I Have Seen the Future of the Automobile — and It Sucks

If your idea of a car is something bigger than a penalty box, or more powerful than a moped, or maybe slightly fun to drive, then I suggest you get yourself down to your local dealer (assuming he hasn’t already folded), pronto, and buy yourself something pretty. It might just be your last chance for a good long while.


President Obama put his signature to new CAFE rules last week, requiring that by 2016, automakers must meet fleet-wide gas mileage averages of 39 mpg for cars and 30 for trucks. This is easy enough to accomplish — build smaller vehicles with smaller engines. Although I can tell you how well that’s going to go over here in Colorado, where getting trapped behind a Prius (or an Aveo or any other wind-up toy car) on a steep incline means growing a full beard before cresting the hill.

Now imagine a Ford F-150 trying to make it up to the Eisenhower Tunnel with a full load of construction equipment and a two-liter four-banger under the hood. You’ll have facial growth like one of the ZZ Top guys before it’s all over, maybe even if you’re a girl.

If you think I’m exaggerating, think again. The anonymous “Mechanic,” writing for Edmunds, worries that the new CAFE standards

won’t save much fuel and won’t save the planet, but they will crush the life out of the car business. From here on out, cars are going to shrink in size, shrivel in power and grow more expensive.

With a goal of a corporate fleet average of 39 mpg for cars by 2016 model year it’s not just V8s that are dead, but V6s and decent-size fours. Of course all the SUVs and the Camaro, Mustang and Corvette as we know them are doomed, that’s obvious, but so are reasonably size minivans, midsize sedans like the Accord and Camry, and anything fun.


And if you have even any small interest in seeing what’s left of Detroit survive, now would be a good time to look on Obama’s works, ye mighty, and despair. Chrysler’s plan is to somehow, someday import FIAT’s small cars. GM has never competed well in the small-car segment, and Ford can’t even sell its well-regarded “Euro Focus” domestically at a profit.

Is there a silver pinstripe anywhere in these dark clouds? Yes: There might be cheating. Lots and lots of cheating. What, automakers will game federal regulations to please their customers? Hard to believe, but it does happen. Remember that the whole gas-guzzling SUV craze got all … crazy … under the current CAFE rules, which seemed pretty stringent when they were first written. But as written, minivans and even the PT Cruiser counted under the rules as “trucks,” which meant lighter requirements. That legal trickery probably postponed Chrysler’s bankruptcy by a good twenty years or more.

Of course, it’s too late to save Chrysler now. And anyway, the day where American tastes and preferences rule the day might be over, no matter what our regulations require.

For a century now, most of the best automotive engineers in the world catered to America’s desires for bigger cars with more power. Even German designers at fabled badges like Mercedes-Benz and BMW always kept at least one eye on the American market. The reason: The USA was the world’s largest, most competitive, and most profitable car market. But how do you say “Those days are closing fast” in Mandarin?


It’s never happened before, but thanks to the continuing collapse in demand here (under ten million new cars per year in 2008 and 2009 vs. 16 million new cars sold in 2006) and the quick recovery of the Chinese economy, Chinese consumers are now buying more new cars than Americans are. If Americans can’t buy the cars we want — bigger, more powerful — then we’ll hang on to the cars we have. Meanwhile, China adds millions of “new middle class” consumers every year, stepping up from motorbikes to their first motorcars.

Chinese tastes might soon demand more attention than ours. And that means the best automotive minds in the world working to produce cars for a country where the primary concerns are low prices on euro-style city cars — and screw the environment.

It’s a bleak future for car lovers. While China is leaving the third world, its car needs will be more like Europe’s than ours. Europe is going the way the American left wishes America would (and might be). And America’s once-proud roads might come to look more and more like Cuba’s — strewn with late model cars no one can replace.

So if you’re the kind of guy or gal who hungers for something that’s got a HEMI, or thinks Chevy is as American as apple pie provided it sports an SS badge, or appreciates the smooth revving rumble of eight German cylinders, or believes that life begins at five liters (or more), then make friends with your favorite car and your most-trustworthy mechanic. You might be seeing lots of both of them over the next twenty years.



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