For more than 50 years, American car buyers
have been steered into a fascination with useless and inapplicable performance--most often, horsepower--but it's time for the ruse to end.
The ploy started in 1950 when the postwar auto industry could finally focus on making exciting cars again and did it the fastest way possible: by shoehorning huge displacement engines into cars made increasingly heavy by their length, width, and optional equipment. In the 1960s, the erstwhile Big 3 used to duke it out on stock car tracks under the mantra, "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday." Thus was born the muscle-car era: Chrysler's Hemi, Ford's 427 Cammer, and eventually, the pony cars. Then, in the 1970s, it looked like a nasty change had come in the form of three horsemen: the first fuel crisis, the dawn of massive federal safety regulations, and an American public becoming bored with driving and valuing air conditioning and automatic transmissions over any other attribute of their cars.
For a long time, it was amusing to watch auto marketers separate Americans from their money by equipping better cars with big horsepower and increasingly sophisticated suspensions composed of advents many buyers couldn't even pronounce, then happily producing most of those cars with an automatic transmission. But now it just seems like a colossal waste, partly because we can see the end of oil in our lifetimes and partly because it reminds me how much else in premium/luxury/performance cars is excess or BS.
In the real world of driving on public streets, the kind of performance that matters has almost nothing to do with massive horsepower, exotic forged-alloy control arms, or anything related to racing. Yet each year, carmakers draw multitudes into showrooms with inferences of "race bred" technology and the slightest hint that some part of your new car comes from a race car. Take your entire car apart--you'll never find that piece.
And did you ever notice how carmakers can always bump a few more horsepower out of a given engine each successive model year, come hell or high water? Did the engineering team really discover some new trick since it built your car? No, it's just the game of gradually parsing out the potential that existed from day one in the original platform as a way to maintain excitement and consistent sales volumes over several model years.
Yes, it's a free country, and I want you to be able to drive whatever you want--as long as it passes the thousands of federal and state regulations that dictate almost every aspect of car design. Read the pounds of Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration publications that govern auto design for any car sold in this country, then aim your bloodshot eyes into your garage: Does your 2004 performance sedan still look like it's race bred? Or do you now see the phalanx of lawyers and accountants who had the real decision power over every part of it?
It would be convenient to write me off as a latter-day Joan Claybrook in drag, but my previous cars included the mighty 1998 Jaguar XJ-R, the fastest production sedan in the world at that time; a 1993 Nissan Sentra SE-R, still one of the great import tuner rides; and a 1990 Volkswagen Corrado, with one of the greatest suspensions I've ever handled and a solid lump of turbocharged oomph on tap when I wanted it. I loved each one but sold them all. Remaining are four other cars with no bragging potential other than to say they honestly excel at simply driving well. Torque and efficiency, not horsepower and wheel spin
When you drive a car and fall in love with its "horsepower," you're probably fawning over its torque. The two are intertwined, yes, but when it comes right down to it, torque is for driving, and horsepower is for bragging.
This is why a lowly 2005 Hyundai Sonata V-6 feels as fast--or to me, faster--than a 2006 BMW 330i in typical daily driving, despite the big difference in pedigree and price. The two cars are almost identical in their horsepower/weight ratio, but look at the torque/weight ratio: The Sonata asks each feet-pound of its torque to move 14.4 pounds of car while the BMW assigns that same feet-pound of torque to a porkier 15.5 pounds of car to move.
The BMW 330i has a far more sophisticated, well, everything. But how many 3 Series owners do you think utilize all that road-holding and precise handling "that was born and bred on the autobahn" as they drive to the local CVS pharmacy or going to work in stop-and-go traffic? Or when they have the kids strapped into their carriers, ice cream dripping all over that lovely leather interior? And I'm not picking on BMW--I adore the 330i--but rather taking a shot at any overperforming car that has hit the aluminum ceiling and plays the excess performance card as a primary way to keep buyers interested.
What I ask the car industry to do is to help us American buyers break the traditional link between high-performance power trains and all the other goodies. We've always had to buy excess performance to get the other good stuff, from creature comforts to snazzier interiors to hot-looking sheet metal. Detroit started that, Europe and Japan followed along. But it's only tradition, and that can be changed, as long as we reward carmakers for doing so. Chevrolet isn't about to offer a Corvette with an inline-six if we're going to laugh it out of the room.
What's important to you when buying a car?
Back to BMW as an example, only because I've recently spent a lot of time in the superb 330i: The 2006 330i comes standard with 17-inch wheels, much better power-seat and mirror controls, a Logic 7 audio system, several additional onboard computer functions, and Xenon adaptive headlights, all of which are optional on the detuned BMW 325i. There is no reason for that to be, other than market segmentation. And why can't we even get the four-cylinder 320i in this country while Europeans and Australians can? Probably because consumer research showed Americans wouldn't buy many--even though we've never driven it. I'll bet the fuel-stingy, low-polluting inline-four in the 320i is perfectly suited to the majority of 330i buyers, as long as it could be had with the same level of creature comforts at fair incremental prices and if U.S. buyers would get over their old prejudice that really nice cars don't have four-bangers.
Follow that prejudice upstream and you'll find that most "premium" cars are pigs. Why can't we have a Jaguar Van den Plas with a V-6? A BMW 5 Series with a four-cylinder? The Mercedes S-Class will soon bow with a hybrid that should do 0 to 60 in about 7.5 seconds and attain roughly 34mpg. That kind of performance is ample even in a premium car, rather than some AMG-level whoosh that throws the heads of your passengers back as you launch from a red light at full thrust.
So carmakers, help us out here. Create an unspoken sector we can call the intelligent premium car. Give us useful, applicable performance that isn't predicated on some autobahn fantasy, coupled with lots of useful technology in the cabin, great and increasing fuel efficiency, and luxurious interiors. Give us more great cars we can feel great about.