Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Believe It Or Not, Some Ways Choices of Cars are Limited

by Tom Bozzo

In the comments to her car-search post, Kim writes:
I do find it interesting that manufacturers seem to have so few (public) plans to offer hybrid wagons or even compact SUVs. (e.g., Why the [H]ighlander, and not the Rav4?) Maybe there's some financial reason related to production retooling, or maybe it's just too soon.
A number of possibilities come to mind:

1. Wagons and hatchbacks are still considered inferior from a U.S. car marketing perspective. To pick on my brother for a moment, he recently told me that he'd have a hard time seeing himself in this wagon, but not in this SUV — but what is the latter but a tall and otherwise super-sized version of the former? Many automakers that sell wagons try to deny the fact one way or another; hence we have an A4 "Avant" which really is an A4 derrière.

2. In Europe, where wagons and hatchbacks are very common but SUVs aren't, fuel-efficient motivation comes from modern diesel engines that are as good as or better than hybrids, currently for no greater production cost. It's difficult to get diesels to pass the strictest U.S. emission standards, and there's little reason (for now) to adopt gas-electric hybrids in Europe when diesels will do. Hence, lots of potentially attractive fuel-efficient cars are not for U.S. sale.

3. Hybrid technology is in transition, and packaging is troublesome for small cars. (*) Improved battery technology, in particular, would go a long way to reducing the weight and space costs for hybrid systems. Hence GM's crash program to develop a cost-effective lithium-ion battery for a forthcoming production version of the Chevrolet Volt.

4. Reality has not yet come crashing down. Right now, car-based "crossovers" with middling instead of terrible fuel economy are the SUV rage. These are a big step back towards regular wagons and hatchbacks in themselves. Perhaps the fuel economy penalties associated with their tallness is acceptable with $3 gasoline. Whether they'd survive $5 or $10 gasoline is an open question.

5. U.S. regulations that allow vehicles that can be called "trucks" to meet less stringent fuel economy standards makes it worthwhile to sell things that are regulated as "trucks" for as long as the market will accept them. But see #4.
At any rate, I predict that within about 10 years, driving a SUV on the left coast is going to be about as socially acceptable as smoking, which is to say only slightly better than spanking your children. Or at least, it would be if car manufacturers offered better non-SUV alternatives for family transport.
We can only hope.

(*) Take a look, e.g., at the trunk of a regular Camry vs. the Camry Hybrid. My car, which is due to get a hybrid version soon, has major packaging issues since if it gave up the space of the Camry's battery pack, the remaining boot volume would be in Miata territory.


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