America has a love affair with some of the most inefficient forms possible, and that’s about to change.
I often joke that if one is looking for evidence of evil in the universe, one need look no further than the minivan or family sedan. It is an immutable fact that America has preferentially designed, built and bought some of the least serviceable forms of transport imaginable: Why we have done this, however, is an interesting question. How that is changing is even more interesting.
A sizeable tradition
During the heyday of American steel and the expansion of our interstate infrastructure in the 1950s (a wartime airplane runway worst-case scenario plan with everyday applicability), we fell in love with the straight line, a linear model that behooved us to build large, long cars, designed for distance and horsepower. We also had confronted the rounded fender lines and decadent art deco interpretation of the automobile by our German nemesis before and during World War II, and we were looking for an aesthetic—as well as mechanical and moral—answer to their case for superiority. We found it briefly in the iconic and now often-idolized “Woody,” our first flirtation with the station wagon. The advent of the Plymouth Suburban, Ford Fairlane and Chevy Bel Air were all homages to open space (and a space program) and romanticization of the long roads of the American West, a la Louis L’Amour and Jack London. But for as quickly as we developed a family “wagon,” we fell out of love and divorced it for sedans and coupes (with the exception of a very brief affair with the two-door Mercury Commuter and other landscape oddities).
Efficiency, mechanization, industrialization and the ability to conquer open space and natural forms all encouraged us to create longer, more angular and aggressive machines (it is interesting to note the Western ideal of strength is again having to modulate itself to “foreign” concepts, as Cadillac redesigns its lines to suit Chinese tastes in that emerging market). Moving to suburbs with private parking and away from urban centers with roads often designed before the advent of the automobile only facilitated larger, more linear forms. This form found itself most suited to the sedan, even changing the terminology from the continental “Saloon” to sedan, a word with connotations of being seated, or royal throne. The family sedan was first and foremost built around a desire for privacy, compartmentalization and the luxury of plentiful construction materials. In an extension of our desire to distance ourselves from the class connotations of agrarian life, we also wanted to get as far from the farm truck as aesthetically possible. This was a modern age, with modern conveniences, quiet rides without the need to see one's belongings or, even worse, allow others to see them. The sedan was fundamentally built around the family unit with an emphasis on “out of sight, out of mind.”
But by the 1950s, Germany and postwar Europe were looking for a family vehicle of their own, and the American model would not fit their more urbane lifestyle, limited space requirements and often far more multipurpose needs for what was typically a family’s only vehicle. Ultra-urban models like the Fiat 500 were not practical for long-distance travel or more than 1.64 passengers and a very small dog. The answer was the Citroen Avant and the Renault 16, ushering in a new era of practicality and efficiency, with Europeans somehow blissfully not as worried about their belongings being stolen without a proper trunk or boot, or flying around the cabin, as I have actually had mothers tell me hatchbacks are at risk of doing with your groceries in an accident. Although Porsche and VW refined their rear-mounted engine and front storage options to the detriment of chassis flexibility, other designers hoped that Americans would come to admire their “hot hatches” and how they answered the need for an elongated form that would still work in an urban setting with more glass for visibility, and storage space for multiple uses lent itself to the creation of what we now (in a fervent desire not to use the word “wagon”) call “crossovers” and the inimitable P1800 (think The Saint). The P1800, probably as much as any car, proved that efficiency could be sexy when it debuted a hatchback family version of the coupe and that children need not signal a death of one’s aesthetic sensibilities (the enduring popularity of these lines can be seen in the new Volvo coupe hatchback, the C30, inheriting both Volvo’s practicality and taste for screen icons). Although a few American automakers (Ford and Dodge, primarily) adapted the hatchback design to the sports coupes' “fastback” models, it was the Japanese's fear of VWs dominance that finally brought the hatchback and wagon back to American showroom floors.
A rough figure for those of you interested in the average “footprint” (carbon and otherwise) of our daily drivers, a sedan with its deck lid, taller quarter panels and square roof line uses approximately 17 percent more steel than a hatchback, often increasing weight by even more than that because of structural reinforcements needed in the rear, and it suffers from a 20 percent reduction in gas mileage because of drag coefficients. The “hot hatch,” modeled on the humble go-kart, often brags a wheelbase of 20 percent less but with 25 percent or more cubic storage space. The hatchback offers better visibility in adverse climates or dense traffic scenarios, with significantly elongated view of the road behind the car and at a lower angle, thanks to the lack of interruption from a trunk. (Plus, you often get a handy rear wiper, not included on North American sedans, though infuriatingly an option on JDM and continental build autos.) This was a major selling point for the Smart Car and the Fiat 500 when combined with its ability to park perpendicular to the curb. By allowing cars another dimension in effect to park safely in, you can restructure parking in an efficient manner with a lower incidence of nicks, dings and fender benders, without doing away with in-city parking altogether.
The irony is that a culture that buys and moves as much tchotchke (even as single adults) as the average American still chooses a more limited cubic space vehicle. So then comes the seduction by the SUV builders of the exhausted and vulnerable soccer/ballet/gymnastics/judo/Little League mother extraordinaire, further undermining the presence of the versatile station wagon in North America. SUVs are deceptively billed as “safe,” “sturdy” and “all-weather” vehicles, often boasting none of these features when put on an even playing field with crossovers and sport wagons. The failure to take into account real time or symmetrical all-wheel drive offered in many wagons and crossovers does them a disservice, along with lower centers of gravity that give them a maneuverability edge and lighter weight chassis for superior stopping ability in traffic and low-traction surfaces. And as Subaru has tried to argue for the past 20 years, accident avoidance is as desirable as accident endurance, and your belongings are indeed safe in a “wagon.”
Once these two design paths had diverged, it would be nearly 40 years before Americans were willing to entertain the European “wagon” concept or find a way to make it socially acceptable here in the North American market. Ironically, and much to car enthusiasts' chagrin, we have the Toyota Prius to thank for the market shift toward hatchbacks as daily drivers and practical distance as well as in-town vehicles. In much the same way, Toyota gave us the RAV4 in 1994, gambling that Americans would pony up for a Corolla chassis with a 2.0-liter engine put on 9 inches or better of ground clearance with four-wheel drive. They were right, and SUV designers have been sweating since. But none of these advances allayed concerns in the American market about space being primarily a “family” need and somehow incompatible with the idea of sport or speed. Sedans still dominate the U.S. daily driver scene, and most major manufacturers consider the battle for the midsized sedan key to market dominance. But Toyota, Honda and others are increasingly reverting to their 1970s oil crisis tactics by offering hybridized designs with better fuel economy than their “traditional” Western chassis counterparts.
So while I and other Subaru-driving fanatics endure jibes from enthusiasts about mommy wagons and critter compartments, we will take solace that our European counterparts enjoy 280 mph grocery getters in the form of the BMW M5 Touring and hope that, one day, we’ll be able to convince the American male that wagons are sexy, along with the equally unattainable pitch for shape over size. Good luck, ladies.
I would love to hear from you about why you chose the chassis you did and whether it trumps gas mileage or space and what you want in a body style (for your car, that is) for the type of driving you do. Email me at Hannah.Coffey@gmail.com or post to my blog.
Hannah L. Coffey is an ASE tech and divides her already-fractured time between teaching at UTC and working/writing about Subarus, Volvos and diesel Mercedes power trains. You can grill her about the latest quirk of your aging machine, what [she thinks] you should buy or whatever else strikes your fancy on her blog or by email. When in doubt, you should always seek the advice of a certified mechanic in your area. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.