The Bamboozled American Driver

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Just the other day I saw a TV commercial for the new 2011 Infiniti M56. This uber-luxury sedan has a 420 hp 5.6 liter V-8 engine and can reach 60 mph in 5 seconds and is capable of hustling 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 actually 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 for any length of time in the U.S. There will be Tazers and Glocks in your future. 

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

Same goes for the rest of it. Cars that can blast to 60 in six seconds or less are commonplace today. What’s much less common is actually seeing such acceleration. 

I drive a lot and all over the country and what I see much more often is cars – including 400-plus hp cars like the M56 – easing away from lights just like the minivan in the next lane. The cars are 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. Every now and then there’ll be a car that’s moving faster, trying to get around this vehicular arteriosclerosis – but nine times out of ten, it’s an older car and rarely, if ever, a 400-plus hp $50,000 luxury-“sport” car.  

Most people just slow-poke along – and the biggest slowpokes are usually the ones driving these immensely powerful and capable brand-new cars.

In this country, a 400 hp, 150 MPH car is as useless as an ice cream stand on Mars. 

We can’t drive really fast (much over 80) for any length of time, even if we wanted to, because if we do, we will be roughly treated by the police – then the courts – and then by the DMV and the insurance cartels.

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

Reality check.

It sucks, but it’s the truth.

Equally true: A modern four-cylinder with direct injection can produce 200 hp and deliver close to 35 MPGs on the highway while also getting a car to 60 in about 7 seconds. This is amply sufficient – more than sufficient – for the realities of the modern American road and the driving practices of the average American.  

But, the average American has been convinced by the marketing and PR wizards who really sell new cars 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 most of us have neither the inclination nor the opportunity to ever actually use two-thirds of that capability.

Current luxury-“sport” cars like the M56 are more juiced up than Arnold Schwarzennegger during his Mr. Olympia days – and like him, built mostly for show-only. 

In Europe (Germany) really powerful cars do get used, so it makes some sense to buy one if you live there. But there’s something symptomatically American about millions of 300 and 400 hp luxury cars and SmooVees and “crossovers” loafing along at maybe 70-ish on the highways – their engines burblin at a fast idle, their chrome plated 20 inch rims spinning… not unlike like Arnold flexing his biceps impressively on the stage but never actually doing anything with them.

Virtually all current-year “luxury” cars are really sports cars. They have sharply raked windshields, low-cut rooflines, hold-you-tight-bucket seats with floor (and paddle) shifters; consoles and huge hooded gauge clusters with tachometers that have 7,000 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 fantastic…  if you do track days – or drive on public roads like you do on track days.

Otherwise, it’s retarded. 

Probably 95 percent of the people who “drive” these cars, don’t. To quote Bob Dole: You know it. I know it. The American people know it. But they don’t care. They willingly indenture themselves for 5-6 years to a $60,000 new car loan in order 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 ultra-performance tires that will never see the high side of 90 … 

Personal anecdote: My father-in-law drives a Cadillac Sedan de Ville from the early 1990s – the era when Cadillac still built luxury cars as opposed to luxury-“sport” cars like today. 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.

It also has pop-on (and off) wire wheel covers on 15 inch steel rims – with smooth-riding all-season radials wrapped around ’em. They are quiet, and will last for 30,000 miles; maybe 40,000 – instead of being noisy, harsh-riding and  worn bald within 20,000 miles like most short-sidewalled, performance-compound “sport” tires will be. 

The suspension is wonderfully soft, like your favorite TV watching chair.  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 kinda miss it. Don’t you?

On the other end of the scale, we have economy car buyers who 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 new 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 are bitching about $4 gas while millions of hausfraus putter around suburbia in 5,000 lb. 4WD SMooVees 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 for the most part the only people who drove 4WDs were country people or working people who needed them and actually used them. All-wheel-drive was next-to-nonexistent in those days – 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.

Throw it in the Woods?

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11 COMMENTS

  1. I remember them well! I had a buddy with a TPI Formula 350. Great car. One of the reasons for the good gas mileage was the much lower curb weight of those Third Gen. F cars (relative to the new Camaro, which is a beast; it weighs more than my ’76 Trans-Am and that’s no small achievement!)

  2. My first car was an ’89 Firebird Formula with a 350 V8. Had 245hp, could go 0-60 in just under 6 seconds, and had a top speed of 140MPH. I rarely drove it above 75MPH, but I took advantage of that 0-60 time whenever there was room to. And as awesome as many new cars are today and how much more powerful and faster they are, I’d give anything to have my old Formula back. Believe it or not, that car actually could get almost 30 MPG on the highway.

  3. While I understand your angst, I’ll also provide a counterpoint.

    What you are describing is freedom. The freedom to purchase what one wants regardless of how ill-advised it is or how little they use it. It’s the freedom for an 80-year-old great grandmother to purchase and drive a $50,000 Corvette not because she’ll ever drive it past the speed limit, but because she likes the style of it or always wanted a Corvette. It’s the same freedom that permits us to go to McDonald’s and SuperSize that combo despite knowing that the regular one is plenty of food and plenty of bad for our arteries as it is. In this age of shrinking liberty, I consider it a positive, at least in some sense, that people CAN do this, regardless of how useful or wise it is, and that there are no government laws against this sort of behavior. I know you were not proposing regulation, just pointing out the ridiculousness of it all, and I can’t disagree with your statements. I would point out that you are restricting your opinion to only a part of the picture, though.

    To follow the line of thought to it’s logical conclusion, most people most of the time need no more than a motorcycle to accomplish their needs. In fact, not really a full-on motorcycle, but a scooter, or in many cases, a bicycle. For this exchange they would get vastly superior gas mileage, simple maintenance, take up less space, and probably have more fun commuting. If they were bicycle-bound, they would get the health benefits as well. But what happens when they have to buy more than two bags of groceries, or have to make a long road trip, or have to carry a baby or more than one passenger? What happens when they get into a wreck?

    Most people seem to “buy up” and get more than they actually need. While it is true that 99% of the time they won’t need the carrying capacity of an SUV or a pickup truck, but the 1% of the time they do may be worth it to them to get that capability. Same for four wheel drive and all wheel drive. High performance may be wasted on most people, but it’s nice to know it’s there when you need it. I have had plenty of times where the extra power and/or handling was a major factor in avoiding a wreck. It was worth it to me to have those extra horses even if it means I get a little worse gas mileage for the life of the vehicle.

    It seems that, 99.9% of the time I don’t use the air bags or seat belts in my vehicles, either, and while I vehemently disagree with seat belt laws and government requirements on manufacturers to install these and other safety devices in vehicles, how many people would do without these features if they were optional? Some would, but many would not, knowing full well that they will likely never make use of these features, either. In the rare case that they need them, though, they will be there. Similarly, for those who cannot afford them or do not want them, they may choose to drive a less well equipped car for a lot less money and get from A to B just fine 99.9% of the time, or more.

    I, too, see it as a waste when I get behind an uber-sedan from Germany or Japan that is going 5-10mph below the speed limit. Of course, I also understand that most of them are going after status more than performance and the “it costs more therefore is better” mentality reigns. Marketers get fixated on numbers, and the bigger the number, the better the vehicle (horsepower/torque, price, interior volume, tow rating, wheel size, etc.). Thus, to advance must necessarily include to increase these things, even if no one ever actually tows a 12,000 lb trailer with their 350 hp pickup.

    At the same time, since this is where market demand is, it has resulted in continual improvement of at least that area of the industry. It used to be that to get the performance of a Ferrari in the 1980s, you had to spend today’s equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars to get it. Now many family sedans could compete with the higher end sports cars of the ’80s and some would be legitimate supercars in the 80s. Plus, never before has high performance been this practical or efficient.

    My Z06 Corvette has over 500 hp and would have been the fastest, best handling car in production 30 years ago. Yet it has a cavernous trunk space, comfortable ride, and regularly gets 28-30mpg on the highway. It’s as easy to drive as a Honda Accord and very reliable. And yes, I have seen the far side of 150 mph in it and have used it in autocrossing as well. Similarly, I have a Sierra Denali that puts out over 400hp stock yet gets about 18mpg highway. My Yukon of 9 years earlier only put out 255hp stock and got about the same gas mileage. I get higher level of performance for similar gas mileage in less than 10 years’ time. Plus I use the AWD regularly (I’m one of those five percenters) and have driven it past 110mph (I disabled the governor) on more than one occasion.

    I’m not saying I couldn’t get by with much much less machinery. I’m also not saying that my exceptionalism in having actually used the capabilities of my vehicles much more so than most people justifies their purchase. What I am saying is that I had the freedom to choose to purchase these things and use them as I see fit. And that, in my mind, is a good thing.

    • Well said, Brian. I drive a 2006 Pontiac (Holden) GTO with a few extra goodies added. I love it. I flog it when I can, which isn’t too hard being out in West Texas. I’m glad we still have the freedom to choose to buy and drive these types of cars…the days are coming when this will end, sadly.

  4. Henry Ford II once said the following:

    “Americans like to blast along over interstate highways at eighty miles an hour in big cars with every kind of power attachment, windows up, air conditioning on radio going, one finger on the wheel. That’s what they want and that’s what they buy, and that’s what we manufacture. We build the best cars we can to meet the tastes of the American people.”

    Of course, the die had been cast in 1973, which saw spot gas shortages across the country, rising prices, and eventually the full blown Arab Oil Embargo, which occurred on October 16, 1973. The economic shock caused by that even was perhaps the most pivotal event in our lifetimes. It was after the energy crunch that highway building came to a halt. Our highway capacity would be constrained by politicians who pretend that the same number of cars are on the road today as there were in 1965. These people need to be flogged.

    • Yup!

      I wish that hot cars would return to being niche cars; that’s how it used to be. Maybe 20 percent of the market was “high performance” in the ’60s and ’70s. Most cars – average cars – were as Henry Ford described. They didn’t have tachometers and firm suspensions and race-car brakes and the rest of it… all of which is wasted on the typical American driver.

      I love speed, but I despise waste.

  5. Sad yet very true. Except for a few “fun/interesting” cars, I have a difficult time justifying spending over $20,000 for a car that usually drives 1 person.

    For general driving my 1.9L 2001 golf TDI was great.

    It returned ~ 47-50mpg and this included traveling about 70-80 mph on the highways.

    I usually kept the engine below 3,000 rpms.
    (3,000rpm ~ 84mph) (2,000rpm ~ 56mph)

    If I wanted, the car easily moved up to 90pmh and 100mph was not difficult.

    • I’ve mentioned this before but it’s relevant to the discussion so I will again: I have an old pick-up (’98 Nissan Frontier) with a 4-cylinder engine; maybe 160 hp. I find that I am usually passing every other car on the road, running about 10-15 over the posted limit. Only rarely do I find myself being passed – and when I do, it is almost never a new/late-model luxury-sport sedan. My daily observations have made me question the point of it all – the point of all these people driving these hyped-up cars they drive less aggressively than I do my 13 year old pickup!

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