Sunday, May 11, 2008

Longer, lower, wider!!!

Remember those words?  If you were around in the 1960s and 1970s you do, because that's how the US automobile industry used to describe their cars.

But the reason I bring those words up now is that I think of them every time I hear people gnashing their teeth and wailing about our current gas price crisis, or see another headline about people trying to dump their SUVs because they suck gas like a starlet with a dollar bill up her nose.

When the gas embargo hit us in 1975 people went nuts.  They began to look seriously at the nature of their cars for the first time in many years - those longer, lower, wider beasts that most people were still buying and driving.  Those of us who had gotten interested in European and Japanese cars, with their lighter weight and greater emphasis on efficiency and handling and gas mileage, gazed with some amusement as the US auto industry scrambled to bring out cars that got better MPG.  Some horrible mistakes were made, such as when they also had to deal with some pretty ridiculous safety regulations from the feds, but gradually the American car leaned down and became significantly more competitive in performance.  Since then I'd been watching the changes in car designs and buying habits, and had been generally happy with what I saw as an evolution in tastes and the character of our cars.

Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s that began to change.  Cars started getting big and dumpy again.  Oh, they were better cars than the mishmashes that we were served up in the late 1970s, with better engines and lots more features and technical sophistication, but they were also growing inexorably larger and larger, wider and wider.  The Ford Explorer, for instance, went from boxy and useful to chunky and wide, with less interior space every time I climbed into one.  A lot of that was the greater interest shown by women in the SUV, which meant that more creature comforts were being built in.

My interest in the subject was piqued when I first considered getting an SUV for the purpose that they were originally made, which was to have something that would haul around me and the critters and our gear if and when we had to drive in less than optimal conditions, like in snow, rain or off-road.

But there weren't none a' those out there like I wanted!  I wanted a simple boxy 4x4 with a lightweight body and a big tailgate with lotsa interior space.  The Isuzu Trooper was pretty much the last one that was made that way.  Cars like what I desired were out there, but they were WAY out there, as in other countries, over the water, out there.  You couldn't buy them in the US and still can't.  When I was overseas working or visiting I saw lotsa nifty little 4x4s that were handy and quick and of a size to be useful.  What was available here was, and is, bloated and heavy, of doubtful utility: jammed with 'visual elements' and padding but very little that beckoned to a guy with dogs and gear.  The Honda Element had promise with its "get it filthy, hose it out" basic interior design, but it didn't have roll-down windows - a MUST-have if your dogs ride with you! - and it wasn't as spacious as it should be.  Getting up to the back seat wasn't easy, either.

I thought that the new Toyota FJ re-introduction would be slick and then I saw one.  Ye gods.  It was HUGE, and expensive and essentially useless to someone such as I,  looking for something like a slab-sided Montero from ages past, or an modernized Trooper or even a Suzuki Samurai update.

Longer, lower, wider.  It keeps running through my head like some kind of Detroit mantra, but instead of leading me to automotive nirvana, it's making me nuts as I observe the growing angst over gas prices.  I've been quietly saying to myself "I knew this was coming" for the last 10 years, and at the same time wondering how it was that no-one else did, or seemingly didn't care.  Everyone seemed lost in the pursuit of making yet bigger trucks for more badly behaved women drivers who made up for their missing testosterone with the way that they bullied other drivers, or simply paid them no mind as they rolled down the road, cell phone clamped firmly in ear, wandering lane to lane in no particular pattern.

And then there are the big-ass pick-em-up trucks that the jackass boys drive, that have never seen a speck of mud in their entire existence and never had a critter in the load bed, the ones that they park diagonally across three parking spaces just because they can.  All horsepower and ignorance.  There's a working truck under there somewhere but it'll never get out because of the fat moron driving it. 

Now Ford's in a jam because things have gotten so bad that their enduring sales leader, the F-150 pickup, is even dropping in sales and their SUV line is just sitting there on sales lots, doing nothing.  No one could see this coming?  No one thought about that old 'history repeats itself' phrase?  No one could see a need for smaller and more economical cars that would be suited to people with less money, needing reliable transport that was cheaper to run?

This whole line of thinking was brought to a head by a recent trip to France to visit my daughter, who lives just outside of Paris.  I was in heaven seeing all those slick, quick leetle zootmobiles!  I was CONSTANTLY swiveling around to see yet another really interesting looking car while I was there and even more than that, to see the very practical utility vehicles and delivery trucks and the like that would fill be just the thing for what I wanted and needed.  But they don't sell them here in the states, and I despair that they ever will.  Some are too quirky, too completely adapted to the European market to win over American tastes.  And some would have a hard time meeting US federal specs, yet another hassle that seems designed to screw with sensible choices.  (What did I just say?  OF COURSE, if it's a federal reg, it's designed to screw with sensible, RATIONAL choices.  Yeesh.)

Yet there may be hope.  The Chrysler corporation is doing really well selling a delivery van/truck line that comes almost unaltered from Europe, and if gas goes up even more and the economy continues to tank then we might even see some of those really interesting and quirky and fast and appealing little cars and vans make it over here.  It's something to hope for.

Anything but longer, lower, wider.  Ech.