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Victory of the Gas Guzzler

Face it: Americans don't like small cars.

By Thomas Anderson  |  May 20, 2018

While the mainstream media – and, yes, even Scragged – have been discussing whether future automobiles will be electric or hybrid, the automobile industry has put its future into the exact opposite: those gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks!  No less a legendary marque than Ford itself has announced that it’s basically exiting the business of making passenger cars in favor of light trucks.

The huge cars of the 1960s are returning with a vengeance in the form of SUVs and pickup trucks. The days of the Buick Electra 225, which number was the overall length in inches of the monster vehicle, are being recalled by vehicle makers who seek to manufacture a market and then fulfill it.

No one specifically wants to see the land yachts of the 1960s return with a vengeance. But that’s what is peeking over the horizon at us.

This flies in the face of a topic we’ve so far avoided: the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards and how they influence the vehicles manufactured.  Ever since the 1970s, the federal government has seen fit to interfere in the free market by imposing ever-increasing mileage standards for how far the average car must be able to get on a single gallon of gas.  One might naturally assume this artificial limit dictates ongoing reductions in the size of vehicles, that being the quickest and cheapest way to increase mileage.

One would be wrong.  It is an increasingly obvious fact that SUVs and pickups are outselling cars and have been for several years.

2018 market share – Ward's Automotive

Those of the green persuasion might wish to see the success of fuel-efficient vehicles in the marketplace.  Alas for Al Gore acolytes, it appears that the new vehicle buyer doesn’t care very much about those characteristics of his vehicle.

In classic American style, he is much more interested in the roominess and comfort of his transportation, and the direct improvement on the feelings of his own personal posterior.

The Wall Street Journal, in observing Ford’s striking change in market segmentation, may be implying that, because of the Trump administration concentration on things other than EPA goals of the past, we are seeing fuel standards being deemphasized.

A different view, held by this writer, is that the Obama era EPA was completely out of control and was playing one-upmanship with itself to see how it could wring performance and desirability out of cars by making them all econoboxes. One suspects that Barack the Almighty has never thrilled in the great American pastime of driving a fine car.

As the Wall Street Journal observed:

Someone in the WSJ office said it was the end of an era. It’s more like the beginning of the 1990s, when Ford, outsmarting federal fuel economy standards, built and marketed the hell out of the Ford Explorer, which as a light truck was subject to [less stringent] standards.

The Explorer set off the SUV craze and a decade-long size spiral in vehicle design, culminating in such absurdities as GM’s Hummer H2 and Ford’s own Excursion SUV. That party ended with the oil price spike of the 2000s…

It is going to happen again. SUVs and pickup trucks have gotten a greater shot in the arm than they did in the early 90s. The family sedans and coupes that are available now all have one thing in common: boring.

And it isn’t just Ford.  From Forbes:

At January’s North American International Auto Show, almost all of the significant product announcements were about new pickup trucks and SUVs from Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). Maintaining sales of those high margin vehicles will be crucial to funding the development and introduction of new and often pricey electrified propulsion and automation technologies.

Passenger cars are expected to be a drag on a market dominated by larger vehicles. Manufacturers applaud this trend (they started it) and are putting all their eggs in that basket. They don’t want to be relying on their version econobox to generate profit - it just is not there in those models.

Rolls--Royce behemoth test vehicle in camouflage

SUVs and pickup trucks have been the profitable vehicles for many years. During the 1990s, Ford introduced the Explorer, the Expedition, and then the gargantuan Excursion in search of those profits - and they found them. SUV and pickup profit margins (the precise numbers are a closely guarded secret) are very high in comparison to the skinny margins of passenger cars.

All these vehicles are based on truck chassis of various sizes, and the bodies utilize many of the same body panels across the models. Many models from the same manufacturer differ from each other only in certain parts of the body from the driver’s seat back. The fronts are the same, utilizing the identical parts save for differences like standard cab versus crew cab versus SUV. Lengthening the wheelbase can make further differences: Tahoe versus Suburban; extended cab versus crew cab.

It is this utilization of identical parts to create different vehicles that helps to boost the cost savings in the manufacturing process. Henry Ford’s assembly line plus the adaptability of certain robots in the customization process allow variations in the production output.

Purchasers who are interested in more upscale vehicles understand that their vehicles will cost more based on additive alternates to the basic model. The total rises quickly as minor cosmetic and comfort changes are made to the base model.

Even as the typical econobox has gotten smaller, the design of the SUV/pickup has gotten significantly larger.  The econoboxes are all very similar looking; they all have the same squashed together feel about them; their performance is predictable. Vehicles in which high-mileage is the most important thing will not excel on the skid pad; neither comfort, performance, maneuverability, nor driveability will be their stock in trade.

That’s the interesting thing about the vehicles that this column has been featuring: electric motors give them a zippy performance that high fuel economy gasoline engines cannot render.

Which takes us back to the CAFE standards. Electric vehicles obviously do not have to conform to CAFE standards; hybrids are almost all in compliance already; the gasoline engine vehicles can be averaged out with the others to comply with the ridiculous requirement of 54.5 MPG, or whatever it is on the particular fleet.

Through the convoluted regs that apply to the category that pickups, SUVs, and some crossovers fall within, these vehicles are exempt from the most draconian of the rules. And, there have been great strides forward in the power and torque generated by the modern engines used in the current generation of these vehicles.

Subaru of America is offering its new class of SUV, the Ascent for the MSRP of $31,995 with 27/21 MPG rating. Subaru has long been a provider of low-end, not-too-bad cars with their sedans leading the pack. Although they do not offer a pickup, there are now three Subaru sedans and five that are SUV/crossover models. This is the type of mix that we can expect brands to bring to market for the next few years.

Ford, on the other hand, has announced its intention of selling only pickups, SUVs, and Crossovers. They will keep the Mustang, which is the only Ford branded car with any character, and the Focus. No one will miss Ford cars: Ford turned its fleet generic with the ruin of the Thunderbird way back in the 60s.

Ford SUVs are another matter; we have been here before. The clunky Chevy Suburbans of the 1970s – 1980s were left in the dust by the Ford Explorer/Expedition in the early 90s when the term SUV came into use to describe this ‘new class’ of vehicles.

The Ford SUV offerings opened the floodgates to a new classification of vehicles and the gentrification of pickups to the honored status which they now hold. And we can thank the tightening of CAFE standards for the new trend, as once again the unintended consequences of federal actions backfire against expectations.

This time, at least, the idiocy of these CAFE standards is being held up for all to see. They are ludicrously complex, tailored to fit an industry which wants to have an excuse for building highly profitable vehicles and are completely unintelligible to outsiders.

This writer will never forget the absolute delight that a rented BMW 318i produced the instant that full throttle acceleration was needed. The circumstance was a visit to Holland in 1987, while merging onto one of the limited access highways: an opportunity presented itself, and we were gone. No CAFE standards in Holland in the 80s!

It was a harsh reminder of the nanny state that we live in. Having not driven a car outside the United States in many years, we have no comparison for current models, but we expect that the US model is still an under-performer. There is a definite market for an over-wrought SUV like the Cadillac Escalade, which was downsized last year but which may be returning to its former excess.

Even though gas prices are at a place that is a good bit higher than fracking would allow, they will stabilize, probably, at a lower level than they are now. OPEC will get its act in line eventually and the vast potential of fracking provides an effective cap on how high they can rise.

Cars with gasoline engines are commodities now; cars with other means of propulsion will get there soon. There will be exotics and hyper luxury vehicles excusing themselves by using all-electric and hybrid technology, wrung to the max to produce incredibly expensive ways of saving a buck.

Yet for all that, SUVs and pickups define the mass of vehicles where Joe Six-pack will spend his hard-earned bucks for driving enjoyment.

Vive le Gas Guzzler!