Bigger not better with cars

By By Steven Warrick

By Steven Warrick

The Utah International Auto Expo is an event held every January in which the New Car Dealers of Utah, in association with various manufacturers and Motor Trend Magazine, display new vehicles they have for sale at the South Towne Exposition Center. Although it is possible to just go to the dealers and see the models one is interested in, the Expo also has a number of classic cars, concept cars and pre-production models, and is a festive affair, which makes it worthwhile.

The 2009 Utah International Auto Expo was interesting, as usual. Two developments threatened to put a damper on this year’s event, however. The bad economy has hit the auto industry particularly hard. Many Americans are hesitant to incur any big debts they might have a hard time paying off, so new car sales have plummeted. The other problem is the sharp rise in energy costs we experienced last summer. Utah was hit with prices reaching above $4 a gallon for regular gasoline.

Currently, gas prices are much lower and Utah is below the national average. After last summer’s price spike, however, people know that gas prices in the $4 to $5 range are very real. While there is no single “magic bullet” answer to this problem, vehicle efficiency is an important part of the solution.

Tremendous strides have been made in the fuel efficiency of cars during the years. Overdrive transmissions, improved fuel injection, and lower friction engines as well as improved aerodynamics have all helped fuel economy. On the other hand, much of this benefit has been counteracted in recent years by the continuing increase in vehicle size and weight, as was apparent at the Auto Expo.

One of the cars gathering the most interest at the Expo was the upcoming 2010 Chevrolet SS Camaro. Various automotive magazines put the curb weight of the car’s predecessor, the fourth-generation 1993-2002 Camaro with a V8 engine in the 3,300-3,400 lb. range, while Chevrolet’s literature has the new car coming in at around 3,900 lbs. Road & Track Magazine found that the upcoming Chevrolet’s competitor, the Dodge Challenger, was at 4,145 lbs., some 500 lbs. heavier than its 1970s forbearers. Road & Track also found that the Acura TSX, which like the Camaro and Challenger was on display at the Expo, had porked up 285 lbs. between 2008 and 2009.

Occasionally weight gain comes from some feature that improves a car’s performance or safety. For example, the Corvette gained 50 lbs. between 1964 and 1965 because of the switch from drum brakes to four-wheel discs. Unfortunately, weight gain too often is from features with little or no functional value, such as increased size or additional equipment like those agonizingly slow power seat adjusters you use only on rare occasions. As a general rule, additional weight harms every aspect of a car’s dynamic performance, including fuel economy.

As consumers, we can have some affect on this trend both through feedback to the industry as well as our market decisions. If enough people let the manufacturers know that we do not think bigger is better, they will eventually listen.

Our purchasing patterns, however, can make the greatest impact. If you don’t want that “bigger and better” new model, consider keeping your old car. With proper maintenance and repair, it can last you many more years. You can Or you can buy a smaller model. A Smartcar might not meet your needs, but if a Honda Civic is adequate, why buy an Accord?

Finally, you can get the model you want with fewer options. Dealers tend to stock “loaded” cars that are not only more expensive than the sensibly optioned cars, but heavier as well. If you are willing to take the time to special order your car, you can save both money and fuel.

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Steve Warrick