The Car Questions

On April 20, 2009, in Culture, by psu

I’ll keep this short, because no one could possibly be less interested in my continuous car shopping than you guys. But in my previous missive I forgot to list the questions brought up by this exercise. So here they are now.

1. Why do Americans hate hatchbacks?

2. Why is the station wagon dead?

3. Why don’t the car companies make an enjoyable luxury hatchback that is practical, spacious, and comfortable to drive? Instead the sector is dominated by useless performance boy-toys and price-point econoboxes. Maybe that’s why Americans hate hatchbacks.

4. Why are SUVs so popular? They are worse to drive, a lot uglier, and more difficult to make out in the back of than a station wagon.

5. Why is the fundamental relationship that you are supposed to have with your dealer an adversarial one? Wouldn’t it be much more commercially efficient to fix this? I have some theories about this which I can summarize by saying: it must be because a certain number of men are assholes with OCD.

6. Finally, a non-question question. It’s interesting to me that within a few inches cars seem to come in only three sizes. Small, medium, and too big. In the U.S. almost everything is either medium or too big. And the nice small ones are either too cheap or too expensive. Now go back to question 1.


21 Responses to “The Car Questions”

  1. peterb says:

    The comments thread on that Truth About Cars link is pure gold.

    “The Saturn example is especially poignant. Despite making, at their best, miserable little second-rate econoboxes that weren’t all that reliable, people loved them, more than they did Lexus. If the lack of dealer bullshit is enough to make Ion owners happier than RX350 owners, that should tell you something about how utterly deplorable the typical car-buying process is.”

  2. Chris says:

    1) don’t buy american
    2) consider a wagon
    3) there are some decent wagons (and hatchbacks) out there

    Wagon options:
    1) Volvo V70 (I like my cross-country, a lot)
    2) Audi A6 Avant (though the S6 is REALLY nice…)
    3) Audi A4 Avant
    4) Mercedes wagons (E350 for instance, though Mercedes’ website is full of fail and misery)

    Hatchback options:
    1) Saab (there used to be more hatchback options from saab, sadly that doesnt’ seem to be the case anylonger)
    2) toyota prius (decently roomy inside actually)

  3. erink says:

    1) I love hatchbacks. I was just lamenting how every time I want to buy a car there’s no Civic Hatchback available. I talked my beau into buying two GTIs (okay, second time was real easy) and I seriously considered a Rabbit last year. Then again, I am a bit into the boy-toys.

    If you must have an American hatchback – and I have to say that any American car is like asking for trouble – check out the Dodge Caliber. But I warn you, it’s ugly as sin.

    2) There are plenty of station wagons around. VW, Subaru, Dodge, Mazda, and Volvo all make them. They’re just a little curvier than they used to be. You might be confusing them with hatchbacks.

    3) Because “luxury hatchback” is a marketing contradiction in terms. People who buy hatchbacks move themselves and buy furniture at Ikea; people who buy luxury cars hire movers and get stuff delivered. They don’t want to be looking at their groceries all the time. But some of them are buying “luxury SUVs” now because strangely enough there is a big market for that (see #4).

    4) Because we Americans are pretentious idiots and having more car than you need is a status symbol. Not all of them are bad to drive, though.

    5) I don’t know, either I got a decent salesman or I have a big enough ego that his mild attempts at manipulation didn’t offend me. If you position the shopping as trying to find the right fit, that makes it easier to just say no.

    6) Wait, you were driving a minivan before, right? Wasn’t that too big?

    By the way, I fit two bikes in my ’08 Civic with the back seats folded down and front wheels off. (I dislike exterior bike racks too.) You can do it in a sedan almost as easily as a hatchback – you have to stack them back to front in either case.

    But why not just buy another minivan? You can fit five people and lots of bikes in there and it will be moderately economical and moderately comfortable. Honda is the best. Problem solved.

  4. psu says:

    I’m trying to find a car smaller than a van this time because I’ll be driving it a lot more than I have historically. I also find myself wishing that you could still get the Honda Civic hatchback. The Fit isn’t really the same. But I didn’t realize the seats folded in the sedan. That’s interesting.

    Edit: Note, I don’t want to buy an American hatchback. I just wonder why hatchbacks are not more popular in the USA. I mean, we dislike them so much Honda stopped selling the Civic Hatch. How sad.

  5. jkp1187 says:

    A friend was looking for a car to replace her sedan, and mentioned that she wanted an SUV so that she could easily fit her dog in the back. I suggested that a station wagon would be more economical in terms of initial cost, fuel economy, and long-term maintenance (she ain’t exactly rolling in money.) She was quiet for a second or two, then kind of whispered to me that she didn’t think station wagons were ‘cool’.

    I only have one question, and as someone who grew up in a rural area in Western Pennsylvania, I mean this with all my heart:

    How on earth did driving SUVs – which to me look either like obese station wagons or pregnant pickup trucks – become cool?

  6. Alex says:

    Move to Australia? We get honda civic hatchbacks here. Plus our booze shops are not owned by the PLCB.
    Can you get the new subaru WRX’s over there? They are a bit on the boy toy end of the spectrum, but they might work.

    1) Cause you Americans are evil.
    2) I’ve wondered the same thing. 90%+ of the people I know who own a SUV should own a station wagon, at least from what they use them for.
    3) Aren’t there a bunch? The Mazda 3 MPS, there is a bmw one too. or maybe this is the same issue as the civics?
    4) For the same reason they eat bad food, drink shit booze, and vote Liberal/republican. Though Enrik might be on to something (though I’ve never met an SUV that was not horrible to drive).
    5 + 6) No idea.

  7. psu says:

    There are a few smaller “luxury” hatchbacks.. VW GTI, Audi A3 and Volvo C30 come to mind. But those are also all “performance” cars. The Mazda 3 is closer but has economy car roots. But I’ll look at it. The new Hyundai Elantra touring might also fit the bill.

  8. erink says:

    Yeah, I didn’t like the Fit either. I liked the interior but it has these little toy wheels – just didn’t feel as mighty as the Civic. But I did test drive one up Negley hill and it did surprisingly well.

    The Civic sedan seats fold down but since it’s not a hatchback there’s a sort of ceiling between the bottom of the back window and the headrests of the back seats. So you are limited in how tall an item you can put in. But I did get two bikes in – not sure if I put one in the back doors or both in from the trunk.

    On the WRX – there’s a non-souped-up version, either the Impreza or Outback wagon, I can’t tell which is the right name (they seem to have merged). I wasn’t fond of the WRX when we shopped it (vs the VW GTI) – I really wanted to like it (Subaru sponsors lots of stuff I like) but the fit & finish was mediocre and the turbo spin-up was actually intrusive. Just when I was getting ready to shift up the turbo would kick in. Also all-wheel drive means reduced fuel economy, which was not a good trade for me.

  9. Mike says:

    1) I suspect that this has to do with years of conditioning (re: Chevy Nova, Ford Pinto, AMC Pacer, Gremlin) of hatchbacks being cheap tinny things you buy when you’re not rich enough to afford something else. Subaru’s Impreza line has always more of a hatch than a wagon, even dating back to the now-ancient ’97 I have; they call them sportwagons when they can’t think of something else because of the stigma that goes with hatches.

    Ford is looking to reunify the Focus platform — we’ve had a mildly enhanced version of the gen1 platform since introduction, with a steady decrease in available bodystyles (from 3/5-dr hatches, 4-dr sedan, and 5-dr wagon to 4-dr sedans only), whereas the rest of the world got a much-enhanced gen2 platform that was brought over here as premium cars — the Mazda3 and Volvo S40/V50, though the knock has been neither of the sub-brands quite measured up to the Ford-branded product. Gen3 will bring North America back into line with the rest of the lines. Of course, then you’ll have to deal with quality issues from beta-testing a new car.

    With respect to quality, I believe that the overall baseline for cars has improved dramatically in the last twenty-five years; the reliability we expect from cars now is well past the reliability we would have expected of, say, a 1984 Camry (which was, by the way, available as a hatch). Come to think of it, the previous-generation Mazda6 was available as a hatch and wagon at one point.

    2 & 4) I think go together, as I always look at the old Jeep Cherokees and think Volvo wagon with a lift. Folks got behind SUVs I think the same way we got onto mountain bikes — we were sold a lifestyle, not a vehicle. Want to go THERE? Oh, well, you’ll need one of THESE, never mind that you won’t go there and if you do, you won’t enjoy it. I understand the seduction of freedom, or at least the perception of it, but vehicles designed to work, seriously work off-road have pretty serious compromises for on-road travel.

    When we were little, my folks bought a station wagon (Olds Cutlass, where the rear windows oddly did not have any means to be rolled down and consequently, I have been forever turned off grape soda since a nausea-induced incident where I couldn’t get enough fresh air on my face which resulted in … let’s say a permanent smell in the backseat) with the idea that we’d be able to lie down in the cargo compartment and sleep, coming home from late parties. It worked a treat. But again, we’ve been coached that station wagons (and later, minivans) were stigmatized as mom-mobiles, vehicles to drive because you had to, not because you wanted to.

    Didn’t Chrysler have a turbo in one of their early minivans? And didn’t Toyota have a supercharged engine in the Previa? Similar things can be done with wagons today, although they’d sell to only a niche crowd — I’d almost stretch the budget if I could lay hands on an Alfa 159 Sportwagon.

    More later; bedtime beckons.

  10. psu says:

    The mountain bike angle makes total sense. Mountain bikes always sucked compared to road bikes for most uses, and yet there was that craze.

  11. Laura V says:

    We just got the 2010 Mazda 3 hatchback, as you know. We got the “Sport”, which is the lowest trim level, because we did not want to pay for the “Grand Touring”.

    The Grand Touring is pretty freakin’ sweet, though.

    A large number of people seem unable to fathom why we like hatchbacks. All I can think is that these people must never have wanted to move a dog, gear, and passengers all at the same time. I, on the other hand, have wanted such a thing, and a nice little hatchback is how to do that.

  12. Chris says:

    Originally Posted By psu The new Hyundai Elantra touring might also fit the bill.

    The Elantra has those crappy ‘panging’ doors… sounds like they are made of something akin to tinfoil :( Most of the innards are also pretty lame looking/feeling. Though, they seem to wear pretty decently (based on my sister’s Elantra)

  13. jfb says:

    Originally Posted By Mike And didn’t Toyota have a supercharged engine in the Previa?

    The Previa was like the freaking Lotus of minivans — supercharged, mid-engined, rear-wheel drive, with a 50-50 weight balance. You could even get a 5-speed, although apparently not with the supercharger. Too, it looked like a spaceship. I sort of want one.

  14. WCE says:

    The Jetta Sportwagen TDI.

    I’ve mentioned it before.

    1. Wagon
    2. Not too big
    3. Fun to Drive
    4. Not expensive – about $26 loaded and you get a “green” tax credit of (I think) about $1700.
    5. Safe
    6. Quick (off the line especially)
    7. Not Pretentious
    8. Great milage, especially on the highway.

    It holds a bike with one seat folded down.
    Clean to run with new Euro diesel technology, and you can run biodiesel in it if so inclined.

    Seriously, from what you describe this is your car. It’s mine and I love it.

  15. Mike says:

    3) Of course there will always be better cars available if you wait a year or two, just like there will always be better computers, phones, etc. But if a used car beckons, I’ve always liked the Lexus IS300 SportCross which seemed like a nice, tidy size, or the old Jetta (IV) wagon, which looked smaller than the current Jetta wagon (in truth, they’re both roughly the same size, with the Jetta V clocking in roughly 6 inches longer — hardly noticeable). VW’s done well by doing the legwork to get diesels over to the States, but I suspect we’re just another round of $4 gas away from getting a better diesel infrastructure to support more diesel automobiles.

  16. 1) Hate the hatchback? See the Vega.

    2) Station wagon dead. See EPA fleet mileage rules.

    3) SUV, see EPA fleet mileage rules, light truck.

  17. Oh, and #5, the adversarial relationship. Saturn tried the opposite. Sort of. Except, they charged a fixed premium price for an economy product. Didn’t work so much.

    AutoNation tried something similar.

    AutoNation To Close Stores And Cut Jobs
    Published: Tuesday, December 14, 1999

    AutoNation entered the auto business by setting up used car superstores on a far grander and more lavish scale than anything the industry had ever seen. The parking lots had 1,000 or more used cars. The showrooms had computer kiosks with information on every car in the lot. The prices were prominently placed on every car, with no negotiations allowed. And there were dozens of young, college-educated sales people who worked for salaries, instead of the commissions that had long given used car salesmen an incentive for aggressive sales techniques.

    But rival used car sales businesses responded by undercutting AutoNation’s fixed prices. One morning two years ago, shortly after AutoNation’s used car superstore in Coconut Grove, Fla., had opened for business, a well-dressed woman stood at a kiosk and furiously scribbled down prices. Asked what she was doing, she replied that she was going to take the prices to another dealership to get a better deal.

    They lost a ton of money on the used cars, and made all their money on new cars, which are actually more competitive on price, industry wide, to start with, because of dealer incentives.

  18. Rats, always another point.

    Figures, nearest AutoNation from The PIT, is in Canton OH, and it is an old legacy dealer, i.e. Mullinax Ford. Nearest AutoNation transplant dealer, Leesburg Honda, Scion, or Toyota.

  19. WCE says:

    Thanks Mike for bringing up diesel fuel. We are finally starting to see price rollbacks from very high levels attained in the gasoline price spike/changeover to “clean” diesel. As more refineries produce it (and as long as trucking demand stays low in the meantime) the price will revert to something like normal old levels/ratios, but not quite, given the new fuel composition.

    Where I am (Texas) has seen the new low sulphur diesel fall sharply in price recently. Now it’s selling at $2.09 a gallon, compared to $2.10 for plus and $1.99 for regular.

    I haven’t run pure biodiesel in it yet, but have splashed some in at mfg warranted levels, and that brings the price down some. Or it would if you didn’t factor my time futzing with biodiesel. ;) Labor of love and all.

  20. WCE says:

    On Autonation – For various reasons I am very familiar with AutoNation. What you describe is correct. They abandoned the used vehicle market and left it to CarMax.

    Now AN looks to sell something like 1 out of every 10 new cars in the USA, their dealer network is that big. Also, they have survived the downturn pretty well in that they are able to break even off the service department alone, and sell less than 40% US makes.

  21. Dave says:

    (1) and (2): Because 60 years of marketing have convinced the American car buyer that cars are not about transportation, but about self-image. Hatchbacks and station wagons are practical; practical isn’t cool. As an Apple employee, you should be comfortable with this reasoning, no?

    (3): See erink’s response at #3.

    (4): Because people really do need vehicles like hatchbacks and station wagons that can transport people and stuff efficiently, but the American carmakers painted themselves into the “practical != cool” corner and couldn’t turn around and actually try to sell them hatchbacks and station wagons. So they raised the suspension a couple of inches, reworked the body styling, threw in AWD, and called them “compact SUVs” and “crossovers”. (Fleet MPG requirements also play in, as Amos alludes to in #16 — a “crossover SUV”, instead of dragging down the “car” average MPG, will pull up the “light truck” average MPG.) Of the ten best-selling SUVs in 2008, only two (the Jeep Wrangler and Chevy Tahoe) are actually based on light truck platforms.

    5: Information asymmetry + large, infrequent purchase events. Car dealers know more about the car, its cost, and the buying process than do the buyers. Dealers (and particularly individual salesmen) can optimize for short-term returns, because the car-buying event is generally rare enough that “repeat business” isn’t a compelling motivator. So a salesman will readily forgo a chance of a sale ten years down the road in order to squeeze an extra 2% out of a $25k purchase. In my experience, the best way around this is to break the information asymmetry – go in obviously armed with reams of data.