Heavyweight and Glass-Jawed

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A 1985 Chrysler K-car sedan weighed about 2,300 lbs. Something new about the same size like a Mazda3 sedan or a Honda Civic weighs about 700 pounds more. Even a car like the Mazda Miata – a minimalist two-seater roadster and one of the lightest new cars there is – weighs almost 2,800 lbs., several hundred pounds more than similar cars once weighed.

This weight gain – which has happened across the board, affecting every type of car – is no great secret. Almost everyone who knows anything about cars knows modern cars are the heaviest cars ever made.

They also know why.

Cars – all of them – have gained weight over the past 40 years because it is over the past 40 years that Uncle has been serially porking them up via a steady diet of regulations pertaining to the impact forces they must be able to absorb without transmitting them to the people within – and via regulations requiring them to have such things as half a dozen air bags, which can’t just be screwed into the dashboard and door panels but require wholesale redesign of not just the dashboard (and doors) but all of the underlying structure as well.

This requires more structure – and more steel – which isn’t light. This is the main reason why the average 2021 car – or truck or crossover – is, literally, a heavyweight.

It is also why it is a glass-jawed heavyweight.

Almost all of the structure is under-the-skin. Which skin is now almost paper-thin, including the metal – if it’s even still made of metal at all.

About a third of exterior skin of the typical new vehicle is made of plastic. The entirety of the front and rear ends, in most case. All of it. Not just the grill. Even the headlights are made of plastic.

In order to shed weight.

Or rather, to counterbalance for the weight that went into the car. In order to keep the car from becoming a super-heavyweight.

This is why the metal used for exterior body panels such as the hood, fenders and so on is now barely thick enough to not be see-through. That’s an exaggeration, but only slightly. In many cases, the fenders and hoods aren’t even made of steel at all. Aluminum that you can ripple practically by blowing on it is used instead.

All of it is purely cosmetic – in the manner of a cloth over a table. If you hit anything – or if anything hits you, like a deer – you’ll be fine but the car will be badly hurt.

As an example, I am test driving the just-redesigned 2021 Ford F-150 this week. This truck hasn’t got external metal bumpers. It has a front clip made entirely of plastic and a body made entirely of aluminum. If a deer hit the truck, it would be very bad for the truck.

Well, bad for the owner of this truck’s wallet.

A grown buck struck at 45 MPH would probably take out the entire – and entirely cosmetic – front clip, hood and fenders. The repair bill could easily exceed $10,000. In ten years, when this truck has depreciated in value to not much more than $10,000 – such a hit could total this truck.

This potential cost is reflected in actual insurance premium costs, as insurers know very well how much it costs to repair “safe” modern vehicles.

And make you pay for it.

Nothing Uncle ever does is free.

PS: In spite of its entirely aluminum (and plastic) body, the 2021 F-150 weighs about the same as an all-steel 1970 F-truck. Its flimsier exterior makes up for its tougher interior.

In the Unsafe Days when cars weighed a great deal less they were made of steel thick enough that it took hitting something to bend them. You could not bend them by hand. Even a tiny car like the old VW Beetle had external metal bumpers protecting its front end. It was capable of absorbing minor impacts without incurring major costs. The metal used for fenders and doors had much more structural integrity, too.

An old Beetle would perform very poorly if subjected to modern crash-testing but performed better in terms of resisting expensive cosmetic damage in real-world crash testing.

It and other cars of the past were lighter – and tougher – in terms of their exteriors. You had to really hit something to total one.

Modern cars are so flimsy on the outside that they probably shouldn’t be taken outside at all. They are the automotive equivalent of people afflicted with hemophilia. The slightest bump can incur major – and financially fatal – damage.

It’s true that in a major bump the modern car is much more likely to keep you from being damaged. But you pay for that, even if you never get majorly bumped.

Once-upon-a-time, we were free to weigh the pros and cons – and decide for ourselves – whether a theoretically “safer” (for us, if we crashed) car was worth the weight – and the cost – versus a sturdier and lighter car that cost us less.

Maybe one day we’ll be free to weight those pros and cons again.

. . . .

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  1. This past summer, I hit a deer, at night, on the interstate. I was certain that the deer had jumped out of a helicopter, but my wife said he ran straight out of the trees into my path. It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to either avoid him or even hit the brakes. (Stupid deer!) I was driving a 2019 Subaru Ascent – a full sized SUV. When I hit that deer I was doing over 70mph! All the grill work, the front bumper, the hood, indeed the entire front end was demolished. Also, I hit that damn deer so hard that ALL FIVE airbags deployed. My wife and I suffered not a scratch, but from the insurance standpoint, the car was a total loss. (The deer was also a total loss. He probably never knew what hit him. )

    I really liked that car and I mourned the loss of it, but I had enough equity in it that my insurance company – who did not hassle me at all – paid more than enough for me to go get that same model to replace it.

    • Hi RSG,

      I’m glad you guys are ok – and also that the insurance company paid full replacement value. If that crash had happened four years from now, say – and at even 50 MPH – the results would have been the same except for what the insurance company would’ve paid out. Granted, the hypothetical five-year-old vehicle’s value would be objectively less. But the damage and cost to repair would remain the same, leaving you with a totaled car and the financial burden of the loss.

      • You are correct, Eric. At those speeds almost any automobile or light truck would have been totaled. My insurance company, whom I have been with for almost 50 years, probably would have paid the replacement cost for a five year old car rather than a year old car. Yes, there would have been a greater financial burden. But not only that, there would have also been an even greater PITA factor. I’m not a car guy. I would rather take a beating than car shop so when I buy one, I hope to keep it for a long time.

      • There wasn’t much left of the carcass, Doug.

        The place where it happened, the interstate splits its north and south bound lanes apart with a strip of woods in between. That deer came running out of those woods from the left side of the road straight into my path. I didn’t even see him until he entered the periphery of my headlight beams. It probably would have been a near-miss if the stupid deer hadn’t hesitated at the last second while right in front of me. (My wife told me he looked right at her with the proverbial “deer in the headlights” look.) I hit him flat out going at least 70 mph.

        After the air bags went off, my main concern was to get the car off of the road and stopped. (You haven’t lived until you have experienced the joy of an air bag deployment while at highway speed.) The cop that showed up was a very nice guy who said this was his *third* call that night for a deer strike. After we determined that my wife and I were both okay and unscathed, he finished his report and called the tow truck. We then made arrangements for a ride home. (…about 30 miles away.) During the wait time, me and the cop walked back to where our deer was in the ditch. (…we passed the remains of two other deer before we found ours!) He was a goner for sure. It was obvious that we had hit him hard enough that the meat was ruined. It was a six point buck, but even the head wasn’t worth the hassle and taxidermy expense.

        • You’re fortunate to have not sustained serious injury, RSG.

          Well, you have heard of the saying, “Deer in the HEADLIGHTS?”. It appears that trope did NOT work in your favor, but at least you’re around to tell the tale! Thank goodness for that.

  2. One of the advantages of my old Saturn was as long as the spaceframe was intact, repair was just a few inexpensive plastic pieces away. While it was relatively new, it was in two separate accidents. The first happened when a distracted teen backed his father’s Olds Aurora into it. Plastic fender, bumper cover, new headlight, and repaint of the hood cost about $1500 (in 1997 dollars). About a year later, I hit a patch of black ice and did a header into a guardrail (no airbag deployment luckily). It actually did a about the same amount of cosmetic damage as the previous wreck except for one major different..Uncle Safety’s bumper had to be replaced…$3500 (in 1998 dollars).

  3. The thing that’s always annoyed me is the flippancy with which the damage to, or destruction of, a vehicle in a traffic crash is handwaved as, “Well, nobody was injured, and that’s the important thing, and a car is just A THING that can be replaced.”

    Oh really? Replaced by our Process-Is-The-Punishment car insurance system that demands obnoxiously high premiums, yet fights you every step of the way if you file a claim? What if it’s a car you’re really attached to because you’ve had it for 20 years and it’s an evolving project? What if it’s a limited-production car you can’t get anymore, even if it’s only a few years old? What if you work so much you don’t have the time to deal with all the hassles of replacing the car, and don’t have personal assistants to do it for you?

    • Hi Ice Age,

      You bring up an excellent point. We all pay for this – and most of us pay without any gain in that most of us never get into a serious accident – so the crash-resistance of the vehicle is irrelevant while what we pay to insure them is not.

  4. I have no issue with a vehicle with enhanced crash survivability, or fuel economy, or reliability…as long as the design and purchase of said vehicles are driven ONLY by free market forces that the manufacturer, dealers, and myself, the end-user, utilize. I no more want Uncle Sam involved in my choice of ride any more than what females I fuck.

      • Boom. I’ll start telling statist bitches that the government should “get involved” in the marriage market. After all, almost half of marriages end in divorce. People can’t be trusted with their freedom, plus all the dating is incredibly inefficient and wasteful. The smartest PhD(ickholes) should be the ones matchmaking.

        • Michael, I’ve been divorced TWICE (first ex-wife is deceased some 3-1/2 years). The “Gubmint” is already TOO damned involved, to the point where myself and any sane, thinking male would just “get the milk for ‘FREE’ “, and forget “buying the cow”!

      • They know that, which is why you can’t have a gun in Canada without the permission those those very same cops… and why you are legally required to keep it locked, unloaded and disassembled to that it cannot be used for “self-defence.”

        Washington D.C. is watching closely… expect the same here before long.

  5. If you want a real interesting lesson on how flimsy modern cars are externally, visit a body shop.

    Racks of fenders you could easily grab a dozen of with one hand.

    I used to work at a detailing shop and sometimes installed sunroofs. It was amazing how thin the piece of metal I would cut out for the glass was.

    I had the fender off of one of my GTP’s once and was amazed how flimsy it was. Without exaggeration, you could twist it and rip it with your bare hands. Nothing like the fender on some older cars I’ve owned.

    Cosmetic repair is bad and even worse when coupled with blowing the double digit numbers of airbags- that’s a one-two punch that will do a glass jaw in permanently.

  6. Saw a tiktok video of a head on collision between a Subaru and a Honda. Subaru had front end damage, Honda was clearly the loser with a smashed out windshield and extensive damage to the front end.

    All occupants in both vehicles survived the accident.

    Buy a Subaru was the advice from the person doing the tiktok video.

    Back in about 1971 I worked the rails as a gandy dancer, had an International one ton pickup with a crew cab and a high rail to mount the vehicle to the tracks.

    The track inspection was over, time to head back to the workplace and then home. While on the way back, a few miles out from the town where the tracks end, the radiator flow had been blocked somehow, pressure built, all of a sudden the radiator cap flew right through the hood of the truck tearing a hole right through it like the hood was a piece of paper.

    Needless to say, you’re going to need some help when you’re out on the road and then stranded just like that.

    The psychopathic tyrants might one day indeed be stranded and need help in the worst way.

    They might not get it.

  7. The truly pitiful part is that the psychopaths inflicting this tyranny are mentally unable to be the slightest bit concerned for our safety. Their psychosis PREVENTS it. But it does make it look like they’re doing their job, thus securing their product free employment. Maybe even “justifying” a raise.
    My 06 Miata weighs less than 2500 lbs. “several hundred lbs. less” than a new one. Which is one of a few reasons I have no interest in newer models, besides money.
    They intend to get us out of our cars. Which is the purpose of practically all the tyranny. One doesn’t have to look too deep to realize that the effect of their edicts encourages us to quit. My son had a late model Chevy SUV, I don’t remember the model. He hit a deer last spring, and totaled it. The last time I hit one was in this very same 06 Miata, and did $2500 in damage. I did have to duck, since he came over the top of the car and I had the top down. I can remember hitting a few with pickups back before 2000 when I was still working construction. One suffered about $1000 dollars in damages. The biggest deer I ever killed, coming from my right and hit him in the head with the right headlight, wrapped around and damaged the hood, fender, and door. A couple of others sustained no damage at all. NONE! Except to the deer.

  8. Imagine that …
    The freedom of choice.

    The ability for each individual to decide what is best for themself.

    Imagine the variety of vehicles that might have been available without the heavy hand of uncle.

    From small 2 seaters like an Elio or Fiat to large station wagons and cars similar to the Buick 225 and everything in between them.

    • We’ll have to imagine it. Because it ain’t going to happen unless the whole shooting match collapses, which it well may, but then cars will be the least of our worries. At least not for a while.


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