be honest, it's the way thing's went 30 year ago and they should have a plan of action that doesn't give Michael Moore more movie fodder. (Not that I object to Moore, but if shit wasn't so fucked up, he'd need a new career)

JMC - I get that, city life is easier to commute, and suburbs or country folks are getting the shaft. I used to have to drive 120 miles to go to classes, I couldn't do that today. The last gallon of fuel I bought in the USA was £1.34 a gallon in 1994. Does the USA market "city cars" vs "country cars" like the do in the UK? Examples of UK city cars would be: Ford Ka, VW Golf (awesome!) and polo (I think they're still called Rabbits in USA), Smartcar, I know French cars are popular here Citroen C1 and several types from Peugot, Fiat Punto or 500 or cinquecento or Panda, Toyota Aygo, Even Mercedes does a city car.

America should start copying and manufacturing ASAP.

Aye Rox! I can understand the need for tougher 4X4 where you are. I imagine Subarus are rather popular there?

Doug a Miata (MX5 in the UK) is getting under 30?! You must have one of the higher horsepower engines. (Although after a quick google it seems to be average across the board. Who'd have thought?!) The new Mazda M6 i Sport 5-door sedan gets 29 MPG. There's perspective.

OB - I adore VW and always have. I especially love the Golf GTI so you lover has great taste in cars. I mean, here you're talking about a wee car with a 1.4 liter engine that can get 168 BHP and 0-60 in 7 seconds. Add MPG somewhere between 30-35 on a petrol/gas engine and that's sexy. The diesel version reports 50+ mpg. Absolutely kicks ass. (His getting 60 is extra wow) (Husband loves to coast down hills in the Alfa. When we had the Saab 9000 it was like scary sledging)

tornwordo said...

It was astonishing seeing all the tiny little cars in Europe. Here, it's not as bad as the states, but still plenty of old boats on the roads. I really don't get the US fascination with the giant SUV. Maybe it's that we were brainwashed into bigger=better all our lives...

jmc said...

Lyvvie, I haven't seen any particular city/country car marketing. In fact, most of the advertising dollar seemst to go toward trucks and SUVs rather than small cars. Until recently, at least -- VW has a very cute "Das Car" commercial airing right now.

In my neighborhood, there is a distinct divide between car drivers and SUV/truck drivers, and some tension between the two groups because the SUV/trucks take extra parking space, are hard to see around, and don't really serve any useful purpose. Most of the many SUVs that are status cars -- a Land Rover is really not necessary for the 8 mile commute of my neighbor, nor is another neighbor's Escalade (Cadillac SUV) for his 5 mile highway commute. A couple of neighbors are contractors who use their trucks to haul tools and equipment, but they are a minority.

On the VW front: my brother-in-law has been planning on buying the new VW diesel Jetta (I think that's the model) when it becomes available in the US this summer/fall. He's looking forward to 50-60 mpg. And maybe I'll look that way someday, but for now, driving less with expensive gas is still cheaper than a car payment.

NWJR said...

I have a ton of thoughts on this, but I think I'll make it a blog post instead. Stay tuned...

Chick said...

Thanks for these 2 informative videos. I now want a way cool aircar that generates it's own compressed air.

NWJR said...

OK, Lyvvie. My post is up. It's too long for me to hijack your comments section.

SafeTinspector said...

I've been a hatch-back lover for years and have always been jealous of the selection you people across the pond have.
What I wouldn't give for a Fiesta or a Puegot 206.
Over here our domestic manufacturers collectively make NO hatch-backs with the only exception being an imported and re-badged Opal Astra (callled a Saturn Astra here)

Another truth about the American manufacturers is that retooling costs are HUGE, so changing an assembly line from making shitty SUVs to sell-able compacts is a financial challenge.
Not to mention the overhead from retirement benefits and medical coverage ensures that most inexpensive cars are sold at a loss or not sold at all.

Sad state of affairs....

Sarah said...

NZ cars are itty bitty compared to here, too. ;)