Is the US finally getting it?

I’m probably going to be accused at firing upon an easy target with a title like that. But let’s face it – easy targets are called ‘easy targets’ for a reason. The American obsession with all things big is at pretty much at odds with most other automotive markets around the world.

Rising fuel prices are levelling the field somewhat, and it’s good to see a dinky-di publication like Edmunds starting to push the virtues of smaller cars. This excites me a little as once again, as with several other emerging trends, I really believe that Saab are well positioned to capitalise on the US growth in small and medium size vehicles.

Now there’s a new oil crisis, caused by hurricanes and high prices. Once again, Americans are downsizing. Once again, Japanese and European makers are benefiting (will the domestic automakers ever learn?).

But instead of despairing, Americans should celebrate! Smaller is better. Starbucks teaches us why. It reversed the longtime American trend of quantity over quality. When it was easy to buy a Big Gulp-sized cup of coffee for a quarter, why spend a few dollars on a smaller cup of Arabica bean Costa Rican? “Because our coffee is better,” argued Starbucks. It was a sociological shift for Americans.

Saab aren’t mentioned in the article, but it does provide a good insight into the growing fuel-consciousness over in the US and the increasing acceptance of medium size vehicles over there. It also questions the age old thought that’s been handed down from generation to generation – that bigger is always better.

….that old anachronistic adage — “Bigger and better,” as though the two words were synonymous — still pervades the American auto mentality.

It makes no sense. Why buy a mushy-sprung roly-poly big sedan or SUV when — frequently for less money and certainly for lower gas bills — you can buy a compact sedan or small sportster that handles better, goes faster, is lots more fun to drive, is mechanically more sophisticated, is frequently more comfortable and, in these uncertain economic times, will almost certainly hold its value better?

OK, so maybe Saabs aren’t going to win votes in the holding value department (mainly a perception issue if you ask me). But on every other score you care to mention (handling, power, fun to drive, comfort and safety), I’d take a Saab over the big competition 8 days a week.

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9 Comments

  1. I think “obsessed” is a bit strong.

    Yes there are a ton of large trucks and SUVs sold but what people tend to forget is that many are for work use. There are, on my street, 4 large trucks, 3 of these trucks are work vehicles and the 4th one is owned by a paranoid weirdo who thinks anything smaller is a death trap. There is one large car, a 1960 Chrysler Imperial. This is out of 20 homes owning around 50 cars. Not quiet a land of obsession.

    I would say that the obsession with big cars was broken with the two gas crisis of the 1970’s. Proof of this is that American cars, like the Oldsmobile Delta88, had lost almost half their mass from 1976 to 1986 and yet still sold very well, also small cars like the Civic and Corolla sold like mad. Americans were quite happy and willing to purchase smaller cars.

    Then something happened.

    Compare a 1985 Civic to a 2005 Civic. Put a 1985 VW Jetta next to a 2005 Jetta. Cars from Europe and Japan have been eating like pigs and growing fat over the past 20 years. This is not the fault of Americans, to think so it to ascribe magical powers to us we don’t have.

    The difference between the US and the rest of the world is that as cars got bigger and their makers started slotting in new smaller models they chose not to bring those new models to our shores. Then began a game of catch-22 with car makers justifying their lack of small cars because, “Americans don’t buy small cars”, all the while Americans had no small car offerings to purchase.

    Nissan’s Armada SVU and Titan truck: Horrible sales, even with strong incentives
    BMW’s new Mini: Super hot sales, not one penny in incentives
    Honda’s new Ridgeline truck: Revising sales forecasts downward.
    Toyota’s new Scions: Revising sales forecasts upwards.

    All this was BEFORE the current spike in gas prices.

    Are there still many Americans who think “bigger is better”? Yes, but last time I checked they still sold Commodores and Land Cruisers in Oz, not exactly nimble fuel sippers those.

    Saying that we are obsessed with large cars isn’t so much taking a shot at an easy target as it is merely bowing to popular convention on the topic. Unfortunately popular convention is often wrong, for example, popular convention there thinks that Fosters is Australia’s best beer. Are they right?

    The point is to call us obsessed is to imply we are some monolithic mass all waiting in line to buy the next big V8 powered monster, and at the same time deny the existence of the millions of us who go to sleep each night dreaming of the wonderful small cars out there that the companies refuse sell us.

    NOTE: The runaway success of the Mini and Scion has begun to change the corporations’ mindset of what cars “can sell” in the US and many makers are making plans to bring over new small offerings. This will, no doubt, be attributed to the recent spike in oil and Americans finally, “getting it”, even though both the Mini and Scion were hot items before the spike.

  2. I’ve grown used to the gratuitous slams of America and Americans by Europeans and others who mostly show their ignorance of the thing they slam.

    European car manufacturers are falling all over themselves to produce higher power autos with V8s, W8s V12s, etc. But do we hear about them being gas guzzlers. Nope. Only American SUVs get that treatment. Apparently it is OK to guzzle gas if you can spend lots of money for a Mercedes or Audi or BMW, but not if you can only afford a Chevy or Ford.

    Toyota and Nissan and Honda are invading the US with large pickups and SUVs, all with big fuel-thirsty engines. Are they slammed? Nope, just Hummer.

    Would you insulted if I said that everyone in Australia looked and acted like Crocodile Dundee? That is about how sophisticated most of the ideas on America are from people overseas.

  3. Gents, take a breath – please.

    First of all, a generalisation is just that – it’s general in nature. My visit to Canada last year and my brief foray into the US provided evidence enough that big is definitely seen to be preferable in NA. That may be due to what’s offered by manufacturers in these markets, as Dinger suggests, but it’s also the result of a culture that’s developed a preference over time.

    Perhaps I should have included the following in my top paragraph: “The American [auto industry’s] obsession with all things big is at pretty much at odds with most other automotive markets around the world.” It was not meant as a broadside targeting every individual car-buyer in the US and if you’ve taken it as such, then you’ve done yourselves a disservice.

    Apparently the best beer in Australia is Boag’s Premium. I’m not a beer drinker so I wouldn’t know one from another, but that’s the word. It’s from Tasmania too.

    But back to big vehicles. It’s a perception thing to some degree. Here in Aus there are quite a few SUV’s going around but nowhere near as many as I encountered in NA. Not even close. The number of big SUV’s on American roads wouldn’t stand out to an American as much as it would to a vistior.

    Euros making W12’s etc? Give me a break. These are low volume halo vehicles made for a specific purpose, not for general use. A soccer mum that turns up in an S-Class Benz deserves every snigger she receives, just as the soccer mum in her Toorak Tractor does. (A Toorak Tractor being an upmarket SUV that never sees any offroad activity. Substitute ‘Toorak’ for any wealthy suburb in your area).

    Yes, there’s a lot of Commodores and Falcons (the number of Landcruisers and Patrols is dropping as more compact SUV’s com onto the market) but even these are starting to be caught up by the number of Camrys, Magnas and Corollas sold.

    The important thing about this article/post is that a) more smaller cars are being offered and b) they’re being accepted for the great alternatives that they are, and c) Saab is well placed to benefit if they play their cards right.

    Mick Dundee? He simultaneously causes a cultural cringe and a wave of nostalgic affection. Hoges is a dead-set legend here in Oz, though many would like to forget his later work.

  4. I’ve been peeking around minivans, of all things, lately because I may need a bit more space in the near future. With gas prices being what they are, I’d rather be able to shuttle family & grandparents in the same vehicle than take two, so 7 seats would do fine.

    The domestic minivans are shit. The Odyssey – you have to get the $30k EX-L to get the economical V6 engine which shuts 3 cylinders off at cruising speeds. The Sienna, nicely equipped, is also expensive and gets about 20 MPG. The Quest is a bloated eyesore.

    The only reasonably sized item out there is the Mazda5, which is the first Euro-style MPV to make it to the States. It’s big enough for 6 and gets mid-20s MPG. My problem is that I live in a snowy climate, and Mazda won’t sell cars with the 2.3L 4 cylinder engine and traction control. I emailed Mazda, and they have no answer for that. Actually, that Mazda5 could use Volvo’s 2.4L 5-cylinder and traction control, but that’s a different story.

    But I thought about Euro manufacturers, and VW doesn’t offer us the aging Sharan, We don’t have the French marques, BWM has no MPV, and Mercedes’ R-class is fricking $50-60k. (You can tell I don’t have that kind of scratch because I’m looking at the $18k Mazda5).

    The US is so car-centric, yet the choices we have to haul our fat asses and big families around economically are pretty piss poor.

    It’d be kind of cool if Saab had a Mini-MPV that was Renault Scenic-sized and sold in the states. With a turbo 4.

    Fat chance, I guess.

    Sorry for the somewhat off-topic rant.

  5. And as an aside – they used to show the old Paul Hogan show on a local channel in NYC when I was a kid. It was hilarious. I remember an episode that made me cry laughing where Hogan played Captain Kirk . The Enterprise was hit by laser cannons, and someone asked him, “Captain, what do we do?” and he replied, “run side to side like brainless sheep”, and the camera started tilting around and the crew ran from side to side like brainless sheep.

  6. Eh, we’ve always wanted big vehicles here. First it was big sedans, then big station wagons, then big vans, then minivans, then SUV’s. I just wrecked the 900 and I thought about something bigger. I drove my father-in-law’s old Ford Explorer for a week and got 18 mpg. So, I looked at the 9-5! Wow, that thing is BIG. And I get 33 mpg!

    But, come on, when gasoline was perhaps the cheapest fluid you could buy by volume, why not have a big car? Now it’s expensive. The market will adjust, it always does. We’ll all be in little cars soon enough!

  7. I own a ’61 Triumph TR3A and a SAAB 900S. Both cars are at the smaller scale of things in the North American market. I generally don’t like SUV’s or Minivans (or station wagons for that matter). When friends come and ask me for advice for buying a family car I generally try to steer them towards mid-sized practical sporty sedans. I generally get responses such as “we have kids and need to take toys, cribs, etc etc with us whenever we travel” or “my wife likes the secure feeling of a large vehicle” or “I want my family to be safe in a larger vehicle.”

    Despite statistics which show that SUV’s aren’t that much safer in many types of accidents (there is some advantage to be fair), its hard to convince them otherwise. In line with common sense, larger generally equates to safer. Perhaps there are statistics that show this to be incorrect. Still, NO MAKER, be they North American, Asian, or European has ever tried to dissuade people in North America from the generally accepted notion that larger vehicles are inherently safer.

    The “mobile house” syndrome is harder to counter. Mid-sized sedans, even very versatile ones, generally have less storage and interior space than larger SUV’s, Minivans, and Wagons. I always harken back our days as children in the ’70’s and ’80’s and ask if their parents needed a ginormous SUV to carry all their stuff around. My parents didn’t. Granted, at one point my parents had a ’71 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham (can’t get a sedan much bigger than that), but they never needed SUV’s and the like. Still, it seems to be some sort of trend that today’s modern parents need to bring along half the household when they travel with their brood.

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