Americans Uncomfortable with Small

By Bill Moore

Posted: 10 Sep 2009

For the last several decades, American's have been 'super-sizing' their homes, their bodies and their cars. Even fuel-efficiency leaders like Honda and Toyota have gradually seen their stable of U.S.-destined automobiles get bigger. Remember the Civic and Camry of the 1980s? Check them out today.

Of course, America's love affair with big automobiles isn't a new phenomenon. Just recall the tail-finned land yachts of the 1950s and early 1960s. Then two oil embargoes scared the bejeebers out of the country, sending carmakers on a crash diet as Japanese imports gained a toehold of gradually increasing market share.

But with Ronald Reagan's "New Day in America" -- secured by Saudi oil imports to replace steadily declining U.S. production after it peaked in 1971 -- we began our gradual "Bigger Is Better" binge. Now we're a nation of Mac-bodies, Mac-mansions and Mac-cars.

Auto Pacific recently released the results their annual Motor Choice Awards survey of over 32,000 new car buyers. They discovered that not only are 106 the top 107 favorite cars in their survey BIG, as in luxury cars, sport utility vehicles, crossover SUVs and minivans, but even those who did choose to go with smaller cars like Toyota's Yaris, Honda's Fit and Chevy's Aveo, even they want more power for acceleration and more space, as well as a host of technological gizmos.

Oh yes, and would you please give the car great gas mileage.... and we don't really want to pay anymore for all this.

Auto Pacific concluded, “Tomorrow’s successful small car won’t be tiny. It will be reasonably sized, have increased fuel economy, adequate performance and a full load of customer features.”

How do automotive engineers put it? You can have two out of these three: power, efficiency and size, but you can't have all three. The only way to even get close to all three is to continually electrify the vehicle, but that comes -- for the foreseeable future -- at a price premium. Honda's new Insight seems to have come closest to this ideal, though on the performance side, it's hardly the rocket sled the Accord Hybrid was, but then the Accord failed because its emphasis on power over efficiency -- compared to the standard Accord, and worse, the Toyota Prius.

Since the auto industry isn't about to engage in the social reengineering of the American psyche, persuading us that it's time to downsize our automotive aspirations, they'll have to come up with creative ways to offer us what we want at a price we can afford, while leaving the remolding of what we call the American dream to the realpolitik of the pocket book.

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