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I, Cringely - The Survival of the Nerdiest with Robert X. Cringely
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The Pulpit
Pulpit Comments
November 26, 2008 -- Saving Detroit
Status: [CLOSED]

My understanding is that a lot of the weight of modern cars comes from their safety equipment. The airbags and 5mph bumpers on most cars probably weigh as much as your plane.

I'd love to buy a small, light car, but I don't think you could put something like even a Lotus Seven on the road as a mass-production car today.

That's not to say that Detroit can't do better, because obviously, it can, and it should. But let's set our sights on a realistic target.

D. Lambert | Nov 26, 2008 | 11:11PM

What is your cruising speed?

Radical Raul | Nov 26, 2008 | 11:49PM

How about this target?

It looks VERY reasonable to me?


Bob Cringely | Nov 26, 2008 | 11:50PM

You're right when you say that the US car manufacturers have themselves to blame Bob, but I think you've only partially hit the real reasons why.

US cars are (generally) hideously ugly these days. Also, the interiors are far inferior in build quality, aesthetics and the quality of materials used when compared to European and Japanese cars.

People don't buy ugly cars with crappy seats and dashboards. If you go back to the heydays of the 50s and 60s, the US cars were sexy, hence the current day popularity of restoring US classics.

What happened ?

noddy | Nov 26, 2008 | 11:54PM

Avery Lovins has got you thinking I suppose...

No, the big three must die. The three who killed the electric car must pay for their crimes against humanity. 100 years or so is easily too long a life for any corporation. We should hold a wake; divy up the pieces, and, Valentine like, each consume a bit of each one while we wish them well in the after market life.

What remains should be sold to Toyota, the only car company that actually may "get it."

Dave Cline | Nov 26, 2008 | 11:54PM

Indeed, safety standards do add weight. But the bicycle analogy is again apt. The most expensive and desirable bikes aren't weaker because they're lighter -- in fact the most expensive bike material, carbon fiber, is far stronger than steel and much much lighter.

Surely a lighter car could also work with lighter bumpers, since the inertia and kinetic energy of it going 5mph would be reduced as well. Bumpers made of carbon fiber something similar would make the car expensive but the weight savings, as Cringely is suggesting, would make it fast as hell and fuel-efficient and still pass cxrash tests.

And whatever technology you use to improve the bumpers should be applicable to safety cages as well. Airbags, I'm not so sure about.

WLH | Nov 26, 2008 | 11:56PM

I say give the $25 billion to Tesla or CWI and Stirling. They have products that work and just need money to get them out the door. Electric passenger vehicals (that kick ass apparently) and alternative fuel (natural gar, etc) heavy trucks that would eliminate our need for foreign oil. ELIMINATE!

Steveorevo | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:01AM

An interesting factoid on auto manufacturing is that it takes about the same amount of labor to put together a large vehicle as a small one. Materials are a small expense per vehicle by comparison. Unfortunately you are right, people feel they are getting more for their money with a larger vehicle. The only thing that will change that feeling will be consistently higher gas prices.

Dave Wesely | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:01AM

My mother once owned a Corvair. Yes, the kind that was "Unsafe at any speed". She never bought an American car again. Years later, I owned a Citation, GM's X-car, that could fishtail and spin like it had casters. I also have never bought an American car again.

I agree: It's the cars.

I'm 52. I've felt this way since the 70s (except for the time I succumbed to the "buy American" drivel). Back then, the joke was that when fuel economy laws were being proposed, Japanese companies hired more engineers and American companies hired more laywers.

There is no reason for products of the world's technological superpower to be heavier, slower, less nimble, less efficient, and (adding insult to injury) uglier and shoddier; and to have been this way for at least 40 years. But thanks to the choices made by the Big 3, they are. I don't buy the cheap-crap version of any other product, and I won't buy the cheap-crap car either.

DutchUncle | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:20AM

We need another car company like Crosley! Those were really neat cars. The American auto industry as it stands now is missing diversity. We have only 3 HUGE car companies that use there money not to research and "retool" but to advertise and lobby. The only electric car that is close to production is direct competition with one of the few American car start ups in years the tesla. GM did not make a EV for the masses, it is making a tesla killer. When we had Nash, Studibaker, and a hand full of other innovative small car companies we had a robust industry full of competition and innovation. Remember the '47 Studi, the Lark, the rambler? When the government gives them money they blow it on buy outs, ads and more lobbing. We are helping them kill competition. How many car companies around the wold does GM or Ford own? If they need cash, maybe they should sell SAAB or some of the other competitors they bought out.

Andy Evans | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:25AM

Or if you don't want to let "the big three" completely die, why not split them up. The US probably produces 20 car brands. Why not have 20 car manufacturers? Yep, I know about the cost savings because of synergy, etc. But bigger companies have more overhead and they are definitely less agile when it comes to reacting on changing markets.

The industry needs more competition. Look at Europe, as a whole roughly as big as the US. And it probably has 20 car companies. Yep there are all kinds of alliances, but still. With 2-5 car manufacturers per country, it adds up.

Willem | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:29AM

Easy solution... increase the fuel tax. People will keep buying inefficient vehicles till the daily cost of doing so rises.

Let them burn; giving them grants only prolongs their demise to the European & Japanese auto-makers, who already make fuel efficient and vehicles with 5 star safety.

James | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:34AM

A whole article about tiny, fuel-efficient, cheap cars, and 11 comments so far, and NO ONE has mentioned the smart fortwo?

Two seats. 40+ mpg (not a hybrid!) 1800lbs (mostly due to required safety equipment.) Starts at $12,000. Oh yeah, and they're owned by Mercedes. So someone figured it out!

My boyfriend and I went to our local smart dealer in San Jose, CA early this year to test-drive one, and you have to sign up far in advance for a test drive! The dealership said they had over 500 people AT THAT DEALERSHIP on a waiting list.

Now, this was when gas was poised to hit $5 a gallon and the financial collapse hadn't happened...but it wouldn't surprise me at all if there's still a waiting list.

Bob, stick a fork in the Big Three...they're done!


Erica Douglass | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:36AM

Good article Bob! (Hope you give us some NerdTV:2 for Christmas before you go...)

The big-3 (and many other big corporations) do not want competition at all. Like their forefathers Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie,, these big old boys want to suck money out of people via their businesses and the government. Everytime they successfully lobby they achieve the latter.

For this reason, I doubt the US government will turn them down, even though that is what should happen. Real competition would be good for the country, but real competition erodes power, so the auto makers will fight it to the end.

And about the mass being in the safety devices as a commenter mentioned, I doubt that 50% of a car's mass is for safety devices. Would be good to see a mass-breakdown of parts, for interest's sake.

Jerry | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:43AM

My first car, bought what seems a very long time ago, was a Plymouth Valient, slant six. Year forgotten. The engine was hell built for stout, but the rest was fecal material. It literally disassembled itself over the five years I owned it, leaving metal detritus in its wake over several Southern states.

Never owned another American car.

Yet when I was a lad in college, Ford decided to go racing -- sports car endurance racing -- I forget the series name, but LeMans and Daytona 24 Hr and Sebring 12 Hr were the major venues, and living in Florida at the time, two out of three were in my back yard.

Porche pretty much had owned the show for several years. Ferrari was always there. It was a tough crowd.

But Ford concentrated money, international talent, and damn fine engineering (many Brits involved) and eventually produced what I believe was one of the finest racing machines ever created, the GT40. It won four 24 hrs of LeMans in a row (1966-69). It was a thing of beauty and speed.

Long time ago, I guess. But when I remember, I have hope still. I know we have the talent and creativity. Maybe hunger will focus the mind.

Dan Casali | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:45AM

I can imagine either of these scenarios coming to pass:
1.)The Big Three manage to con the government and get some kind of financial arrangement, but, aside from some cost cutting measures (reduced labor, layoff middle management, benefits reduced for all except top tier) for appearance sakes, they'll all still carry on as before. Eventually, they all become much smaller companies and either fold up completely or are bought out by competitors.
2.)The Big Three eventually become The Two then there is The One:
A.) There is no government bailout but somehow GM & Chrysler get financing for a merge. That turns out to be the worst idea since AOL-TimeWarner. Saturn gets spun off as separate company, with Solarworld gaining fifty percent stake. The transition fails spectacularly, sinking customer and shareholder confidence in GM/Chrysler. The company implodes and sinks like the Lusitania. Robert Nardelli effigies burn on almost street corner in Detroit metropolitan area and nearby Windsor, Canada. Toyota and Honda buys half of former GM/Chrysler plants in Midwest, California and Texas and refits them.
B.)Ford, in reaction to the merger, takes drastic and risky actions for its survival, installing new management at top and hiring new designers and engineers, and manages to produce a profitable but affordable line of vehicles that is green, attractive, cool and everybody wants one. Ford wisely reinvests its profits back into the company and rewards all its employees.

Kevin Kunreuther | Nov 27, 2008 | 1:14AM

Even Honda has succumbed to the power/weight/price ratio. I had an '83 civic in high school, and '88 after High School and through a lot of college, a '94 Sentra (we don't talk about that POS) and now an '07 Civic Si. My little '88 Civic got 40 MPG through Wyoming on the way to Denver and it looked good, sturdy and needed A/C. My '07 is superior in every way and about double the horsepower (200 vs 92) and my MPG has dropped to 27. It is a heavier bigger car and cost $23K vs my used price of $3K ($9K new) for the '88. While I gained sportiness and power at $4/gallon I wished I had my '88 back. I want my cake and to eat it too. Reliable, fast, good looks, comfortable and in no particular order there either, it should be a best of breed vehicle.

Eric | Nov 27, 2008 | 1:18AM

Interesting article. No harping on it, but 6061 aluminium is also very difficult to weld, hence the reason my FELT road bike cost me $3k (Aus).

Josh | Nov 27, 2008 | 1:24AM

My family has seen a lot of Smart Cars in Europe. For a long time, none in the US.

This last year, on a trip from Chicago to Iowa, we all cheered as we passed a Smart - the first we had seen in the US.

Since then, the Smart Car has been seen more often. Not as often as a Honda Civic, but moving up in the statistics.

Maybe there is hope for Global Warming!

Bob Gustafson | Nov 27, 2008 | 1:25AM

I have been saying that for years. Detroit doesn't listen to me either. The best car I ever had was a '69 Toyota Corolla wagon. It had a 1185 CC engine and weighed 1795 pounds. I rebuilt the engine and threw away the 12" wheels in favor of 13" Mazda ones. I got 52 MPG on the highway and 37 in the city. I regularly went 400 miles on the 8+ gallon tank, and laughed all the way through the gas crises of the 1970s. It had wonderfull handling, and was fun to drive. It was a good thing to, because of the small size, people always thought it was farther away than it really was. They sometimes popped out from side roads as I approached, making me play dodge-em. Too bad you can't buy a car like that tuday.

Garry | Nov 27, 2008 | 1:30AM

What about the "let them fail" argument? The presumption here does seem to be that the US auto makers _should_ succeed, yes?

John Sturm | Nov 27, 2008 | 1:50AM

you´re talking about the loremo

aptera also comes to mind

matt | Nov 27, 2008 | 2:19AM

This is bizzare.

SUVs, being trucks, had the delightful characteristic that they were exempt from the Federal Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency regulations that the auto-makers so hated for attempting to mandate ever-more fuel-efficient cars being produced.

Before the SUV craze, the Big-3 auto-makers were arguably non-domestic producers of non-domestic automobiles: Ford and Mazda, for example, not only co-produced the Ford Taurus/Mazda-626 as the identical car in Ford/Mazda-owned US plants using Japanese imported components, but the ownership of the companies themselves was becoming increasingly murky as they invested in each other.

The only thing wrong with the big-3 now is that they're no longer producing those high-quality, fuel-efficient Japanese cars under joint US/Japanese ownership. We're back in the late 70's again, with all the exact same moaning and whining from the Executive classes we heard 30 years ago. But, we already know how to fix the problem -- we've already done it 30 years ago, and have merely to releash the irresponsible bloviators who repudiated the fix in search of quick profits for a decade or so.

Andrew | Nov 27, 2008 | 2:28AM

'Light, small engine' are, of course, already available in Japan, Asia, Europe etc . Maybe not exactly as you describe above, but close. Not so sure Americans would snap them up though... They're small and cramped for passengers and luggage. Then there's the safety factor... you can use whatever space age materials (carbon fiber, aluminum etc) you like, but you're still going to get smashed into smithereens by anything with two to four times your mass hitting you at 50 mph. This wouldn't be a problem if most people drove small cars too, but US roadways are pretty much populated by big cars.

Suzuki Wagon-R owner

Ando | Nov 27, 2008 | 2:55AM

Historians will tell us in the future the real reason why GM-FORD and Chrysler went out of business tracing it's roots back 1945 after winning World War II trying to bring back Germany and Japan's economies. Well we did a Great Job!
In fact, we did such a fantastic job letting Germany and Japan flood our market with their cars
to bring back their economies that when GM FORD and Chysler go out of business in 2009 or 2010 Germany and Japan can Officially Declare that THEY WON WORLD WAR II

William R. Wiedow | Nov 27, 2008 | 3:16AM

How about the Aptera.

Light, cheap, efficient and inspired by aeroplane design.

martin | Nov 27, 2008 | 3:24AM

Hi Bob,

I haven't listened to the this week's column yet but I just want to say that that you'll be greatly missed.

I first watched you on Triumph of the Nerds in 1996, and I think it was that program along with my best friend Dudley who are responsible for my interest in computers. I've been reading/listening this column for 3 years and they really make my Monday.

A little bit of me died when you announced that the column would stop in December. I'll really miss the column - and especially your narrative style!

You're probably too much of a straight talker to become US CTO - you'd get fed up with all the compromises you'd have to make to get anything past the special interest lobbies.

So long and good luck.


Jamil | Nov 27, 2008 | 3:27AM

During the mid-seventies, I drove a 1966 Triumph Spitfire, which I inherited from my brother. It weighed about 1200 lbs, had a 65 hp engine, and got 30 mpg. It sat two (five with the top off and several friends with death wishes), and cost $6.50 to fill up in 1976. As a scrawny teenager, I could lift the rear end of the car off the ground.

It had another valuable feature, too. It, like many airplanes, required about eight hours of maintenance per hour of driving. Since I couldn't afford to pay anyone else to work on it, I did it all myself, and thus learned a great deal about auto maintenance, which served me well later in life. The electrical system was manufactured by Lucas, the founder of which was nicknamed "The Prince of Darkness." I went months push-starting it after the starter motor broke and I couldn't afford to replace it, which wasn't actually much hardship, since I could start it within about twenty feet of driveway.

When operating properly, it was an incredibly fun car to drive. As you noted, a high power-to-weight ratio made it very quick, and its turning radius allowed me to utilize parking places that were otherwise usable only by motorcycles. I would love to have another car like it, provided it was more reliable; I am not as flexible as I used to be.

philistine | Nov 27, 2008 | 3:31AM

additional comments:

re: cars becoming bigger / engines becoming bigger / and less fuel efficient.
An interesting question arises, as to why cars in europe on that basis usually became more fuel efficient and usually not (much) bigger.
VW Golf I (Rabbit), 1974, (1,1,l gasoline engine ~ 67 cu-in.) - 50hp - curb weight some 1900lbs
7l/100km ~ 35mpg (guesstimate; didn´t find exact numbers; besides test cycle changed in the meantime)

compared to:
VW Golf VI (Rabbit), 2008, (1,4,l gasoline engine ~ 85 cu-in.) - 80hp - curb weight some 2500lbs
6.4l/100km ~ 37mpg
(the 600 additional pounds com from more space, better crashtest compliance as well as lots of little (often electrical) "helpers" such as: ESP, ABS, drivers seat & steering wheel height adjustable, servo, centralized door locking, A/C, immobilizer system, 7 airbags (that´s all onboard on the cheapest configuration.)

As another point of reference:
"And the Green Car of the Year Is THE 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI."
the Jetta is the hatchback version of the Golf.

The 170hp Audi TT TDI (diesel) gets a test cycle fuel efficiency of 44mpg.

So, why did the US go one way whereas europe went a different way?

"The leaders of the Big Three U.S. car companies have about six weeks"
--> nope, more like 5 days: Dec 2nd is the due date.
I sure hope they had soemthing in some drawer all along, cause if these genius CEOs of those "shrunken" 3 start imagining something now, they´ll be fscked for sure.


matt | Nov 27, 2008 | 3:55AM

additional comments:

re: cars becoming bigger / engines becoming bigger / and less fuel efficient.
An interesting question arises, as to why cars in europe on that basis usually became more fuel efficient and usually not (much) bigger.
VW Golf I (Rabbit), 1974, (1,1,l gasoline engine ~ 67 cu-in.) - 50hp - curb weight some 1900lbs
7l/100km ~ 35mpg (guesstimate; didn´t find exact numbers; besides test cycle changed in the meantime)

compared to:
VW Golf VI (Rabbit), 2008, (1,4,l gasoline engine ~ 85 cu-in.) - 80hp - curb weight some 2500lbs
6.4l/100km ~ 37mpg
(the 600 additional pounds com from more space, better crashtest compliance as well as lots of little (often electrical) "helpers" such as: ESP, ABS, drivers seat & steering wheel height adjustable, servo, centralized door locking, A/C, immobilizer system, 7 airbags (that´s all onboard on the cheapest configuration.)

As another point of reference:
"And the Green Car of the Year Is THE 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI."
the Jetta is the hatchback version of the Golf.

The 170hp Audi TT TDI (diesel) gets a test cycle fuel efficiency of 44mpg.

So, why did the US go one way whereas europe went a different way?

"The leaders of the Big Three U.S. car companies have about six weeks"
--> nope, more like 5 days: Dec 2nd is the due date.
I sure hope they had soemthing in some drawer all along, cause if these genius CEOs of those "shrunken" 3 start imagining something now, they´ll be fscked for sure.


matt | Nov 27, 2008 | 3:56AM

sorry for the doule post, movable type told me the captcha didn´t work the first time so U ddn´t bother to first check comments before trying again

please delete one of comments 29 or 30

matt | Nov 27, 2008 | 3:59AM

Living in EU, I can only say that unfortunately European car makers are not much better than US. Yes, the safety measured by Euro NCAP goes up (Renault was the first company to achieve 5 stars across all model segments), but at the same time the cars are becoming bigger & heavier, with bigger, thirstier engines, more horsepower, etc.
Also nobody mentions Cd (coefficient of drag) anymore - GM's Opel Calibra (based on Vectra chassis - Saturn L in US) achieved a remarkable Cd 0f 0.26 in 1989 (took Honda Insight and Audi A2 10 years to beat this with a Cd of 0.25). Prius only now has a Cd of 0.26. Today, anything below 0.3 is "remarkable". Hell, with advances in CFD & computer power cars should be in the 0.1 region by now!
Also, there are many car brands but not so many companies in Europe. The biggest is VAG - Volkswagen AG, now mostly owned by much smaller Porsche (brands Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda, Seat, Lamborghini, Bugatti), second is French PSA (Peugeot, Citroen), third and forth are US companies - Ford (Ford, Volvo), GM (Opel, Saab), fifth is Renault (Renault, Dacia), sixth FIAT (Fiat, Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa, Lancia), then Mercedes, BMW,...

Roni | Nov 27, 2008 | 4:05AM

One difference between the EU and the US is the US sell products on engine size "This pickup has a V8" and sneer at small engines "that VW only has a 4 cylinder engine". But engine weight sucks up a lot of that power - the EU cars (including Saab, the GM subsidiary in Sweden) have embraced turbochargers. The VW Passat 1.8T I had in Oregon could do 35 mpg and yet overtake anything it needed to -and its engine didnt suffer at altitude.

The customers need to embrace small engines when they shop -and the big 3 need to stop selling as if V6 or V8 engines were a good idea.

SteveL | Nov 27, 2008 | 4:13AM

regarding the smart 4two

the Volkswagen Fox (not sold in the US)
has a much higher weight (2200lbs)
a "real" 4cyl engine (i.e., longer motor life, less vibrations)
and gets 35 mpg at least (and has 4 seats)
pricing; 9,500€ list in germany (tax included); a 500 - 1,000 € rebate should be easily obtainable (especially in today´s economy).

@Erica | Nov 27, 2008 | 4:13AM

are you sure you get it, bob? the days of cruising (and speeding) are over. your generation, despite your self-deluded sense of mission, are now part of the problem.

screw the big 3, screw the automobile. throw the stimulus into a massive public transporation project, something that will create thousands and thousands of jobs in lots of different sectors, and finally give this car-crazy country a real alternative. if that seems too emasculating for you, too bad. your 140 mph aluminum penis is certainly no solution to our problems--which detroit helped cause.

zoe | Nov 27, 2008 | 4:27AM

Bob: Good clear thinking. Probably too radical for the US Big 3 to accept. I predict the decline to be like the UK auto industry in the 70's and 80's. I lived through it. Strikes, government support, rubbish cars, eventually broken up and sold. Rover, anyone?

I watched in disbelief as the 3 CEOs sheepishly admitted to flying in private jets to Washington. I thought to myself, why did they not drive to Washington using their own products? I imagined a cavalcade of GM cars, picking up owners of classic cars they loved to join the convey led by the bosses on a historic drive to the capital to save the factories. An "all-nighter", fuelled by cigarettes and coffee, evoking the American frontier spirit, with the management arriving bleary-eyed, but proud of the cars that got the there on time for the meeting, with a couple of hitch-hikers along for the ride... But no. They looked like schoolboys knowing that the headmaster had found the incriminating evidence. What a lost opportunity.

Have they never seen the Ealing comedy films like the Titfield Thunderbolt? Making PR gaffes like that is bound to mean early extinction.

Adam D | Nov 27, 2008 | 4:28AM


please read up on "drag coefficient" on wikipedia:

there´s even a nice list of comparable drag coefficients:

0.1 smooth sphere
0.11 Aptera Typ-1
0.18 Mercedes-Benz T80
0.19 GM EV1
0.25 Audi A2 1.2TDI, Honda Insight
0.26 1989 Opel Calibra, 2008 Toyota Prius

you don´t want to ride n a smooth sphere, dontcha?

OTOH, the aptera is almost there, but that´s a hell of a small car, especially on the inside. To decently compare a typical current sedan (i.e. the an Audi A4, or the aforementioned VW Jetta) that seat 5 people w/o problems or 4 really comfortably, I´d like to see a 5 seater aptera model with comparable storage. - I´quite sure the cd would approach 0.2 easily...

matt | Nov 27, 2008 | 4:32AM

I agree with StevL. When I was in the US last year I hired a Dodge. I can't remember what model exactly but I think it was the next one down from the Charger. It was about equivalent of a Vauxhall Vectra but the engine really sucked - no power at all. If cars in the US were smaller and with small but powerful engines and the handling was tightened up to make the cars more exciting to drive then maybe people would stop buying V8s. I noticed plenty of BMWs and Volvos when I was there though.

Andy K | Nov 27, 2008 | 4:51AM

Audi is a company that operates from the same basic ideas as the Big Three in Detroit, although a bit more high tech, maybe. Except for two cars: the A8 and the A2. They are really different. Both manufactured in the same plant and almost entirely built of aluminum. The A8 is proof that it's very possible to build a luxury sedan that weighs in at less than 2 tonnes, but the A2 is the car that Bob refers to in this essay. It came out as a niche product in 2000, but the market simply wasn't ready at that time. They ended the car in 2005, after sales of only 175.000. People didn't understand why this car was relatively small and expensive at the same time.

It weighs in at less than 2000 lb, has a really small engine (because that's enough to make it go over 100 mph), very low drag numbers and incredible mileage. The most efficient one was the 1.2 TDI which ran 78 mpg. And it seats four people. Just this week I read an editorial that if Audi should decide to restart the production of this car, it would sell huge numbers. So Bob, have a look at Audi's take on your DA-2A car. It's all over the web.

Pierre | Nov 27, 2008 | 5:16AM

Bob: "Driven only 20 percent over posted speed limits as God intended".
Two years ago, I was driving like that with a VW Golf GTI with a chipped VR6, Bilstein/Shine suspension, etc,etc. Wonderful car and engine (2nd gear 10MPH/1KRPM, 7K redline=70MPH). Then a deer and my insurance company totalled it.
The Peak-Oil handwriting was on the wall, so I got a used 2003 Jetta TDI Diesel (with only 10K on it) and now I drive for MPG performance: slow and gentle. On Interstate, the speed-cube drag is a killer: I can only get 55MPG and that's at 50MPH with everything passing me. At home in the country, my 8 mile commute I do at 35-45MPH and get 65 to 80 MPG...driving at idle. My *worst* MPG is highway. I'm using the Scan-Gauge II to maximize my hyper-miling:

America could double its MPG if it would just chill out and slow down. And now that I'm no longer racing to the red light and playing Monte Carlo Rallye on the West Side Highway, I relax and look at the world around me a whole lot more....and take maybe 10-15% longer to get there.
But like you say, America views the aggressive, lead-foot race as God-intended. It's the only natural way to drive, just as an SUV is the only natural vehicle to drive........
Oh, and Bob...I grew up driving Bugattis and a Maserati....look at the link

Stewart Dean | Nov 27, 2008 | 6:01AM

i still own a 1993 renault clio williams. it is the sport version of a small french hatchback. 147bhp per 2000 pounds empty weight make for a very nice car to drive and 37MPG. the 2007 version of the clio weights 650 pounts more....

gianmarco | Nov 27, 2008 | 6:17AM

well, I don't know a single car buyer who has worried about or even calculated the per pound price of his car. The comparison to bicycles is even stranger, since there every serious buyer knows that less is more, is willing to pay large sums for every pound less. Finally, have a look at the profit margins of the Dacia Logan (that are much higher than those for other Renault vehicles)... yes, absolutely Renault is still going to make more from one large sedan than from one Dacia, but the numbers for small cars are simply much larger.

Valentin | Nov 27, 2008 | 7:13AM

Mazda M5 Miata - Fun - Safe at 20% - 30 MPG Highway - Hard Top - Lasts 300k - If only it had AWD for the midwest snow & ice.

Dave Ziegler | Nov 27, 2008 | 7:17AM

Detroit has ignored the issue for 35+ years. They think that because some people want fast, powerful cars all consumers want them. They've never really built a high mileage car to go head to head with the high performance cars they are making now.

In this day and age, to admit that your best effort at a high mileage car is one that gets 39MPG is laughable. (In 40 years of computer innovation, they've improved almost an incalculable amount.) And the really sad part is that Detroit continues to ignore innovative technologies that could produce cars that could get 75+MPG. I don't work for AFS Trinity ( but I wish I did. They make a system that could be added to any hybrid that would enable it to get as much as 150MPG. In my personal case, I wouldn't even use any gas with one of these cars since my commute is only 8.5 miles each way.

The Detroit CEO's should be canned for more basic reasons- inability to foster innovation within their organizations.

Rod | Nov 27, 2008 | 8:03AM

Detroit has ignored the issue for 35+ years. They think that because some people want fast, powerful cars all consumers want them. They've never really built a high mileage car to go head to head with the high performance cars they are making now.

In this day and age, to admit that your best effort at a high mileage car is one that gets 39MPG is laughable. (In 40 years of computer innovation, they've improved almost an incalculable amount.) And the really sad part is that Detroit continues to ignore innovative technologies that could produce cars that could get 75+MPG. I don't work for AFS Trinity ( but I wish I did. They make a system that could be added to any hybrid that would enable it to get as much as 150MPG. In my personal case, I wouldn't even use any gas with one of these cars since my commute is only 8.5 miles each way.

The Detroit CEO's should be canned for more basic reasons- inability to foster innovation within their organizations.

Rod | Nov 27, 2008 | 8:05AM

You are thinking like an automotive enthusiast, not the car consuming general public. Two years ago a female friend needed a new car to get to her new job at a local hospital, no more than a daily 15 mile round trip. She got the BIGGEST GM SUV she could find on the lot, because in her words, she wanted to be "safe". She died last summer in a motorcycle accident (she was driving the motorcycle). I like to know where the "facts" brought up on enrichening the air/fuel ratio of cars with catalytic converters came from. Maybe in the warmup cycle or WOT, but during closed loop I would think the closer to 15:1 the better. My 1995 4.6 V8 powered Ford Thunderbird LX will get 29mpg on the highway at 60 mph. People have to slow down. Perception is reality, as long as people think USA branded cars are garbage even the good ones will rust on the lot, no matter how cheap per pound they are offered to the masses.

Steve Stone | Nov 27, 2008 | 8:19AM

Up in New England, I drive a BMW 1200LT motorcycle from March to October. Two seats and storage. So what if I get wet occasionally?

Two new transportation companies I am keeping an eye on. Both are vieing for the 100 MPG X-Prize contest.

The Venture One:

The Aptera:

I always thought that the auto makers would buy one of these guys, maybe it'll be the other way around.

Dave | Nov 27, 2008 | 8:25AM

Your Olds "managed to average 18 miles per gallon in an era when gasoline cost 35 cents" because during that era we cared even less about emissions than we did about the price of fuel.

The Misanthrope | Nov 27, 2008 | 8:27AM

The car design you describe comes pretty close to Daimler's Smart Fortwo that entered the American car market just this year. Mine gets 37-40 mpg on my daily city commute to work. Higher on the highway which I keep it under 70 mph. The Smart is quite popular in Europe for obvious reasons. The U.S. just needs to wise up and catch up.

Jerry | Nov 27, 2008 | 8:59AM

Do any of these names mean anything to you: Mike Ruppert, Matt Savinar, Matt Simmons, Richard Heinberg, James Howard Kunstler ... ?

They should, but I gather they don't. Sure, the regulatory environment and market culture disincentivised efficiency, and we Europeans have long scorned American cars for this and other reasons (heck, a Jaguar typically gets about twice the horsepower per engine litre than an otherwise comprable American model), but the whole industry revolves around a car culture that is (and I baulk at using such a politically loaded word) unsustainable.

Public transport has suffered dismally under neoliberal economics, suburban planning has ingrained car culture into many people's lifestyles, yet filling the roads with private cars was never socially, environmentally, or even economically sensible in the long term.

Aside from a future with drastically less abundant energy (the IEA recently forecast 8% annual declines in oil supplies starting basically now, and conventional production seems to have peaked in 2005) the depression we're facing will slash disposable income and expensive driving habits are already melting away.

The car industry as we know it ought not to survive.

Embrace the creative destruction.

Guadra | Nov 27, 2008 | 9:27AM

Bob, I hate to say it but this has to be one of the silliest columns you've written in a while.

1. What makes you think the auto company CEOs are toast? If the boards haven't pulled them by now, why would they do so if the companies manage to survive?

2. If making agreements that contributed to their employers' obsolescence is "good negotiating" then, certainly, the unions bear no responsibility for the failings of the "Big Three."

3. Perhaps you consider the idea of a small two-seater dodging its way between SUVs and semis on a slush-covered highway in winter "exciting." I think you'd find few people in agreement. I rolled my eyes at the scare tactics which Detroit used to use during their self-destructive campaigns against raising CAFE standards; obviously safety is possible without driving a giant, lumbering SUV... but it's also possible to go overboard in the opposite direction.

Your suggestion that our government contract Detroit to build a fleet of Priuses (Prii?), from a year or so back, was genius compared to this new effort.

I'm sad to see your column ending, but I hope it will finish stronger than this.

Matt K | Nov 27, 2008 | 9:38AM

Whoops, just checked my own facts -- scrap the peaking in 2005 line, world crude (ignore the "liquids" chard) just exceeded that the last couple of months.

Sloppy of me, but not that suprising -- peak oil isn't neat and tidy. Include "bumpy plateau" in your Googles.

Guadra | Nov 27, 2008 | 9:41AM

GM needs to die. The last thing on this planet that we need is the US government propping up a failed business model (you get more of what you subsidize), with my tax money.

Propping up a failure like GM just postpones the inevitable, and increases both the number of people hurt and the severity of the pain.

TX CHL Instructor | Nov 27, 2008 | 9:47AM

A lot of people believe that the safety issue with smaller vehicles is due to the vehicles themselves.

It's not. The safety problem comes from sharing the road with larger vehicles. It's simply a question of mass. Large vehicle collides with smaller vehicle = smaller vehicle smashed. This is the argument that detroit has sold us in regards to 'safety' - you will be 'safer' in the bigger vehicle, but only until you hit a semi truck.

Now, that said, a freeway of small 2-seater cars and motorcycles would not be 'safer' than one filled with SUV's - after all it always comes down to the skill and attentiveness of the drivers - but to the one person in an Aptera or a Carver or on a motorbike, surrounded by SUV's and semi-pickups like the CTX, the freeway is a VERY unsafe place. If we remove all the big vehicles (except for the ones that are necessary for hauling cargo or passengers such as city buses) then the quick light nimble nature of the smaller vehicles SHOULD reduce congestion a bit, as well as wear and tear on the road itself. As long as everyone's adhering to a sane sensible speed, and not distracted by their makeup, children, or their GPS, then it should be, dare we say it? FUN to drive to work.

Plus the increased power:weight ratios would mean smaller engines needed, less gas consumed, and higher gas mileage; less curb weight would mean lower infrastructure maintenance costs. Also, parking a small 2-seater vehicle or a motorcycle takes less space than a Suburban, so we can cram more into parking garages, as well as take less 'space' while driving. Ever see a bike 'split-laning' or two riders sharing a lane? You can't do that with a Hummer. More vehicles in the same amount of freeway = less freeway 'blocked up' during a traffic jam.

The safety argument around motorcycles always seems to come up. The answer is twofold: rider training, and sensible safety gear such as jackets, helmets, boots, and gloves. In MOST instances where a rider is killed or severely injured, one of two things is likely to be the cause: 1) the bike collided with a larger vehicle, most times because the driver of the larger vehicle did not see the rider, or 2) the rider was riding WAY beyond their skill level and collided with either another vehicle or a stationary object. Scenario 1 can be alleviated with rider training and driver awareness (Share the Road) and Scenario 2 is strictly rider training and self-control.

Small vehicles give up safety in structural mass, but gain safety in agility, IF the operator is trained to use it. Often the training of "aggressive vigilance" put forth in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation classes pays off in that riding is more than just point A to point B transit. The operator is actively involved, 'one with the vehicle', and reaches a state of mind that is almost meditative. And it's FUN.

The Vandenbrink Carver One

Venture Vehicles VentureOne

The Ride To Work Day Transportation Fact Sheet (PDF)

George | Nov 27, 2008 | 9:49AM

The issue of weight & power you describe is an exact parallel to the classic English performance roadsters. Not massive power. Just keep it light and agile. Lotus is the quintessential example of this, and seems to be gaining ground again since the introduction of Elise a few years ago.

Michael Graves | Nov 27, 2008 | 10:07AM

'CNN Headline News did a short news listing regarding Ford and GM's contributions to the relief and recovery efforts in New York and Washington.

The findings are as follows.....

1. Ford- $10 million to American Red Cross matching employee contributions of the same number plus 10 Excursions to NY Fire Dept. The company also offered ER response team services and office space to displaced government employees.

2. GM- $10 million to American Red Cross matching employee contributions of the sam e number and a fleet of vans, suv's, and trucks.

3. Daimler Chrysler- $10 million to support of the children and victims of the Sept. 11 attack.

4. Harley Davidson motorcycles- $1 million and 30 new motorcycles to the
New York Police Dept.

5. Volkswagen-Employees and management created a Sept 11 Foundation,
funded initial with $2 million, for the assistance of the children and victims of the WTC.

6. Hyundai- $300,000 to the American Red Cross.

7. Audi-Nothing.

8. BMW-Nothing.

9. Daewoo- Nothing.

10. Fiat-Nothing.

11. Honda- Nothing despite boasting of second best sales month ever in
August 2001

12. Isuzu- Nothing.

13. Mitsubishi-Nothing.

14. Nissan-Nothing.

15. Porsche-Nothing. Press release with condolences via the Porsche website.

16. Subaru- Nothing.

17. Suzuki- Nothing.

18. Toyota-Nothing despite claims of high sales in July and August 2001.

Condolences posted on the website
Whenever the time may be for you to purchase or lease a new vehicle, keep this information in mind. You might want to give more consideration to a car manufactured by an American-owned and / or American based company. Apart from Hyundai and Volkswagen, the foreign car companies contributed nothing at all to the citizens of the United States ...
It's OK for these companies to take money out of this country, but it is apparently not acceptable to return some in a time of crisis. I believe we should not forget things like this. Say thank you in a way that gets their attention..

Jeff | Nov 27, 2008 | 10:07AM

A slight flaw in your thesis: People are willing to pay a lot of money for cars not produced in Detroit.

I have a VW Passat. It has a 1.4 liter engine which comes to about 80 cubic inches. The last American car I owned was a 1972 Buick LaSabre with a 350 cubic inch engine -- and that was the small engine that came with that car.

I have 1/2 the cylinders of that Buick and probably about 1/2 the weight too. But, I really like this car. It is big enough for my family of five, high performance, yet, I still can get about 32 mpg even when I am barreling down the Turnpike way above the posted speed limit. It is fun to drive. Why can't Detroit build something like this?

The rest of my extended family all drive Toyota Camrys, Even my parents who use to buy Buick after Buick. Why? Because Toyotas are well put together and reasonably priced.

What was Detroit's hot car? The Hummer. A car based upon the Chevy Suburban and was awful both on and off road. No sane off roader would think of buying a Hummer. They'd buy a Toyota F1 instead.

My theory of what happened to Detroit is what happened to the American TV industry, the American white appliance industry, and the American tool die industry: They really don't like competing with other companies.

When I was a kid, there were many big name American television brands: Zeinith, Motorola, Magnavox, GE, RCA. Most simply quit making consumer electronics because they could make more money building stuff for the Pentagon. They took a hit when Japanese TVs first came to this country, but instead of buckling down and building better stuff, they simply left the market.

Our auto industry did the same thing. When VW first came over, Detroit got out of the small, cheap car market. When Toyota and Honda came over, they didn't care because they were only making small cars. As Toyota and Honda built bigger cars, Detroit concentrated on making even bigger cars.

Soon, foreign companies built cars from sub-compact to family sedans, and GM and Ford simply ignored those markets. Instead, they concentrated on the truck market and the SUV market.

Tell me one decent car made by the big three that can compete against a Toyota or Honda car? The Chevy Malibu? The Ford Taurus. Heck, does Ford make a Taurus still? I think they just came out with a new one last year after a decade of hiatus.

Look at fit and finish. For the past two decades, maybe longer, GM cars were berated because their dashboards were composed of cheap shiny plastic and had big gaps in them. So, is a Toyota dashboard made from exotic hardwoods, or somehow can Toyota take the same cheap plastic and make it look nicer? It isn't that Detroit can't make decent cars, they simply didn't because they'd rather not compete.

I also don't believe that the consumer truck market simply was a stroke of luck for Detroit. They actively created it. People wouldn't buy trucks if they didn't have 18 speaker Bose speaker stereos, automatic climate control, and leather seats. I use to drive a Ford trunk back in the 1970s, and I would never have bought one unless I really, really needed a pickup truck.

I am convinced that Detroit would have left the automobile industry long ago if they could take the safe haven of building vehicles just for the military -- just like almost all the other American industrial base did.

Maybe that's our problem. Our overly large military industry gave our companies a safe haven away from the tough world of consumer competition. After all, Japan and Germany have no real military to speak of. If you were a German or Japanese company, you had to build what the civilian population wanted to buy and not what your military would buy.

As for what to do with Detroit, I have no idea. Bankruptcy is not an option. First of all, no one will buy a car from a company that's bankrupt. And second of all, banks aren't lending money to healthy companies. Do you think they'll lend the DIP financing needed to get GM, Ford, and Chrysler out of bankruptcy? At the same time, allowing these companies to fail will have a similar effect allowing Lehman Brothers to fail. We don't want to go there.

Maybe our best bet is to get Indian or Chinese auto companies investing in the big three. They want to get into the American market, and what better way than a strategic partnership with the Big Three?

David W. | Nov 27, 2008 | 10:49AM

The list is not accurate. See Snopes.

Dee Bunker | Nov 27, 2008 | 10:53AM

Yesterday I came upon Phoenix Motorcars, an outfit building an all electric pickup and SUV. Intrigueing, but I suspect it will be way out of my budget, even if the separate sale of carbon credits substantialy subsidises the cost.

The vehicle I want is an upgrade of something that was available in '70s: A Toyota mini-pickup with the engine and transmission upgraded to what they build today. Maybe even a hybrid, but a pickup with an empty weight of a ton or less and an engine of the same horsepower with modern efficiency and a 5 or 6 speed transmission would probably make upwards of 40 MPG with a purely conventional power train, never mind what it would do with hybrid technology.

So many of the present high fuel efficiency cars are unsuitable for the roads I drive: 10+ miles of unpaved roads a day will destroy the low profile tires on so many high MPG cars. . . I doubt if the tires on a Smart car would last a week on those roads.

John L. | Nov 27, 2008 | 10:59AM

I much prefer lighter, agile vehicles, at least as safe as an intelligently operated motorcycle, for getting around town. My 1300 lb Honda AN 600 was delightful, fuel efficient for my purpose, kept me dry in the rain, and reasonable warm in the cold. For a little more style, comfort, and similar utility, sign me up for a Suzuki Cappuccino (not legal at present in US).
I'd very much like to buy American if they'd build anything like it. One problem, though, is the memory of living near Detroit in the early seventies, and talking to neighbors that worked for American car companies. Some were adamant that we should buy American cars, never mind how appealing the seemingly well built, and very affordable, Datsun 240Z and 510 were. They complimented me on my purchase of a Vega, and, after a few beers, told me how their coworkers sabotaged cars on the assembly lines. I still haven't bought another new American car, unless you count the Chevy Sprint.
So far, we've bought 1 new American car, 3 new captive imports, 19 used American cars, 15 used foreign cars (including Austin-Healy, MG, Opal, Datsun/Nissan, Honda, and Toyota). The best deal, for my money, has been the Geo Metro I bought new in 1994 and I use for 95% of my driving. I have been able to get up to 62.5 mpg when the uncontrolled rise in fuel prices persuaded me to do so. Though I am willing to buy American cars that come anywhere near the Geo's fuel efficiency, my wife doesn't like the interiors and still remembers the American auto workers that sabotaged their own companies' products.

Jim Young | Nov 27, 2008 | 11:27AM


Your comparison of cars to your Davis misses quite a few requirements. Is your Davis rated for inclement weather? Night travel? Does it keep the occupants comfortable in 120+ degree heat, and -40 degree cold? Would your 625 lb automotive version meet the various extensive federal regulations around emissions? Or safety? And would it do so while comfortably transporting a family of four, and their luggage?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending the car companies by any stretch of the imagination. GM, Ford, and Chrysler have dug themselves into this hole. They built cars that did not compete on quality, squandering their reputations. Today's cars may be better, but reputations take time to repair. They failed to invest in fuels efficient designs when times were good. They've stuck with construction methodologies that worked in the '60s but don't compete on today's stage.

Today we own a Nissan Altima and a Suburban. The Altima has a powerful V6, is fast, handles nicely, and hauls the three of us, and our stuff around, all while getting 28-30mpg on the highway. The Suburban gets me 9 miles down the road to the bus stop, and pulls my boat better than my Jeep or Travelall (remember those?) ever did. It's not the vehicle I'd prefer to drive, but sometimes you need a truck.

If one of the Big 3 could build a car that could compete with the 1988 Jetta I had I'd be interested. That little car got 32mpg at a steady 80mph. It easily accommodated four people and their luggage. It was quick. It was nimble. It had excellent fit-and-finish. It didn't break. It was one of the best cars I ever owned, and I wish I still had it. It would be 20 years old, and still better than most of what is rolling out of Detroit. 20 years, and they haven't yet caught up.

It's why we have an Altima.

Dave | Nov 27, 2008 | 11:41AM

One auto maker (not in Detroit, but California )has adapted airplane design to an automobile. Check out the Aptera Typ1 at: It is being made as a plug-in electric and as a hybrid. Light weight with composite materials and the lowest co-efficient of drag give it 100 MPG. It is also safe, and about the coolest looking car yet!

Paul Gillet | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:07PM

While I agree with most of what is said in this article, what's missing is the volume of car/model selections that also drive up costs. This is simple. All U.S. car manufacturers have to STOP producing a zillion different cars! They should looke at the VERY successful In&Out Burger chain model (a CA, NV, AZ burger chain). They only sell burgers, fries and drinks. Period. They do a high quality, fresh product business extremely well and very profitably. Why can't Detroit scale back the dozens of models and do a FEW very efficiently! It would drive down their costs and provide better cars at a more affordable price to the public.

Jackie White | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:18PM

My Smart Roadster is close (although still twice as heavy), getting 81 hp in 1742 lb, with a turbocharged 698CC 3-cylinder Suprex engine in the rear. Fuel consumption is in the high 40s or low 50s miles per Imperial gallon according to wikipedia (I haven't measured mine, but I don't have to fill it up very often...). The only pity is that it was never a commercial success, and not sold in the US. Fantastic car though. Andy.

Andy Bryant | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:24PM

Check out the research safety vehicle. These were produced decades ago, got great mileage, were light and safety. Unfortunately, the Reagan administration destroyed all of them.

Go to this page: and scroll down to the Research Safety Vehicle.

Anthony | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:30PM

Make the DA-2A all electric and you can sign me up.

Buzz | Nov 27, 2008 | 12:57PM

Check this out - less then 1500 pounds. 10K for a 125 mph vehicle 25K for a 225 mph plugin hybrid and it looks like a sports car!

E_Recon | Nov 27, 2008 | 1:19PM

This is the only car my father ever bought 'new': Saab 96. He bought a 4-stroke V4 in late 1967, and then as the car aged and parts became rarer, began to purchase 'parts cars' to strip for parts. In 1984 he found another 96 that had a screwed-up transmission, but the body had never been driven on salted roads, so it had no corrosion damage - that was used as a donor body to put the original 'car' into.

In 2005, the car was still running, and only needed a radiator acid flush to clear out nearly 40 years worth of hard water deposits.

Now... why would an offbeat Swedish car be that reliable, when other cars we owned lasted at most 4-5 years?

Saab (and other Swedish automakers) built their cars to last, because the reg costs for newly purchased vehicles were prohibitively expensive. These companies knew that people wouldn't 'buy new cars' until the old vehicles were driven into the ground - the US concept of 'trading up' wasn't an option. You bought what you needed and you drove it, end of story.

Detroit wouldn't survive on this sales model, so instead of building reliable cars and then cranking out a heavy parts market, they build 'disposable' cars that barely outlast the financing. And thus, when people cannot afford to buy new cars every other year, they go under.

GM: Sell Saab back to Scandia Motors. They knew (and still know) how to build good cars. I don't want a GM car with a Saab marque tacked on the hood - besides, it'd fall off.

George | Nov 27, 2008 | 1:32PM


Yet another great article. Interesting perspective and well written.

IMHO here's what the car companies can also do:

1) Personalize cars. Why not let people put their favorite picture on their roof (like Cooper). It's kind of like the Web 2.0; and
2) Eliminate the Dealer. My friend wanted to buy a Ford Mustang, but had to wait 3 months for Ford to deliver. I'm a novice, but it seems like they could use UPS to deliver the car and let people design it on the internet. Then just have approved garages.

Alex Birch | Nov 27, 2008 | 2:00PM

A simplistic view on manufacturing from someone that has never done it.
Until you take a product from conception, to "on the street," you shouldn't be so quick to condemn the manufacturers.
As someone that has done this, multiple times, I can tell you it's not as easy as you "armchair Manufacturers" think it is.
Try doing it sometime, on your own, without the benefit of the "public financial safety net."

Then come back to me with an opinion.

Eric J White | Nov 27, 2008 | 3:19PM

Very good article Robert.

I would like to have your (and everybody) feedbacks about letting dye one (or more) of the big three. I agree with many posts that giving billions to the OEM would be a waste of taxpayer money. But we have to protect the Supply chain. All the major Tier1 have Accounts receivable and banking debts base on their Open POs with the OEMs. If Magna or Delphi or Continental is going bankrupt because of BM Bankrupt, then some the supply chain might become frozen (just in time...) and impacting good OEMs.

I think that the Billions$ should aim backing the loans to the supply chain ONLY and let dye the bad OEMs.

What do you think??

Also : A very good article for electric car of the future.

Alain | Nov 27, 2008 | 3:49PM

Um be careful quoting safety research - they often look at the overall result from a collision between an SUV and a small car. The SUV passenger is generally better off in an accident.
Also the comparison between flying and motoring is not a good one. Most parts of a flight are uninterrupted at cruise speed with the engine at 80-100% throttle. Driving needs power to react to varying circumstances and you are generally using 10-30% of available power. I would not want to try an overtaking maneuvre using a 85 horsepower motor.

But fresh thinking is definitely needed.

Davd NZ | Nov 27, 2008 | 4:24PM

I had forgotten that you were a pilot too, Bob. Great article. It reminded me about the Davis DA-2A, and how I always admired the one called "Tin Turkey" that attended the fly-in in Arlington, WA, every year as I was growing up. I wonder where that airplane is now?

I notice that there's a DA-2A for sale on Barnstormers right now. If it could keep up with the RV crowd, I'd seriously consider it...

Rob P | Nov 27, 2008 | 6:37PM

Hi Bob,

The rest of the world has been driving the cars you describe for 50+ years. Nature will eventually take it's course, exactly as it did with the British car and motorcycle manufacturers. What manufacurers? Exactly!

Martin | Nov 27, 2008 | 7:42PM

Imagine if aliens came by 650 million years ago and decided to "bail out" the dinosaurs. Homo sapiens may never got the chance to climb out from under the rock. My first car was my dad's hand-me-down 73 Pontiac Le Mans and have been driving a V8 ever since. My favorite car of all time is the Ford Mustang Mach II. If I can afford it - which I cannot - I'd own a Corvette. My last car was a Chevy 1/2 ton. Not only did the interior decal started falling less than 1 year after I bought it brand new, the truck had major problems (some impossible even for the dealer to diagnose) throughout its life. My current Toyota Tundra is paid off and had not one single major or minor issue for 6 years. If Detroit built cars people really wanted, people will buy them. Just like Apple electronics. For the same reason I'd rather pay for a more expensive Mac and will never ever own a HP or Sony again.

deanston | Nov 27, 2008 | 8:54PM

No, sorry. While the article is entertaining as always, this is not why US car manufacturers have failed miserably.

It's simply because they build crap cars. Poor products equals poor sales equals losses. US built cars are worse quality, less technologically advanced AND are far less environmentally sound than japanese or european cars. That's all.

Detroit refused to adapt. It's pure Darwinism in action.

Steve D | Nov 27, 2008 | 9:03PM

Your 625-lb. car is too light: one thing we demand of our cars is that you have some prayer of surviving a crash against an older, heavier car.
I recommend another car design from an aircraft manufacturer: the Saab 96.
This car weighed 2000 pounds full of gas, had a drag coefficient of 0.32, and was originally sold with a 40-horsepower 2-cycle engine; they later upgraded the engine to a 65-horsepower Ford V4. In that configuration, it was manufactured and sold until 1980. It was one of the toughest, stiffest and safest cars of its size ever built: it was famous for winning off-road rallies against competition with five times the horsepower.
Despite its size and weight, it was extremely safe. It cost more to make them than similar sized cars because the steel was carefully folded and welded to achieve its extreme rigidity and safety.
My father and I worked on those old Saabs, and we used to soup up the engines to about 125 hp... this would make the car downright fast without sacrificing fuel mileage. Even with those old motors, 4-speed gearboxes, and bias-ply tires, they achieved 30+ miles per gallon. If you resurrected the Saab 96 with a modern 120-horsepower fuel-injected engine, a six-speed transaxle, and low-friction wheel bearings and tires, you could easily get 45 + mpg... and look cool & retro doing it!

Bob | Nov 27, 2008 | 9:54PM

well lets see have you ever noticed that parts for our cars and trucks don't last as long as they once did .
I make parts for the big three all they care about is cost of the part not if the part will stand up at one time we installed brass bushings in all door hinges now they want cheap ones that may only last as long as the warranty all to save 3to 7 cents per part and do not pass that savings on to us .
Better yet the big three out source off shore work to people that do not buy the cars and then put us out of work .The big three need to start to think use their heads make the smaller car or truck and start to use the diesel engine in more of their products the newer diesel are much better now then gas is at this time and yes Leeon Davis would have given the big three a bigger push in the right direction

My 2 cents

John | Nov 27, 2008 | 11:07PM

Bob, I have to agree with Steve D. The US car industry has failed because they make crappy products. The quality of Japanese cars is way higher.

It will be a painful transition, but it will be overall better for everyone on the planet (and the planet itself) if US car manufacturers are allowed to fail.

Damien | Nov 28, 2008 | 12:14AM

RE: Jeff "'CNN Headline News did a short news listing regarding Ford and GM's contributions to the relief and recovery efforts in New York and Washington."


What has one thing to do with the other?!?

When terror stroke here in Madrid on march 11 2004, I didn´t see Chrysler (who sells tons of Voyagers and Commander over here) running to donate millions...
(And I don´t really care, why should they?)

Now, if a local, national company wants to use the "event" to do some low level PR (eventually the "good deed" seeps through) so be it. But why the hell should any company the sells goods in a different country support terror victims?? - There´s no obligation nor correlation nor causation whatsoever...


matt | Nov 28, 2008 | 4:01AM

Never mind the Smart, VW currently sells the Polo Blue Motion in Europe. This has a 1.4 TDI engine and does 57.6 mpg(urban), 88.3 mpg(extra-urban) and 74.8 mpg(combined). (Note: the mpg figures are Imperial gallons, rather than US). This car is considerably cheaper and more efficient than the Prius. Why do models like this never get sold in the US.

VW just announced a new car called the Chico, which will be released in 2011 - over 140mpg !!! They're also going to sell an EV/Hydrogen version.

Further details:

Tim L | Nov 28, 2008 | 5:12AM

There is a reason for cars getting heavier though. It's called security. Reinforcing beams, shatter-proof glass, Airbags etc.

I'd rather pay more per pound and per gallon than pay with my life.

Same analogy as you used Bob. Crash your model plane and see why we like the heavy features of the cars.

Charlie Mason | Nov 28, 2008 | 6:40AM

The Detroit car makers understand your point perfectly well. They (at least, GM and Ford) make small, light, economical cars and sell them, very profitably. The just do it in a place called "Europe".
European manufactures - eg Peugeot Citroen - lost a lot of money trying to sell small light European cars in the United States - only Volkswagen succeeded, 40 years ago. Mercedes does not sell the small engine models of even its E series cars in the United States. Quite simply, it's not the car makers, it's the American public with its obsession with buying lots of metal.

Philip | Nov 28, 2008 | 6:43AM

"Driven only 20 percent over posted speed limits as God intended..."

Amen, brother!

Andrew | Nov 28, 2008 | 10:00AM

Bob's right: it's the cars, stupid! I'd love to spend my automotive dollar right here in the good ol' USA, but life's too short to drive Detroit junk. Everyone's fixated on mileage these days, everyone except Detroit, that is. But how 'bout lousy performance (go, stop, and handling)? And crappy fit'n'finish? And noisy interiors dressed out in cheap looking plastic? The final nail in the coffin is poor reliability and the high number of as delivered defects (see Consumer Reports and JD Powers). Sorry Big 3. I'm sticking with Japanese and German cars until your ratings improve!

Life's Too Short | Nov 28, 2008 | 10:12AM

I think the issue primarily is the price of gas and perhaps to a lesser extent the higher disposable income of the average American.

For the last 20 or so years the public has generally voted for lower taxes including very low fuel taxes.

As to why cars weigh so much, I argue it is the same trend in American restaurants. They make more money by putting more pounds of lower quality food on the plate. Operational costs drop per pound, the public thinks they "got a deal" and the operator laughs all the way to the bank.

America attempted to get "quality" religion from the Japaneese 20 years ago but failed because the public doesn't value quality.

Eric | Nov 28, 2008 | 10:20AM

Thanks for the great article refering to my dad. He often talked about building a better lighter car but there was never enough time to build all the airplanes he designed. As SUVs have proven bigger and heavier doesnt mean safer. You can be light and small and safe. His philosophy on emmisions was the less gas you burn the less pollution. Concentrate on efficiency and you will lower emmisions and our dependancy on foreign oil. I drive a 1988 Honda CRX which gets better milage than any car sold in America today. It is 20 years old and has a tire engine and the best cars on the road today cant beat it. This is not progress it is stupidity. With the technology we have there should be small cars getting 75 MPG and full size cars and small SUVs should be getting 40 MPG. There are many cars on the market that still dont get over 20. I have delivery trucks that get 8 MPG and they gross 80,000lbs and there is nothing about them that is streamlined. If it were not for the invasion of foreign cars in the 70s the US Big 3 would still get 18 MPG. They have yet to really compete with the foreign cars on mileage or quality for a small car. In large cars and trucks the USA may still lead but I doubt it will last long. The Big 3 aircraft companies are virtually non existant. They peaked in about 1978 or 79 and crashed in about 1980. It has been down hill ever since. There are over 10 small airplanes built in private garages for every one built Cessna Piper and Beech. I think the US car companies will eventually be replace by foreign cars completely. Hopefully most of them will be US built creating US jobs but the profits will still be sent to Japan or where ever. The US buyer and the US manufacturer are commiting financial suicide and no amout of bail out will fix it! We have to change our buying habits and get a whole new breed of designers and managers in Detroit.

Brian Davis San Marcos, TX

Brian Davis | Nov 28, 2008 | 11:00AM

I'm sorry, but your "price per pound" argument has absolutely no relationship to economics or engineering. None at all. As it so happens, bigger heavier cars aren't that much more expensive to produce, as the main cost has always been labor. A light-weight car still has almost as many parts as a big, heavy car, and takes just as much assembly. Lighter materials are much more expensive.

Your advice is simply not relevant to any auto company in the world.

The reason people pay for Toyotas and Hondas is because of reliability, and today, fuel economy.

John Smith | Nov 28, 2008 | 11:26AM

GM had it right with the EV-1. Fantastic performance, environmentally friendly, and decent looking (the Tesla and Volt have the EV-1 beat in looks by a long way). Had they just extended its range and had a quick charger it and it's subsequent spin-offs and later models would have dominated the car industry. Alas, GM choose to crush the EV-1's, when people wanted to buy them after their leases expired, for $0 profit. How that made good business sense really boggles the mind. Consequently GM is now playing catch-up instead of leading as they put themselves at least 1 decade behind where they should be. To bad for them Karma is a bitch . . .

Richard | Nov 28, 2008 | 12:37PM

The fact is that the standard (dumb) cars being built today must run at 60 mph in order to extract it's maximum fuel efficiency! And what percent of the time do cars run at 60 mph?

Yup it's dumb ... really dumb ... to design a car/truck which will only reach it's maximum fuel efficiency maybe 6% of the time.

And who is at fault? The unethical, immoral, gutless auto engineer who disgraces his or her engineering ring worn on their pinky. That ring is a contract - which basically backs up what RX says in his piece.

Harry | Nov 28, 2008 | 12:43PM

Electric cars would cause 3000 times the pollution (cancer, global warming etc.) than gas run engines. Why? Electric cars need millions of batteries - and those millions have to be replaced with millions of more batteries - and those millions have to be replaced with millions of more batteries. A battery is the singularly most polluting device made on this planet.

And what is the second most polluting "device" when it comes to pollution (cancer etc.) .. Nuclear Power Plants or coal fired power plants. Yup electric is the way to go hahaha

Harry | Nov 28, 2008 | 12:52PM

Sounds like you are describing the current Mini, which is roughly 18,500. Plenty of options for $$$ per pound.

bman | Nov 28, 2008 | 3:06PM

Bob, it is my infintesimal worth of opinion that you hit the root of the problem for the Detroit 3. Toyota, Honda, BMW and the rest of the Eurocars have them beat - hands off - in style, engineering, and technology, PERIOD!

The real problem is perceived and literal "ugliness" in Detroit's current crop of offering. If they had half the technological leadership they would be leading the wave of the future - electric vehicles - and not followers.

Case in point, the EV1 was 10-years ahead of its time and it was revolutionary for an American design. If GM continued development of that platform, who knows, a practical hybrid much like the Toyota Prius, or even, the fuel-cell powered Honda FCX Clarity.

But, here's hoping, that GM (nee Chevrolet) comes true to the promise of the Volt. I can see that it is a very practical for most commuters in the developed world - not just the U.S. GM, with their stars aligned and some cash from Uncle Sam (albeit, with lots of strings attached) they might just pull it off.

But for GM to really survive, a reality is fast sinking in. GM has too much too many "brands" to be competitive, agile, nor nimble a corporation. The Detroit 3 are swirling the toilet deep in denial and lost in the old status quo. The world has changed since the glory days of the 1950's fins phenomenon but GM and its brothers Ford & Chrysler is still stuck with the "good ol' days" mentality.

So, to whip up their arses and start shaping up or ship out, Uncle Sam must do the inevitable and spur competition, domestically speaking.

First, GM has too many "brands" that can be better off put to pasture and some - like Chevrolet, Saturn, and Buick that can be spun off as separate competitive companies.

Chevy can be a Toyota adversary with its compelling platforms such as the Corvette, Camaro, Silverado trucks and newer offerings like the Equinox and Traverse SUVs. Saturn can focus on being, well Saturn, a nimble and agile small car maker with a sense of style and engineering prowess. I think of them as Honda aversaries. And for Buick, they have shown they can make luxury - affordable - and that is the real trick to fight against the Eurocars BMW & Daimler. The Buick Rendezvous and Enclave SUVs are a good example of excellent American capability to design what Americans want to buy.

As for Chrysler's current design theme, they are atrociously ugly and that fact can't be more apparent than the newest minivan design. Chrysler can't be saved and should be thrown to the lions and the pieces sold for scraps.

Ford is the best positioned to survive of the Detroit 3 as far as money and momentum goes. Its Mustang brand is a perpetual cash cow. Its F-150 trucks are too. But Ford's best position for independence will be its hybrid, electric, fuel-cell, and alternative-fuel technology development. They are far ahead of both GM and Chrysler (even if the Volt is an instant success) in this regard. Ford just need to focus on a few excellent platforms and not try to be like GM with a bunch of models you can't tell apart. Get rid of redundant product slots like the Freestyle or the Ranger p'up. In their places, you can have convertible F-150 truck/SUV concept. How brilliant is that? The Honda Ridgeline is almost there with this concept of a truck and a comfy family hauler. Will Ford get there first? I don't doubt it but it will be a challenge.

And, while we're talking about it, does Uncle Sam obligated to bailout these Detroit losers??? Shame on them for letting the Japanese and Europeans steal their fancy rugs from under their feet. These "Japanese" and "Europeans" are now as domestic as those big boys from Detroit.

Look at Honda of America. They have, at latest count, 13 facilities in the U.S. for producing from engines to accessories to assemble what Americans love to buy - the Civic and Accords. Even the Pilot and the Odyssey are designed and manufactured here and by American hands.

Toyota and Nissan are not far behind with 5 and 3 manufacturing and assembly facilities in the U.S. respectively. Toyota is constructing a 6th plant in Blue Springs, Mississippi.

Now, tell me, do we need to help the Detroit laggards with our tax dollars to compete with these American "Japanese" carmakers that employ thousands of our American comrades?

In my worthless opinion, NO. Those $25-million/anum CEOs (ask Alan Mullaly of Ford) can take a hike and replace them with intelligent, practical, and forward-thinking managers. I'm sure there are plenty of those in Detroit. If not, look around like Nissan did. How the heck a smart guy from Brazil from a Lebanese parents become a European car icon CEO and on to become the rescuer of Nissan? Perhaps, GM can try to lure Mr. Ghosn over to dismantle it crumbling beaurocracies that is the "American" automobile industry in Detroit.

Robomac | Nov 28, 2008 | 4:05PM

Bob, I just want to add to my long piece above... ;)

I hope we will be able to keep reading your mind-tingly and insightful columns past 12/10/08. Please keep your tribe members shared with your endless wits. Thank you for your years of sharing your thoughts with us.

Ciao for now,


Rick Hunter | Nov 28, 2008 | 4:20PM

Bob - what's this about 12/10/8 ?
As for Detroit - it's their karma for dismantling public transport systems to drive their profit schemes and insure their gluttonous future.
Please keep the columns coming . . .
thanks, Mike

Michael DeRosa | Nov 28, 2008 | 5:00PM

I have a car similar to what you propose, it has an all aluminum frame with fiberglass body panels.

It is so low that I can look a Camry squarely in the bump strip on the door, it is 2 inches taller than the side mirror on a Mini Cooper.

It has no cup holders, power anything but windows the passenger seat has no adjustment, and the lumbar support is an air bladder it doesn't even have power steering, it doesn't have carpet or sound deadening in the passenger compartment.

It STILL tips the scales at 2000 lbs.

It's a Lotus Elise, a car that follows Colin Chapman's weight saving concepts to the fullest, but this is the best the could do while meeting modern safety requirements.

I would love to own the car you describe, but I don't think it's possible.

The VW Bluetech Diesel gets 75MPG or better in the real world right now, why can't we make something like that over here ? They don't even sell them here.

The best we can do is the Jetta, which according to VW:
"Earlier this year the Jetta TDI set a new Guinness World Record for Lowest Fuel Consumption as it averaged 58.82 miles per gallon as it traveled through the 48 contiguous states. EPA research has concluded that if diesels were to power one third of all light duty vehicles in the United States, the shift would save approximately 1.4 million barrels of oil a day—equal to the daily shipments from Saudi Arabia to the U.S."

Anyway, I'll miss your column I've read all of them since before you were with PBS, put me on a mailing list if you ever publish again, and I would pay something annually for it.

Thanks !

Kevin Kling | Nov 28, 2008 | 5:50PM

I want to second Robomac's hope and wishes that we will continue to read your insightful and witty commentary on business and technology! My son, who is 27 and managing a university leadership program turned me on to your work. Great job!

Michael Satterwhite | Nov 28, 2008 | 6:01PM

Some interesting thoughts. But you missed a couple of key points.

Cars are heavy because? Gas is cheap. When gas is cheap people prefer big heavy cars. Ever look at the evolution of the 3 series BMW? A 2500 pound 318 from the early eighties (last time gas was expensive) is now a 3700 pound 330i. A near 2 ton compact car! And Detroit doesn't make the BMW. The Toyota Camry and the Honda Civic have undergone similar evolution over the years. This is not solely a Detroit phenomenon.

Same goes for horsepower. that 1.8 liter 4 in the 318 put out maybe 130 HP. The inline six in the 330i is about 275 HP. When gas is cheap, people love HP. The chevy impala in 1980 had 175 horsepower. The new V8 impalas have 300 HP.

Another reason cars are heavy is the IIHS. This is the insurance industry's lobbyist group. And they are convinced we need 8 airbags, Dynamic Stability control, and a crashworthy structure to withstand crashes of 40 miles per hour from any angle. And the IIHS would have you believe that unless a car gets 5 stars in all their tests, you are playing russian roulette with your family's lives. This explains a lot of the weight of the vehicles we drive.

Detroit automaker bashing has become sport but many of the main bashers need to look at them selves. Congress loves to impose CAFE requirements on the automakers to make more fuel efficient cars. So Detriot makes small fuel efficient cars that in times of cheap gas no one wants to buy. So Detroit's and Toyota's solution (that failed business model the politicians like to talk about) is to sell the small cars and hybrids at a loss and make up for it by selling the big gas guzzlers at huge profits. Any economist will tell you this is folly, creates artificial markets that don't clear and is inefficient. The proper economic solution is a higher tax on gasoline.

Speaker Pelosi and the rest of the congressional bashers need to show some leadership now that oil is under 50/ barrel by raising the tax on gasoline. Then the automakers can build what the consumer wants and not have to bribe consumers to buy their fuel efficient cars. And cars will quit getting heavier when the consumer will pay extra for a more efficient powerplant, an aluminum hood or a carbon fiber structure that gives them the performance they want and ligher weight that translates to cheaper gasoline bills.

mac84 | Nov 28, 2008 | 6:08PM

GM did all the industrial engineering for the EV1, a car the public loved, but wasn't allowed to buy. Since they already did the industrial engineering, they have already have spent all the money designing the car and the plant to produce it. They could take the old plans and retool a plant in about 6 months. If they pulled the plans and retooled a plant, they could begin selling a car the public is screaming for, that will out perform the new Volt. Why haven't they? Looks to me like they don't really want to make cars the public wants.

Karl | Nov 28, 2008 | 10:12PM

mac84... For Gods sake man, if you think higher taxes are the solution, by all means, pay more. Just don't try to get the rest of us forced into it. Governments are supposed to be the servant of the people, not vice-versa. We've gone far enough down this road. That's why we've got many of the problems we do.

I suggest you go to one of the established socialist paradises like Cuba, or Venezuela where you can truly live as you'd have the rest of us.

James | Nov 29, 2008 | 12:19AM

Drivers who opt for a heavier, larger vehicle are not purchasing more safety! According to the stats of the NHTSA for 2007 (the latest year statistics are available), 68% of all fatal accidents were ONE-CAR ACCIDENTS. In other words, purchasing a vehicle with excellent handling and remaining always alert is the best way to improve your chances of being in an accident.

Tom Bartlett | Nov 29, 2008 | 1:02AM

For the last 3 decades (at least, the big 3 seemed to have operated with the attitude of "We'll sell YOU what we want to build, NOT what you want to buy". Tried to buy a basic truck many times, manual trans, 4WD (handy in Minnesnowta). Always got stuck packages of crap I don't want. Finally asked the salesman why there were so many trucks bloated with options? " Nobody BUYS trucks anymore, they lease them. We can sorta get you the truck you want as a special order, but you have to wait 4 months until after we build the trucks we carry on the lot". Little bit of arrogance, not much sense. I don't want big gas guzzling tires, leather or chrome. My uncle complained about Chrysler using the same cheap parts on K cars as the expensive models. His Volvo wasn't anything like that. "Why is that? How can continue to buy American?" he asked. "It's the American way. Make it half-assed and sell the hell out of it" was all I could come up with.

Dean | Nov 29, 2008 | 4:26AM

Sorry, Bob. Another daft column...

No car buyers try to get the most pounds for their money. If they did, no SUV would ever sell. The markup on them is humongous. You have not observed this. You have imagined it.

Second, lighter is better for bikes because they are human powered. Take the heavy walmart special out for a ride and it's no fun, compared to a light weight. The analogy is strange to say the least.

Third, there is no way to fix Detroit... because they grew up in a culture where they owned the US market. They still act arrogantly as if nobody has a choice except to buy whatever they sell. That's why they stubbornly refused to include seat belts, then non-exploding gas tanks, then every other feature that logic dictated. It was/is pure ego.

Fourth, only companies built from scratch will ever seriously use technologies like carbon fiber and "fly" by wire. The existing companies collectively have $ trillions invested in stamping out sheet metal, and producing 100-year old internal combustion engines and drive trains. They are too committed to the past to risk making bold changes.

That's why someday a brand new company is going to creatively destroy the entire car market. If I were the Chinese government (sitting with $500+ billion to invest and dying to have home grown strategic manufacturing) I'd jump right on this.

mkkby | Nov 29, 2008 | 4:39AM

Bob, you're right about one point, in the auto biz, product is king, and the Detroit Three sealed their fate when they could only offer poorly-designed, shoddily-built vehicles in response to the functional, reliable, and steadily-and-constantly improving models from Japan. Even though the quality gap has closed, the perception gap remains, as Detroit lost an entire generation of buyers who would never consider anything with an American nameplate based on the miserable experiences of the vehicles their parents owned.

The theory about buying-by-the-pound, while interesting, gives entirely too much credit to the average car buyer, who cannot discern anything other than the number of doors, and perhaps the number of cylinders, much less a vehicle's curb weight or engine displacement.

Every story, or editorial relating to the auto industry I've read of late makes too many presumptions to the question of what people would buy, "only if" somebody made it. There are literally hundreds of models available in the market, and thousands of variants, to satisfy the wide range of needs and desires of the vehicle market.

This misguided notion that everyone is clamoring for the same ultra-efficient utopian vehicle that would instantly solve all our energy problems is presumptuous at best, insulting at worst, without even tackling the technical hurdles nor business case for such a vehicle.

Many have also been ignoring the fact that for the last two decades or so, the vehicles that "everyone" wants have been light trucks. This predicament is self-made, yet all the blame is heaped on the industry. With the rising cost of energy, that is going to change, but change does not occur overnight, for neither the consumer nor the manufacturer.

Under the best of circumstances, a new vehicle program is a four-year endeavor. Technical challenges and organizational inertia also compound the challenge to build the New Age Vehicle; neither the stroke of a pen nor taps on a keyboard can shortcut that process.

As long as this remains a free, capitalistic nation, it will not be possible to drive these square pegs into every round hole as so many of the sanctimonious advocate. It's easy to lob grenades from the ivory tower, free from the challenge of being engaged to actually design or sell these utopian chariots.

Lastly, the EV1 zealots should consider a new hobby. While it was a poor decision for GM to discontinue the program, you're ignoring the fact that the market for a small, albeit efficient two-seat banana is a niche. Even Honda, who has among the best Green credentials of anyone in the industry, realized that the original Insight was a failure, and have made the new Insight a Prius clone with four doors and a proper storage area.

John Q. | Nov 29, 2008 | 4:51AM

It's been quite some time since I posted any response, but I've been lurking for a LONG here goes.

Re: US Auto Industry...seems everyone is missing the real cause of the problem...the people themselves! That's right, we are our own worst enemies. The car buyers are the ones purchasing these overpriced vehicles, nobody holds a firearm to your head and says buy this SUV or else.
And for those that seem to think we can have government without taxes...get real! If something is not worth paying for (taxes) then you just might get what you pay for.
The US Public needs a wakeup call...we only received an inkling of what can be expected within the next 5 years or so regarding gasoline prices. I feel that owners of SUVs should be charged "road use taxes", just like is charged of tractor trailer rigs! If a vehicle is not rated at a fuel efficiency rating yet to be determined, "gasoline use tax" should be charged.
I for one am sick and tired of the sheer volume of SUVs on American highways, in case you haven't figured that out. They are wasteful, ineffiecient, polluting and give the operator a false sense of security, as well as an overly aggressive driving mentality.
Like another reader, "Dean", commented you cannot find just a "basic truck", only "Cowboy Cadillacs" fully loaded with options and electronic gizmos that are sure to wear out. I would love to find a family car with old-fashioned "crank" windows...heck, maybe even a "wing window" for those times when the temperature doesn't indicate a need for air conditoining. Seat adjustments could also be by hand, and I really enjoy shifting the transmission myself sometimes.
It's easy to point a finger at "the Big Three", but remember...when you point the one finger, you have THREE POINTING BACK AT YOU!

That said, any government aid should come with strict regulatory oversight, including resignation without recompense of top level management of the industry. It is shameful to lay the blame at the feet of the workers in the plants when a CEO is receiving the sheer volume of money that has been attributed to them.
Furthermore, it is in the best interest of the US economy in large to have a healthy "transportation" industry, since we now operate on a global basis. We need jobs for our citizens HERE, not overseas. Notice I said "transportation" above, not "automotive", because we need to evolve out of the "car and truck" mentatlity to a new way of thinking.
We visit "car museums" and reminisc about the "old days" of the Model T, the Ford V8, 1950s fins and glory days of muscle cars, but few of us drive a Model T on a daily commute to and from work. So perhaps it is time for new methods to be investigated. I'm not convinced on electric, nor hydrogen, but it could be a step towards something better...maybe natural gas.
And for pity's is NOT our right to drive 20 mph over posted speed limits! Maybe traffic fines should be doubled, with the proceeds going to highway improvements?
C U L8R!

Glenn Gilbreath Jr. | Nov 29, 2008 | 2:21PM

Bob, great column -- you're brilliant and entertaining, and you manage to find an original and contrarian viewpoint on almost everything. Mostly I agree with you, and I always learn something. Thanks.

But -- one problem with that article: it seems you think a car should be "Exciting to Drive". My God, you must be an "enthusiast"!

Sorry, that's so over. Even if a lot of aging adolescents don't get it.

Tell me where driving can be "exciting" any more -- certainly not commuting, which is how most people use their cars: Go 10 ten feet. Stop. Go ten feet. Stop. Repeat until there.

Well, in the standard fantasy (and TV car commercials) you're tearing along at "20 mph over the speed limit" on a beautiful curving road along the ocean or over a mountain pass. With luck, you might get to do that a couple times a year, and with more luck, you might not kill yourself or somebody else.

In spite of the endless promotion by car manufacturers, driving is NOT "exciting" anymore, if it ever was. It's not supposed to be "exciting". It's either boring or dangerous, or actually, both. Not only is traffic heavier than ever -- besides all the traditional dangers, we now have to look out for loonies driving while talking on their cell phones and fiddling with their navigation systems (a big hit with people who don't know how to read a map.)

You know you're much more likely to be killed in your '66 T-Bird (sans seat belts, air bags, and all the other safety features) than in your home-made airplane.

"Exciting"? Forget it. Grow up.

cubeboy | Nov 29, 2008 | 3:42PM

The government will bail out the car companies, not because they deserve it but, because of their defense contracts and connections to the DOD.

Ira | Nov 29, 2008 | 6:14PM

This can be all be applied to websites as well. Back in the 90s we were building for dialup and tried to keep pages at 50kb or less. These days, marketing folks want flashy things and pages on some bloated sites clock in at a meg for download. Yet, again the most successful of the websites are still the smallest:

Google: 13kb

Craigslist: 26kb

And the larger are the losers:

Yahoo!: 171kb

Microsoft: 295kb

In a country where bigger is supposedly better, it's interesting how the smallest end up winning in the end.


Miquel | Nov 29, 2008 | 9:23PM

This has been a great discussion. The S/N ratio of Bob's readership is way above average. Really going to miss your columns, Bob. Been reading you since the 80's.

Number of points I'd like to comment on in this lengthy discussion.

1) Safety - It is a big issue. The lifetime odds of an American dying in a car accident are a startling 1 in 84 (; motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for 31 of the first 35 years of age.

However, safety does NOT improve with mass alone.

An article in the NYT (17 Aug 04) "Safety Gap Grows Wider Between S.U.V.'s and Cars" reported:

"People driving or riding in a sport utility vehicle in 2003 were nearly 11 percent more likely to die in an accident than people in cars, the figures show."

2) Maybe the East and urban West have clogged roads, but in the open West, drives of four to six hundred miles a day are a not uncommon occurrence. We still feel the need for speed. It kills me every time I cross the Snake River from Idaho into Oregon on Interstate 5 and discover I am suddenly deemed incapable of driving 75 mph (Oregon- 65).

3) Damn Bob, that Audi A2 (European version, 2001-2005) IS more or less the car you propose. All aluminum, 4 place, capable of 110+mph, 66 mpg with a 1.4liter clean diesel engine. That is significantly better than current hybrids.

But now out of production; they didn't sell well enough pre-gas crunch. Bet it comes back. How about one of the Big Three leasing the manufacturing rights for many buckos. Or joint venture. Or shameless copy.

4) European and Japanese car models were shaped by government tax policies on both fuel and hp or mass. And Europeans are driving enthusiasts.

I believe we must set a floor for gasoline pricing with predictable taxation policies. Pump the revenue into transportation development (yeah, even the Not Cars)

An interesting possibility, given that almost all fuel pumps are wired for credit transactions, would be to set a sliding scale for gasoline usage - maybe on a monthly basis. Give everyone the first 40 gallons (or whatever) at a base rate, then ratchet it up as total consumption grows. The hard part -- wiring the stations -- is already in place. And the Govt. will probably own the credit card companies pretty soon to. (That's a joke... maybe.)

5) Auto enthusiasts are prototypically American.. nothing to be ashamed of. What we should be ashamed of is the present sorry state of our automotive industry.

Dan Casali | Nov 30, 2008 | 12:54AM

After the Big 3 fail there will still be autos "Made in the USA". The plants will be in the Southern states and the HQ's will be in Europe and Asia. Tough luck, Detroit!

shopper | Nov 30, 2008 | 2:17AM

Most consumer vehicles only require 20 to 40 horsepower to maintain average road speeds of 30-60 miles per hour. Getting tons of metal up to those speeds is inefficient. Hybrid vehicles get their efficiency by storing energy via regenerative braking and by averaging their thrust. Gas-electric systems are complex and require exotic and messy battery technology. A much simpler way of accomplishing the same job can be done with off-the-shelf technology.
Airliners cannot afford the weight of a motor and hydraulic pump large enough to blow down (or raise) massive landing gear in a few seconds. Instead they use a small hydraulic pump motor that pumps fluid, over time, into a high pressure storage tank called an Accumulator. When called upon, the accumulator unloads all the volume necessary in seconds to drive cylinders and hydraulic motors.
Take these parts and apply them to a land vehicle. With a small highly efficient diesel engine running at its sweet spot to charge a hydraulic accumulator and utilizing regenerative breaking, you get this:
Better still, search for “Hydraulic Hybrid”
Also, we could have flatbed railroad cars or double decker flatbed cars on which you would drive your smart car or other golfcart size vehicle to commute into the city. This commuter train only stops every five miles or so. Drive off the flatbed, pay toll, drop off the kid, go to work, do your shopping, reverse at the end of day.

ModlyJohn | Nov 30, 2008 | 2:34AM

It isn't possible to build such a light car an make it safe. It would be necessary to restrict it to roadways where heavier vehicles were not permitted at all.

In an accident the force of the crash is transmitted to the lighter vehicle. The extreme case is the bug on the windshield, which you barely notice, but the bug doesn't do so well in the encounter. A light tap from a 8,000 pound SUV would be devastating the passangers in a ultra light vehicle.

Geoffrey Swenson | Nov 30, 2008 | 3:13AM

Of course it's the cars - and the management.... GM and Ford in Europe make excellent cars - just look at - light, fast, fun, and sexy. And the diesels give great mileage and are fast. I drive a Ford S-Max 7 seater people carrier with a 2-litre turbo diesel. Coming back from France to the UK overnight I was cruising at 110mph, and the bus does 130! 0-60 is 7.4 seconds and average consumption is 44 mpg. It also has five-star performance - the maximum - in the Euro NCAP safety tests. GM's new Opel Insignia is car of the year in Europe beating the latest VW Golf...
It's the US management that is to blame - not the unions of the engineers. This can be fixed, but it'll take 2-3 years...

Peter from eu | Nov 30, 2008 | 5:05AM

@ James:

I don't actually want more expensive gas but the only way to make the masses quit buying bigger SUVs and building bigger houses twice as far away from their workplace is higher energy costs. I am sick of coworkers who bought a house 60 miles away from the office cry about how much it costs to fill up their SUVs.

And the auto industry is dysfunctional (sell small cars no one wants to buy at a loss and pay for the bribes to buyers with the profits from big SUVs) is because gas is cheap (relatively) and manufacturers are required by law to maintain a Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) of 27.5 MPG.

Europe has a much heathier auto industry and they sell much fewer big sedans and SUVs there than in the US for one reason. Higher fuel costs because of much higher fuel taxes. Thats why when Detroit designs cars for the US market they can't compete in Europe and Japan. So I don't want us to be Socialist, just more like the rest of the free world.

mac84 | Nov 30, 2008 | 10:21AM


Provocative and timely article. It sure did stimulate a lot of thought. I particularly appreciate other readers leaving useful links.

As a person who drives about 36K/yr on business on So. Cal Highways(my wife drives an equal amount for her job) we certainly look forward to MEANINGFUL improvements in fuel efficiency without having to pay outlandish premiums (initial cost, servicabilty etc..). I recall my 1982 Suzuki 750 ES weighed about 650 pounds dry. It had a great power to weight ratio and respectable gas mileage. Unfortunately, I am no longer that adventuresome and have dependents to care for. Real car please.


trent | Nov 30, 2008 | 11:48AM

I think you are brilliant with an industry that you know.

Here, different regulations, each with their own unintended consequences creates a quite different world than in Silicon Valley.

--Big vehicles have been popular here and not in Europe, and especially not in Japan, even before WWII, because our gas prices were way lower, all because of taxes. Japan has no domestic energy resources, very high taxes. Europe has some domestic energy resources, but not much, and high taxes. We had significant domestic energy resources and low taxes, along with Canada. This was all a response to the different levels of vulnerability to extra price volatility caused by politics and the cartel OPEC.

As a result, we develop expertise in bigger vehicles, Japan and Europe in smaller vehicles.

And now, our dependence on these same imports has grown substantially.

--CAFE standards created America's "love" for trucks. Vehicles built for families with kids could be cars (which they were earlier as station wagons) or trucks. They became trucks because then they had no CAFE penalty. Pickups, minivans, SUVs all followed that path.

--Also, an industry with strong unions is quite different. Without competition, everyone is fat and happy. With it, the firms face the legal monopolistic wage, they can't quite compete and their market share falls. Unions make slow adjustments part way towards a competitive wage, and management agrees because it's better than a competitive wage, maybe, after a big strike. They still cannot quite compete.

--Both unions and management thought it was a good idea when they were fat and happy for the company to not pay the workers all their compensation immediately, but a significant chunk after 25-35 years. These are the pension and health care obligations for retirees. Then current management liked that these bills weren't due until way after they left and the unions went along.

Now the bills are due. And the spike in oil prices due to the Iraq War didn't allow the legacy firms much time to offer different cars or engines.

Both management and unions really look stupid now, but both made reasonable decisions given the incentives they faced then. Clearly this path is not sustainable.

Government largely created this mess and it could set better long term incentives, but politically I doubt it will happen.

What would efficient incentives look like?

1. Subsidize each lower skill worker in a relatively poor household through the income tax system, first lowering or eliminating taxes to him and, if necessary, giving the worker a bump in his paycheck for each hour worked rather than a hole. Eliminate unions as joint bargaining agents. Unions were the best instrument for this when they started, but they are not now. (Same with minimum wage.)

(Think of every sick industry you can. Almost all have or had strong unions, and have faced significant competition. Railroads, shipbuilding, steel, legacy airlines, legacy auto, post office, public schools. Other industries with strong unions (coal, trucking, utilities, local construction) don't compete with anyone else.)

2. Impose gradually an oil tax for oil from politically-driven suppliers, at least enough to pay for Fed actions to "stabilize" the price of oil. Reduce other taxes $ for $. Over time, eliminate CAFE standards and other patch-work subsidies aimed at the same general goal.

3. Impose gradually a carbon tax for all significant sources of greenhouse emissions. Reduce other taxes $ for $. Over time, reduce existing patch-work subsidies aimed at the same general goal.

GM/Chrysler need a dramatic restructuring. 1/3 - 1/2 of their assets for producing larger vehicles need to be retired. Some can be shifted to producing smaller vehicles, but much cannot.

I don't see it happening without a workout under bankruptcy protection. A good role for the Feds is to guarantee warrantees, take over pension and health obligations, act as banker of last resort, and help guide the process.

Everything worthwhile would still be kept.

gametheoryman | Nov 30, 2008 | 4:18PM

Let me see if I understand.

Government == Good because they try to coerce us.

Car Business == bad because they try to give us what we want.

Bob I think you have your head up your colon. You may want to get that looked at.

Its amazing. You are among the internet elite who should know that coercion is BAD BAD BAD and that the net provides a liberataria model extrordinaire with Wikipedia.

.....Yet you still embrace 1932 FDR style government.


Freemon Sandlewould | Nov 30, 2008 | 5:14PM

No jit.

Tommy | Nov 30, 2008 | 6:02PM

@Sandlewould: "Car Business == bad because they try to give us what we want " Are you serious? Even if you don't care about fuel efficiency and technical innovation, but simply the pleasure of driving and owning a beautiful car, of all the cars the Big 3 cranked out in the last 20 years, which one have Americans become passionate about? Would you rather own a 68 Camaro or a 2009 Camaro? After 20 years, is retreading the old designs the best Detroit can come up with to generate excitement? People who love American cars and love to buy American for patriotic purpose have little quality to choose from. I cannot tell you any memorable American car advertisement - or any recent models for that matter - except for the hyped up, fancy Cadillac or Hummer TV commercials - a line of cars around $50-60k - is that what GM thinks most Americans will buy to save them? I don't see too many of them in my suburban neighborhood. Sure, you cannot make money, so you blame the government, blame taxes, blame unions/workers. May all the failed small businesses which accounts for half of our economy should band together and ask for a bailout too - they've got the same arguments.

deanston | Nov 30, 2008 | 6:49PM

It sounds plausible: flying is harder than rolling.

If Bob can build plane with a curb weight of 625 lbs that gets 25 mpg,

surely we can build a car with at least those performance characteristics.

But can we, really?

Here is a picture of Bob's plane:

Now let's make it into a car. We need

- 4 wheels, not 3

- bigger rims and tires

- suspension: springs and shocks

- brakes

- transmission, differential

- rear windshield

A car turns out to have lots of stuff that a plane doesn't.
Granted, we can lose the wings and the propeller,
but I think you'd be hard pressed to put a serviceable car on the road at less than 1000 lbs.

And even if you could, would you want to count on it holding its lane on the interstate while an 18-wheeler blows by at 70 MPH?

I agree that Detroit has driven their business off a cliff, from both a business and a product standpoint.
But I'm not convinced that there are easy or obvious alternatives.

Steven | Nov 30, 2008 | 7:47PM

Hey Bob
There are no sightings of UFOs neither above Detroit nor above Washington, D.C.
Do you know why ?

wwwpirate | Nov 30, 2008 | 9:57PM

Pure BS, bobby. America is NOT ABOUT THE PRODUCT. America is about the FUTURE - as in future profits as expressed in the market price of common stock. Would the Big 3 be looking for a bailout if their stock had not collapsed? Would Wall Street or the Banks? 'Course not.

Engineers, designers and mechanics are the handmaidens of industry, not the drivers. The real work is done in finance & marketing -- no engineer who has not mastered finance and/or marketing has ever become CEO.

The ability to convince the markets that better days are just ahead has always propelled public companies. Actual products are at best props -- just ask JP Morgan, John Rockefeller or Dick Cheney.

MikeN | Nov 30, 2008 | 11:55PM

Can't see it mentioned yet but Gordon Murray, the designer of the McLaren F1 is working on an economical lightweight car called the T25. Its still fairly secret but there is a bit of info on his site and elsewhere:

Martin@talkingfuture | Dec 01, 2008 | 5:36AM

The saying is the people get the president the deserve, probably they also get the cars the deserve...
Why not using diesel engines for luxury cars like in Europe or downsizing the gasoline engines (FIAT, VW and others) it will help not only US car buyers but the whole world because of the environnement.

gwh45 | Dec 01, 2008 | 5:44AM

100mph with just 20hp

matt | Dec 01, 2008 | 7:26AM


"Electric cars would cause 3000 times the pollution (cancer, global warming etc.) than gas run engines. Why? Electric cars need millions of batteries - and those millions have to be replaced with millions of more batteries - and those millions have to be replaced with millions of more batteries. A battery is the singularly most polluting device made on this planet."

Harry, sorry to tell you but you are dumb.

To enlighten you, here´s a keyword: Recycling.

Get a clue


matt | Dec 01, 2008 | 7:42AM

In 1966 gas was between 17 cents and 19 cents per gallon. 35 cent gas didn't arrive until 1973. I know because I drove a 1959 beetle (10 gallon tank) and always paid less than $2.00 per fill up, until '73.

John Wade | Dec 01, 2008 | 8:50AM


"Electric cars would cause 3000 times the pollution (cancer, global warming etc.) than gas run engines."

Sorry, but I disagree with your conclusion that electric cars pollute "3000 times" (where did you get that figure?) more than gasoline ones.

Electric cars do not have engine oils or coolant fluids to dispose of, their service needs are far less, and they don't go around belching noxious gases everywhere they go. Oh, and their quieter and _far_ more efficient

"Electric cars need millions of batteries - and those millions have to be replaced with millions of more batteries - and those millions have to be replaced with millions of more batteries."

Battery packs are only replaced every 2-3 years, and their disposal and recycling can be centralized. This means that the "pollution" can be centralized and controlled - like sewage is today. Also, battery technology is improving - Li-Ion is superior to (and more environmentally friendly than) Ni-Cads. As new technology comes along, it can probably work as a drop-in replacement. Batteries will continue to improve.

Electric cars ain't perfect, but they are the best thing that we have until Hydrogen (which I don't trust; did someone say "Hindenburg"?) or fusion power.

"And what is the second most polluting "device" when it comes to pollution (cancer etc.) .. Nuclear Power Plants or coal fired power plants."

What pollution are you talking about? What has been damaged by it? Cars belch CO2, Coal-fired power belches CO2 - but we have plenty of coal (the US is "the Saudi Arabia of coal") and coal-fired power stations can be modified to run "clean" far more easily than cars. France has run Nuclear Power stations - and the US Navy has had Nuclear-powered ships - for decades. Spend fuel can be reprocessed/recycled/stored at a specific point.

At this stage, _any_ technology will create some kind of pollution. The question is which is more containable. Whould you rather build more power stations or more refineries? Your choice, but don't say "neither". If you have a better idea, by all means speak up, but spare me the standard environmentalist "everything is unacceptable" canard.

Wizard Prang | Dec 01, 2008 | 10:01AM


The problem is suburban sprawl; it forces us to drive way too much.

If we designed better communities, miles per gallon would matter less and people would enjoy their automobiles.

exit56 | Dec 01, 2008 | 10:41AM

Excellent article Bob, I loved the cost to weight analogy! Being a Detroit native and resident all my life I couldn't agree with you more.

It's unfortunate but this economic cleansing is what has been needed for the last decade.

Brandon | Dec 01, 2008 | 10:46AM

Detroit was caught napping in the 70s when gasoline tripled in price. They only produced land yachts with mammoth fuel apetites (and quality problems). Skip ahead 30 years and again they were caught napping when gasoline tripled in price. I agree with Brandon - the economic cleansing is needed - but add that it's been needed for THREE decades, not just one.

Chez | Dec 01, 2008 | 11:21AM

People like lighter bikes because you have to pedel a bike. Unless you make people pedel their cars, I don't think you're going to change people's minds and make them want lighter cars just for the sake of being lighter.

Mark | Dec 01, 2008 | 11:24AM

Bob, I drove a Geo Metro for 11 was a great car, weighed about your 1200 pound goal, would easily hit 80-90 mph...and got 50 MPG. It also could carry 4 passengers or 500 pounds of water softener salt. Sure, it wasn't the fastest car...but it didn't bother me...and filling up was never why did the Geo Metro go away?

Mark Porter | Dec 01, 2008 | 11:50AM

The problem with the big three automakers is that they are run by marketing types not engineers. Their competitors at Honda, for example, promote engineers to management instead of know nothing marketing people.

The big three need to change their culture so that it is possible to make better cars based on good engineering and design instead of what they can get people to buy.

Alex | Dec 01, 2008 | 1:16PM

I'd add one over to your vision - make it a true hybrid - (true electric vehicle + secondary engine to recharge the batteries when they get low and the vehicle is in use; whether it's a lawn mower engine, some form of fusion, or hydrogen or whatever I don't care).

There is also another way to easily drop the weight - get rid of the features that people don't want - or at least make them truly optional so that those of us that don't want them don't have to get them. Such features: TV, in-dash GPS/computers/DVDs/etc, power-windows, power-locks, etc.

My wife's vehicle still has another year or so left in it - but when it gets replaced I will certainly tear out any "feature" they put in and won't remove for me. (Yeah, I don't want a TV in the back seat.)

Sometimes less is better. Not just weight, but features too. So drop the TV, we can teach our kids how to be patient and read or do other things while we drive (my parents did, and I will too) - the Alphabet game anyone?!

Sometime features are more forced on the customer than they are really demanded by the customer - something I think is the case with a lot of features coming out of Detroit.

To give an example - a few people I knew in college bought Kia's because they were cheap and did only what they needed. No power locks or power windows; they had smaller wheels (13" rims), but still got great mileage.

Now I look around at the 21" rims on the SUVs and laugh because the things look absolutely ridiculous - same for the Caddy's. (Yeah, I would have preferred 15" or smaller too...but there are very few choices when looking for a good hatchback - the Mazda3/6 is about the only one out there.)

Oh, and give me a Standard, not an automatic! (Funny how the Standard Transmission is cheaper than the Automatic Transmission AND gets better fuel efficiency. Yet, they are hard to come by in the U.S.)

TemporalBeing | Dec 01, 2008 | 1:33PM

Why do we always consider our auto industry in isolation?

There's a world of car-makers out there. They all face the same problems. Not one of them has come up with a golden solution yet, maybe this is a hard problem -- namely how to manufacture a low emission, high fuel efficiency transport that provides comfort to the passengers.

I don't think berating the manufacturers for our consumption habits, e.g. deciding to buy truck-like vehicles, is the answer. There's some basic R&D that needs to be done here and I'm all for the government providing that. I'm also for the government making a large order of fuel efficient vehicles for their fleet. This is Mitt Romney's approach and it makes sense to me.

I'm NOT for bailing out the industry with my tax money. You can flush whatever they give them, and it will be giving, goodbye.

Are you driving a truck-like vehicle now Rob? From your rant, it sounds like you are and Detroit didn't tell you to do that.

John R. | Dec 01, 2008 | 1:54PM

I recall reading a book about the auto industry in the 1920’s. Back then it was a hotbed of constant innovation, so totally opposite from what it became.

For example, back in ’03, I got a Prius. I set up a Google News alert for my then new car. If there was a venomous article about the innovative car (and there where many), it was always out of Detroit.

We have great workers. We have great designers and engineers; it’s just that the way of doing things that has evolved in Detroit is just not working. Many of the popular Japanese cars are designed in America- always in California, never in Detroit. The Japanese can profitably run a car factory in most of the US, but not near Detroit.

bob | Dec 01, 2008 | 3:02PM

Someone recently pointed out that while the U.S. has only three auto manufacturers, Japan has 10, with correspondingly higher rates of innovation. Lack of innovation is usually an indicator of a monopoly. Perhaps the solution is to aribtrarily hack each of the Big Three into three smaller companies.

Ross | Dec 01, 2008 | 3:50PM

Uhm...the car you describe almost exists already, and yes, it's being sold in the US...but made by a German company and built by the's called a Smart ForTwo.

It's not exactly what you want (it's governed to 90mph, for instance),'s a 2 seater that's built to put a smile on your face every morning when you walk into your garage.

Oh, and it's got an 18-24 month waiting list in the US...think americans like them? :)
Vox | Dec 01, 2008 | 3:55PM

"...Trucks overtook cars in the 1990s as America's most popular vehicles and that wasn't some grand plan from General Motors or Ford, it just happened. ..."

Actually it was part of a grand plan by GM et all, as a response to the corporate average fuel economy standards. The CAFE standards introduced in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo were intended to make cars more efficient. The penalties for not meeting the CAFE standards were high enough that Detroit had no choice but do whatever it took to meet them and it was far from clear that the standards could be met with the designs and technology being used by 1980's Detroit.

SUV's are classified as light trucks and as such, are exempt from the CAFE standards. So the solution the auto makers came up with was to build cars that were undersized and under powered compared to what the average buyer wanted, but which had no problems meeting the CAFE standards. They then steered anyone who wasn't satisfied with the offerings and who wanted something bigger and with more power towards SUV's, which didn't count towards the CAFE averages. With gas prices relatively low during the 1990's the mileage difference between a large car and an SUV didn't matter much to the average buyer, but pushing SUV's rather than "full size" cars, made a tremendous difference to the car makers in meeting the CAFE standards without radical change.

C H Jervey | Dec 01, 2008 | 4:06PM

Bob, I was with you complete... except for this near last part, "All it takes is a little smarts and a lot of guts to come up with faster, smarter, more efficient cars that are uniformly 50 percent lighter than the models they replace."

You mentioned a lot about the emmissions issue, but not enough about the safety regulations the government puts on the auto industry. You mentioned air bags, but what about ABS, side impact protection, etc. Traction Control is supposed to be standard on all cars in a few years (I don't remember the exact year). These technologies add WEIGHT and COST to the car. You will never see 50% lighter cars with the government forcing stricter and stricter regulations on the industry.

Your first conclusion was perfect, "That's because the only way the U.S. auto industry is going to survive in any form is by making cars so cool that we'll stand in line to buy them even in a global financial crisis." We all need a "sweet ride."

GM (easilest to pick on, but not the only one) has been losing market share since the 60's... just as the issues you mentioned started kicking in. GM management has done almost NOTHING to build you a sweet ride. Whenever they get something close to right the bean counters tear it up so that the sweet ride that should have been made became a crued, overpriced, underachieving vehicle. Soltice, SSR, GTO. All these cars missed the mark after the bean counters got their hands on how they were made. The few successes languished until they are boring, Chrysler 300 and Lincon LS come to mind. They are being bean counted into ho-hum cars while the competition is always improving.

The companies need to put ALL their remaining cash into designing that sweet ride we all want, and get it in showrooms before the bean counters can dilute it into a worthless car (like the Crossfire).

But a 50% drop in weight... that won't happen.

For an example look at my BMW 335i. It is the sweet ride you want (I love it). Yet it is heavier than the model it replaces. BMW is a car company that builds almost nothing but sweet rides. And they are still profitable in a declining market, beacuse "we'll stand in line to buy them." And if the mileage of the 3-Series isn't enough look at BMW's Mini Cooper. It gets pretty decent mileage and people "stand in line to buy them."

Scott Lewis | Dec 01, 2008 | 4:33PM

My son’s company was installing software at General Motors in Detroit and brought along a proprietary server. When they were ready to install the server one of his coworker’s went out to bring it in only to be stopped by security which told him it had to go through receiving. Because they were installing the software/hardware after work hours, receiving was closed. At eight AM the coworker was waiting at receiving. The receiving people let him cool his heels for an hour and a half while they drank coffee and swapped sport stories before accepting the router. When the router finally got to the floor late in the day, they discovered an electrician was required to plug in the power cord and the input/output cables. No one at GM informed them about these procedures so a thirty minute job, tops, took two days and cost GM thousands of dollars more! The UAW protecting the poor worker. My son’s company follows the Nike slogan, Just Do IT!; something the unions find threatening, unacceptable even unreasonable. With those kind of shortsighted work ethics and unconcern, how can it be surprising US automakers can’t compete? Designing new cars or sucking in bailouts isn’t going to solve the root causes of poor productivity.

Roger Vaught | Dec 01, 2008 | 4:34PM

It would be nice if the exec's at the Big-3 read this column and some of Bob's reader comments. There is so much they could learn.

We used to own 2 Toyota's. Sold both of them at about 180,000 miles and got a very nice amount of money for each of them. As our family grew we needed more seats and we moved into a mini-van and a GM station wagon. The station wagon self destructed at about 100,000 miles. Even though we took meticulous care of it, the head gaskets dissolved away and countless other things broke or fell off. We replaced that station wagon with a Ford station wagon. It too fell apart at about 100,000 miles. Our non-Detroit cars could run easily for 10 years. Detroit cars would self destruct after about 5 years.

Detroit exec's -- you haven't lived until you've experienced some of the bad treatment we get from your dealer service departments. OMG. I could buy a new car now. It is about time to replace one of our cars. There is no way I am going to visit one of your dealers and subject myself to another several years to their abuse.

You have produced crappy cars and then your dealers abused me when I needed to get them fixed. Why should I ever buy a car from you again?

I WANT to buy a good American car. I WANT my neighbors to keep their jobs in the auto industry. I WANT to see the American car industry succeed. However, given my experience with the Big-3 over the last 10 years. You really need to clean up your act.

John | Dec 01, 2008 | 7:25PM

U.S. domestic automakers sell plenty of small, efficient passenger vehicles in Europe, and many of the components are made here in the U.S.


It's much easier and more profitable.

European consumers pay far more for a vehicle than U.S. consumers are willing to pay ($40,000 minivans) and European emission standards are far behind those in the U.S. and only slowly improving.

It's very difficult and expensive to build a diesel engine that will meet new U.S. standards, but diesels are the standard for Europe (little more than a particle filter required)

We here in the U.S. are for all practical purposes limited to gasoline-electric hybrids instead of diesel pushers for new cars.

And forget plug-ins, since battery packs are still far too expensive in an era of under-$2/gallon gasoline.

No consumer will buy a $40,000 Volt when they can buy a $19,000 Insight, even if you grant a $5,000 tax credit to the Volt.

Bill in NC | Dec 01, 2008 | 8:20PM

The Volt is a "shining" example of the problem. They have prototype that looks really cool and the production model looks like a warmed over Saturn crossover. The people who buy those kind of cars are wanting to make a statement. Case in point is Prius outselling Civic Hgybrid. Between the shortsighted unions and bull headed CEOs it is a wonder Detroit has lasted this long. If we had not had cheap oil in the 90s they would have been in this trouble years ago.

KT | Dec 01, 2008 | 9:58PM

The Volt is a "shining" example of the problem. They have prototype that looks really cool and the production model looks like a warmed over Saturn crossover. The people who buy those kind of cars are wanting to make a statement. Case in point is Prius outselling Civic Hgybrid. Between the shortsighted unions and bull headed CEOs it is a wonder Detroit has lasted this long. If we had not had cheap oil in the 90s they would have been in this trouble years ago.

KT | Dec 01, 2008 | 9:58PM

Looked at some of the cars referenced in other comments.
A few look like sports cars, one is a passenger compartment on wheels, another looks like a motorbike inside a fairing (ok, it has 3 wheels but it's still more of a bike than a car). Mostly I thought what they would look like under a truck or SUV. Or between two of them.

Weights between 600 and 1200 pounds are what large motorbikes weigh. ("Two people and some storage, so what if you get wet.")

Saw a young mom in the grocery parking lot earlier today. She was packing grocs into the back of her small SUV, the baby was in an infant carrier in the backseat and she got into the driver's seat. That leaves out the husband and any other kid(s). Where's the replacement vehicle for someone like her?

Also, small may be fun when your knees are still flexible, but put on a few decades and see how much fun it is getting in and out of a small car.

Neil Young wrote about an intermediate stage between the mess we've got and where we want to be. Take the fabrication set up for cars available now, keep the factories and workers on the job and combine the bodies and chassis with electric or hybrid motors. That assumes people might actually buy the kind of cars currently in production.

Does this editor show line breaks?

Gus Tarin | Dec 01, 2008 | 10:45PM

Are you serious? Have you ever studied what causes people to buy passenger vehicles?

First, that Olds got great gas mileage on leaded gas, and spewed tons of pollutants -- so, its not comparable to today's vehciles directly based on its engine and mpg.

Second, you think it was heavy, but it was really only large -- it has lots of void space in it, and was a lot more air than today's vehicles. Ever tried to see the ground through the engine compartment of a modern vehicle?

Third, the quantity and weight of today's vehicles (mostly mandated by the government) acount for between 25% and 50% of a vehicle's weight (look at the stats of any vehicle that's been made virtually unchanged for that last 30+ years -- civic, mustang, etc).

Fourth, while Honda may enjoy being in the business of selling only engines (it is after all, their stated purpose for existence); how many of the Big 3 or Japan/Korean companies are really set up to buld kit parts? In fact, its anti-thectical to the whole idea of a Lexus or BMW.

Fifth, if you look back the vechicles in point 3, you'll find that HP has increased by 50% to 100%, and that MPG has actually gone up! Yes, imagine that -- more work (HP or lb/ft) pushing a load that's massively increased -- and yet they still managed to improve the MPG...

I don't know much about the DA-2A, or Leon -- but I'm not sure he could really have helped Detroit.

Everyone knows that Detroit needs to be given *real* negotiating power over all of its contracts (including or especially) with the unions (and reitrees). Sure, there are others as well, but that would be a great start.

In my opinion, Allan Mullaly and Ford family are light years ahead of GM and Chrysler. And, if they didn't have some of these poor long-term obligations and contracts hanging around their necks -- they'd likely be the best car company on the planet. They have a plan, they've made mistakes, but they admit to them and are working dilligently and smartly to rectify them. And, unlike GM -- they already have a brand strategy that works (how many vehicles does GM sell under all of their brand names, adding to confusion and actually working against their intended goal of selling more vehicles). They've long had the Escape Hybrid. And now, they are leveraging that to build hybrid versions of already popular passenger sedans (among other important steps).

I've read your articles a long time, but this piece should have gone back for a rewrite before publishing...

M Sheridan | Dec 02, 2008 | 12:07AM

Just noticed an error in my previous post --

Point 3 should have read:

Third, the quantity and weight of today's safety system (mostly mandated by the government) acount for between 25% and 50% of a vehicle's weight (look at the stats of any vehicle that's been made virtually unchanged for that last 30+ years -- civic, mustang, etc).

M Sheridan | Dec 02, 2008 | 12:12AM

For a long time there was a 25% import tax on light trucks. I still think it is in effect, but information is hard to find. If you want to google it, search on 'chicken tax' as that seems to get the most hits. It seems to me the reason we bought trucks was that they were protected from imports(thus more profitable) and that marketing works. A good essay on these issues from a reliable source is:

Light Trucks Increase Profits
But Foul Air More than Cars
by Keith Bradsher
Copyright 1997 The New York Times

Nick Jarboe | Dec 02, 2008 | 1:04AM

the big three got greedy and now they want the tax payer to bail them out after giving us the well known drive shaft. ever consider how much it would cost to buy a car part by part over the parts counter 10s of thousands, bought bolt by bolt, therefore the big 3 planned obsolesence into their autos, they deserve to go under and if they do I am sure someone with a better product will take over the plants.

inspro | Dec 02, 2008 | 9:21AM

First one of your Articles I disagree with Bob. Design/manufacture/Selling cars is one of the most complicated things ever. Producing Kit planes or Very limited edition sports cars is a totally different thing. Those methodologies Do not scale up well.

Don Berlin | Dec 02, 2008 | 9:38AM
Third, the quantity and weight of today's safety system (mostly mandated by the government) acount for between 25% and 50% of a vehicle's weight (look at the stats of any vehicle that's been made virtually unchanged for that last 30+ years -- civic Seriously? My 2006 Civic is bigger, sportier and has better handling than one from even 10 years ago. Actually, it is more comparable to a 1988 Accord that a friend of mine had. The Civic is NOT an example of a car that has been virtually unchanged: it started out very small and simple, and has consistently grown over the years.
wgc | Dec 02, 2008 | 10:17AM

Many years ago Chrysler tested a small batch of turbine motored cars. The experiment proved a disaster. Turbines are happiest at constant speed and work quite well as aircraft motors but the wide variations in RPM required in a car were problematic. There were also issues with the lack of motor braking, etc.

With the advent of stronger continuously variable transmissions and advanced computer controlled motor and fuel management systems, it would appear the tools now exist to make a practical turbine motored car.

Still, there is not the slightest discussion of having a second look at the vastly more efficient turbine motor for automotive use.

Mark Nielsen | Dec 02, 2008 | 7:20PM

I think BusinessWeek just picked up my arguments to hack the Detroit 3 (GM). Hear ye! Hear ye!

Sad, bittersweet, yet all so true.


Rick Hunter | Dec 02, 2008 | 9:47PM

Hey Bob -- Maybe you can do this as your next gig: raise some money and build cars that fit your specs above. Make them electric to boot, and see if you can start you "every man's" Tesla.

Alamgir Kahn | Dec 02, 2008 | 9:53PM

@gus tarin
Saw a young mom in the grocery parking lot earlier today. She was packing grocs into the back of her small SUV, the baby was in an infant carrier in the backseat and she got into the driver's seat. That leaves out the husband and any other kid(s). Where's the replacement vehicle for someone like her?

Also, small may be fun when your knees are still flexible, but put on a few decades and see how much fun it is getting in and out of a small car."

look at the mercedes benz "A class" (link to MB germany)
not sold in the US.

the gas engine easily gets 40mpg, and you have 5 seats and a quite comfortable, relatively high seating position.

so the cars are there

matt | Dec 03, 2008 | 3:19AM

Your plan would be great for car enthusiasts, but the majority of car buyers simply do not care for weight:power ratios, aerodynamics, or even how fun to drive the vehicle is.

Average Americans buy cars based on reliability and comfort. Reliability is based on trust. The large majority of baby boomers bought American cars in the 80s and early 90s, a time that was the nadir of the American car industry. Quality was awful. A huge number of cars were lemons, dealerships were awful, and those cars were lucky to make it to 90k miles. That was when the trust was lost. Many resolved to never buy an American car again.

Cars today are far better than anything made in the 90s, 80s, 70s. Your nostalgia is a bit of a red herring. Cars (domestic and import) today last longer, are faster, safer, and more fuel efficient.

There's no quick fix for Detroit's problems; they still need to regain the trust they lost in the 80s and 90s. To survive in the short term, they need to severely cut back on production and adjust prices higher so they can stop bleeding. They not only face the loss of buyers who lost trust in the car makers, but also face the unintended consequence of improved quality--cars today last over 50% longer than they did 20 years ago, so even people dedicated to domestics buy fewer of them.

GM could have the best car in the world today and it still would not save them from bankruptcy. They needed to build it five or even ten years ago.

Andrew S | Dec 03, 2008 | 6:09AM

I disagree with Ms. Pelosi. There is nothing at all wrong with a Chapter 11 Restructuring.

Recall the large KMart filing in 2002? Below are some excerpts from The Michigan Daily article on it.

"Kmart on Monday failed to make a regular weekly payment to its primary food distributor. Fleming Cos. cut off shipments to Kmart, saying it was owed $78 million. But yesterday, Fleming said it intends to resume deliveries to Kmart 'upon receiving satisfactory assurances from Kmart, via the bankruptcy court.'

'First and foremost, the Kmart filing helps define the path forward in our relationship,' said Mark Hansen, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Fleming.

Other suppliers have delayed or stopped shipments to Kmart in recent days. But bankruptcy expert Martin Zohn with Proskauer Rose LLP said the filing will restore confidence.

'The Chapter 11 brings order to the process. ... It has straightforward rules and for some reason people find that reassuring,' Zohn said. 'The one thing Chapter 11 can't solve is the quality of actual merchandise and sales.'

That's it in a nutshell! The one thing Chapter 11 can't solve is the quality of actual automobiles and the Amercian people shouldn't underwrite poor quality either.

Chapter 11 is like sending an addict to rehab where they detoxify, get support to help them get back on their feet and then counseling to teach them how to live a better life. The big three are very sick organizations and need help not handouts. Cash alone can't get them well, it can only keep them sick longer.

I know about the various stakeholders to be affected from a wide net of suppliers to employees to distributorships, but Martin Zohn has it right. Chapter 11 actually helps restore confidence, set parameters, and give the automakers a chance to get back in the game under bankruptcy court supervision.

I hope our representatives will insist on this structured approach and not waste taxpayer dollars.

gj | Dec 03, 2008 | 8:56AM

Forget bailout or regulations, how about purchasing power?

If the underlying reason for this crisis is tight lending and lack of purchasing, why shouldn't any rescue take the form of massive purchasing? It would be both the carrot, bringing the number of units sold back up, and the stick, lasting only a couple of years and with specific requirements. It could be a good investment for the US, by renewing all government fleets with more efficient vehicles with the newest technology. It would be "fair" since all automakers could compete on features and ability to deliver.

Someone would need to set appropriate requirements, but, for example, if you like the "Pickens Plan", let's have a guaranteed purchase of 500,000 natural gas vehicles for the next couple of years. Car companies could get a little prepayment, find it easier to get their own financing with the guaranteed purchases, would be forced to ramp up production of the more efficient technology, and after a couple of years they would either have failed or be able to mass-produce ti at a reasonable price for the rest of us.

wgc | Dec 03, 2008 | 10:08AM

On my last three car purchases, I wanted to buy a US brand. I went to all of their showrooms first and did test drives. I wasn't impressed. I then went to the japanese manufacturers. My car purchases arn't based on gas milage or on car size. The final decision is based on what I would like to believe is total value for the price paid. The Detroit big (?) three have been so certain for so long that they know what people want that they havent bothered to really study the changing buying patterns.

There is a saying that I like about this "When you are leading the herd, look back once in a while to see if anyone is following" The current crissis has been a long time comming and is the result of (your choice: arrogance, mismanagement, lost perspective etc.) The fault lies with the leaders of the companies and has resulted in them losing contact with the needs / wants of their customers

Tim W | Dec 03, 2008 | 10:14AM

One of my favorite cars was a brand new 1994 Saturn SL1. You remember Saturn? "A different kind of car from a different kind of car company"? And the S-Series was very different -- new materials, new construction techniques, new sales model. The S-Series were inexpensive, efficient, basic automobiles. I sold my SL1 years ago, but recently bought a 1995 SC1 because of the 30+mpg gas mileage.

So, what happened to Saturn? Well, it just became another one of the GM brand names -- selling platform cars designed by someone else. So much for difference.

In the meantime, the S-Series cars are still running -- many enthusiasts managing to coax 200, 300 even 400,000 miles out of them. These were really great cars.

And what about the EV1 electric car? It was just four years ago that GM collected them up and crushed them! And now they say if we wait just a couple of years, we can buy the Volt pluggable hybrid. I remember reading about the Aerovironment concept car -- the Impact back in the mid-90s and figured I buy one when they became available for sale. It's more than a decade later, and I'm told that a pluggable hybrid is just a couple of years away.

Frankly, I have no sympathy whatsoever for GM. They turned their backs on a fortune of innovated products like the S-Series and the EV1 because some bean-counter figured they might make more money selling SUVs rather than getting the products out and letting the market decide.

I'm going to write my congressmen and tell them not to give GM or any other automaker a dime.

Bill Coleman | Dec 03, 2008 | 2:41PM

Well... Leaving aside government safety and emissions mandates that increase weight and restrict formfactor, at the end of the day it really comes down to consumer demand.

I would _LOVE_ to see the same engineering that keeps weight down in the 26mpg highway Corvette applied to cars & trucks in GM's lineup, but would people buy them? What about Amory Lovins' snap-together carbon-fiber cars? Would Americans really pay $40-50k for a compact car, as cool as it might be?

I also think you dismiss the costs of labor (both in dollars, benefits, retirees as well as _work practice flexibility_ that the Japanese built their businesses on) a bit too airily. During the 1950s and 60s, the US automakers had the world market to themselves pretty much, as the rest of the industrialized world had been bombed flat. Therefore it was far more important to keep product going out the door than it was to keep costs competitive (as there was no perceivable or recognized competition), like David Lloyd George acquiescing to every strike during WWI in order to keep the factories going.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater | Dec 03, 2008 | 6:05PM

The elephant in the room that's not being mentioned when comparing a car to a two-seat plane is that in the two seat plane, the sum total of all the passenger safety features, besides maybe seat belts, is a hearty recommendation that you don't, under any circumstances, crash. :)

On a more serious note, anyone who hasn't seen it should check out Nova's excellent "Car of the Future" episode on

tgirsch | Dec 03, 2008 | 6:19PM

35cents per gallon in 1966 translates to $2.30 per gallon today based on inflation ... so gas is actually CHEAPER today than it was in 1966!

Bern Cranston | Dec 03, 2008 | 7:44PM

The safety features are certainly a factor. As a practical matter, Lotus already builds more or less the car you're describing, only it weighs more due to safety features, etc. I suspect it would be difficult to make it much lighter.

It's 1989 pounds, and 189 horsepower.

donv | Dec 04, 2008 | 12:42AM


Your comments are on the money, but what you haven't addressed are two big issues--how to change those buying habits, and how to maintain safety with heavy and light cars on the road together?

On the buying habits, one approach would be to start taxing cars, at purchase and every year thereafter, based on their weight. That starts to make lighter look better, and cheaper in the long run, very quickly.

The other problem is tougher. Massive SUV meets ultralight green car in a head-on collision. The SUV slows down some, but the light car is actually catapulted backwards. It's very hard to have 5,000 lb vehicles share the road with 2,000 lb vehicles without the lightweight getting the short end of the stick sooner or later.

By the way, I am a member of the DA2A group, too.



Matthew Long | Dec 04, 2008 | 7:47AM

I am following the demise of the US car industry with a certain level of detachment but nevertheless a degree of puzzlement.

In Europe and Asia, GM and Ford owned companies produce well regarded and economical cars which will transport a family and their luggage, are reliable, a pleasure to drive and still exceed 40mpg. The US businesses don't have a need to develop anything new; simply start making what is produced elsewhere in their own organisations.

Dave Collin, Glasgow, Scotland

Dave Collin | Dec 04, 2008 | 9:14AM

Another asinine Cringely column. Ford, GM, and Chrystler are capable of making good, small cars. However, they can't make them profitably when their labor costs are nearly 100% higher than their competitors (~$73/hr vs. ~$43/hr net cost incl benefits, etc). In SUVs and trucks there is enough profit margin to hide this disadvantage but in small cars they are completely screwed in the US. In Europe, they have a more even playing ground labor-wise so they have no problems.

Honda, Nissan, Toyota, and BMW profitably manufacture small cars in the US. It can be done.

The UAW and Big 3 management have been upping the ante of their suicide pacts for years now and put off the day of reckoning with gargantuan cars (that are now out of vogue) and subsidized financing (which is no longer possible). Well, the time has come to pay the piper and it's absurd that the rest of us should foot the bill for their greed and incompetence.

ErikTheRed | Dec 04, 2008 | 11:25AM

George said:

"The safety problem comes from sharing the road with larger vehicles. It's simply a question of mass. Large vehicle collides with smaller vehicle = smaller vehicle smashed."

Not so. Good modern technology and good design can make a huge difference. See this Volvo and Renault Modus crash test. The Volvo must weigh at least 70% more than the Modus, yet . . .

Colin | Dec 04, 2008 | 11:40AM

that´s a 10year old car, that volvo.
no, compare the audi Q7 (modern SUV, one of the biggest in europe) vs the fiat 500 (modern compact, great crashtest results)


matt | Dec 04, 2008 | 12:38PM

Perhaps Leeon Davis could have helped as well, but I'd suggest looking to Colin Chapman. Though he's dead now, too, his legacy lives on in the car company he founded, and imbued with the principle that the most important feature to build into any car was lightness. And it had to be central from day one of the design; you can't add lightness later.

Today you can get a Lotus Elise that keeps up handily with the fastest Corvettes on a mere 190hp from a tiny 1.8L engine. How does it make do with half the power of a 'vette? By being half the weight. Lotus is turning a profit on them at a $45k sticker price, too.

Hello, Detroit? Are you watching?

Chaz | Dec 04, 2008 | 4:29PM

Bob, today is 5th December and you are still saving Detroit? Please make us happy at least one last time...

Regards from Spain.


Guillermo | Dec 05, 2008 | 1:41AM

Just drop the import tax on BMW, Volkswagen and Mercedes cars and you'll have all the performance and cost effectiveness you want without having to waste capital on designing anything new in the US. This will make a lot of capital available for new lines of business, and will soak up the production which is not selling in Europe right now. GM already has Opel, Germany, so doesn't need to reinvent the wheel in the US anyway.

Charles Smyth | Dec 05, 2008 | 4:10AM

I see a major problem being gas prices in America are too low. Every now and then we have a spike, and people start getting religion, but then they go back down, and we get back in our Tahoes. High gas taxes in Europe and Japan mean that their bread and butter cars are efficient.

We need to do something to convince both buyers and car companies that gas WILL be more expensive in the future. My proposal is to raise the gas tax ONE PENNY A MONTH FOREVER. In the short haul it will be 60 cents over five years - far less a swing than we have had. Over 20 years it is only $2.40, less than the tax in most European countries. BUT, Americans will KNOW that prices will go up, and when they choose their next car, they might get a V6 instead of an V8, or a sedan instead of an SUV.

If we want to build cars to compete with Europe and Japan, we need similar market conditions. The typical family car in Japan is a Corolla, and in Europe a Jetta. No wonder Toyota and VW work so hard to make those cars good. Our typical family car has been an Explorer. When people know gas prices will go up, that might change.

Hugh Thompson | Dec 05, 2008 | 9:59AM

There is an existing car that would be cheap to buy, operate and a blast do drive - but you have to build it yourself much like your plane (google Lotus 7 kit cars). Or you could just buy a motorcycle.

It also is true that manufacturers can and do build those cars you long for - they're called race cars! The funny thing is they are probably much safer then the car you can buy today and drive on the road legally (assuming you're willing to wear a helmet and other safety equipment), but they are not street legal obviously.

Ultimately, I would love to drive a Lotus 7 around all the time but sometimes I have to take the wife and kids with me. So, blame the manufacturers but I bought something from them so I guess I'm in that same pit they dug over all these years. We've all been picking the big heavy behemoths for a long time and they've been shoveling them our way.

It seems to me a better model for all the auto companies is what they themselves do in Europe where the price of fuel is and always has been high. The cars are always more fun to drive over there and more recently, just as safe. I rented an Audi A3 turbo diesel once. It was a hoot to drive and it got about 50 mpg.

Bob C | Dec 05, 2008 | 4:48PM

There is a market in the USA for small cars, just not a big enough market to sustain companies like GM, FORD and CHRYSLER.

They don't make money on small cars, they make money on larger vehicles and trucks.

Everyone talks about how smaller cars are how they can save the Auto Industry.
I can tell you as a Smart Car driver, everyone LOVED the car.
"Everyone should own one of these!" they would say.

But when I asked people if THEY would buy one, they said:
"Oh, no, not for me or my kids, I want my kids in as much sheet metal as possible to protect them!"

There is a market for a cute small car like the Smart, but right now many people want them for the "novelty factor" and also since there is a waiting list, that alone creates demand, but selling 22,500 cars is not a success.
Worldwide, the Smart did not make a profit for almost TEN YEARS!
The only reason they are at all profitable in the US right now is because they do ZERO advertising, they don't have to, early adopters want them. Once the novelty factor has worn off, then you can see if it is a sustainable business model, if sales across Europe are any indication, it is NOT a sustainable business model.

If the Big Three were having problems BEFORE the Credit Crunch and Recession we are currently in then they did not have a sustainable business model EITHER!

Here is a short tale of an early experiment with GM and small cars:

guess how it ends?

Jim | Dec 05, 2008 | 5:02PM

oops here is a clickable link for my previous comment:

GM's Short Lived competitor to the Isetta

Jim | Dec 05, 2008 | 5:07PM

It's our own fault in part, I don't know why, maybe because alot of american's are overweight, but we seem to want bigger cars. The BMW 3 series is huge now, you have to go to the 1 series to get a reasonably sized car. I agree with a previous post, my 88 honda was awesome, modern hondas are twice the size. It's actually become a selling point, I saw an Audie add the other day proclaiming "largest car in it's class". Seriously?

matt | Dec 06, 2008 | 1:11AM

It is the mileage issue which predominates right now.Big Three cars have poor mileage-duh!!!I drive a diesel car,however I do not understand why diesel costs more.When I worked as a chemist at an oil refinery, to make diesel you simply boiled crude oil and distilled it.Gasoline refining is a very complicated and expensive process.

chris m. | Dec 06, 2008 | 1:06PM

It is the mileage issue which predominates right now.Big Three cars have poor mileage-duh!!!I drive a diesel car,however I do not understand why diesel costs more.When I worked as a chemist at an oil refinery, to make diesel you simply boiled crude oil and distilled it.Gasoline refining is a very complicated and expensive process.

chris m. | Dec 06, 2008 | 1:07PM

Whatever happened to the true economy car?

Even after revising the 1985-2007 mpg estimates to make them comparable to the new 2008 mpg estimates, the 1989 Honda CRX-HF is rated at 41 city and 50 highway mpg.

After 20 years of technological innovation, and four years of sky-rocketing fuel costs, shouldn't a new car model get at least 41/50 mpg before that car is considered to be ecologically friendly? Yet features the 2008 Nissan Rouge (22 city/27 highway mpg) as a "Top 2008 Fuel Economy Faves." The 2008 Nissan Rouge also has a sticker price of $19,250.

Seems to me that true economy cars been pulled from the market, and replaces with the new hybrids. Major car manufacturers want us to think that 30+ mpg is something miraculous, and requires an expensive, heavy, complicated, hard-to-maintain, hybrid.

In my opinion there is more to ecological friendliness than just mpg (although the present line-up fails at even that). Hybrids have huge batteries, and disposing of those batteries is never ecologically friendly. Then there is the ecological impact of manufacturing and shipping these huge, heavy, vehicles. Furthermore, recent road tests carried out by Auto Express show that hybrids often have worse CO2 emissions than standard autos.

To have a real impact on fuel consumption, and emissions, new vehicles need to be affordable. Hybrids are about the most expensive vehicles on the market. How can hybrids have a positive effect of the environment, if practically nobody can afford the beasts? Even if you can afford the steep sticker price, what about the cost of maintenance? Hybrids have two engines, and use a complicated system to charge their huge batteries. I hate to even think about the cost of maintenance and repair.

It used to be common that most fuel efficient cars also had the lowest sticker price, and lowest maintenance costs. The cars where simply smaller, lighter, and required more manual operations. With smaller, cheaper, parts, and a less complicated design, the cars were cheaper to maintain. When I bought my 1992 Ford Festiva, the 30/37 mpg rating was the least of my criteria, I was also concerned with sticker price, and maintenance costs.

Why can't we do as well now, as we did 16 to 35 years ago?

1973 Honda Civic rated 35/40 mpg
1986 VW Golf Diesel rated 31/40 mpg *
1989 Geo Metro was rated 43/51 mpg
1989 Honda CRX-HF was rated 41/50 mpg
1992 Ford Festiva rated 30/37 mpg

* I got over 50mpg driving from Florida to New Jersey, while running the air conditioner.


57 mpg? That's so 20 years ago
Want to drive a cheap car that gets eye-popping mileage? In 1987 you could - and it wasn't even a hybrid.

Efficiency? Think Racing Cars, Not Hybridso
A renowned racing car designer has said that car manufacturers should be looking at making cars lighter to improve efficiency, rather than adding complex drive trains.

Hot Cars Best Gas Milage
Welcome to We are automotive enthusiasts and travel aficionados who also love the environment. We appreciate both form and function, all while striving to leave future generations a legacy of clean air, scenic grandeur and a continuum of natural resources. In addition: the freedom to drive.

walterbyrd | Dec 06, 2008 | 1:10PM

Bob, I never thought to think about how the auto makers handled the 1970s and all the emissions controls. My 67 chevy, v8 gets approx 27mpg highway. Yet my 2003 chevy pickup (economy), 4cyl, gets around 22mpg. If I didn't have to work for a living using a truck, I'd drive my old car.

dialup Internet guy | Dec 08, 2008 | 10:22AM

I think a Lotus 7 meets your airplane car requirements, or the Elise for a modern equivelant. Still, these cars are far too uncomfortable and unsafe to make a good daily driver.

adam | Dec 08, 2008 | 4:51PM

Sent this article to a friend of mine who works for Chrysler. Here's his reply:

Not only is that writer retarded, he's another PBS covert Communist agent..

Geesh.. has that guy ever heard of crash standards? What a dork.

Sven Svenson | Dec 08, 2008 | 8:53PM

You can buy a car like that! 50+ mpg?! That's pretty much standard on any mainstream car in Europe. Hell, even large BMW executive saloons manage close to 60. What's stopping US car manufacturers doing the same?

alex | Dec 09, 2008 | 7:32AM

"On the buying habits, one approach would be to start taxing cars, at purchase and every year thereafter, based on their weight. That starts to make lighter look better, and cheaper in the long run, very quickly."

Why not just tax gasoline? why should a 5000lb car that gets 40mpg be taxed higher than a 3000lb car that gets 20mpg?

(There may not be a 5000lb car that gets 40mpg, but the principle still applies. Why beat around the bush?)

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater | Dec 10, 2008 | 4:32PM

Another comment from another friend at Chrysler.

Comments that crack me up include:
1- They have to build cars that people want to buy.
- GM has far greater US market share than any other company, including Toyota and Honda.
- Through October, GM, Ford, and Chrysler held 47% of the US market, while the Japanese makes held 40%.
- If the issue was that people didn't want their products, then explain why more people in the US buy GM products than any other?
BTW, I'm not contending the Detroit 3 don't need to make product improvements, they do! However, that isn't the cause of the current automotive crisis.

2- The Japanese are better run companies.
- Toyota's worldwide profit forecast for the 2nd half of the year is down $5.7Billion from the first half.
- Honda CEO Takeo Fukui on Nov. 6 said the Japanese government should intervene to weaken the yen.
- Each 1 Yen drop vs. the US Dollar equals $450 - $500 million profit to Toyota.
- Japan has far more to gain by manipulating their currency downward than the US, since the US market is much larger than theirs.
BTW, I'm not contending the Detroit 3 are better run than Japanese competition, they are not. However, management isn't the cause of the current auto crisis.

3 - US automakers fought safety regulations, i.e. the airbag.
- Chrysler led all automakers, including Toyota and Honda, making airbags standard equipment.
However, I don't agree that automakers not wanting to add substantial cost to the vehicle is poor management. Front airbags original purpose was to protect "unbelted" occupants, yet they added over $1,000 to the cost of the vehicle when introduced. Its obvious safety was a low priority for the customers who refused to use seat belts, not the automakers.
BTW, I'm not contending forcing autos to have front airbags was all bad. It eventually led to side airbags, which are a very good thing.

Sven Svenson | Dec 10, 2008 | 11:20PM

One factor not mentioned: I wonder if the Davis DA-2A could manage a 35mph front impact with a "survivable" rating. I am not an expert, but I understand that cars in the USA must meet these "survivable" crash ratings.

The resulting safety cage and bumper and crumple zone come at a price: extra mass, which means poorer milage.

Maybe we need a new class of auto which does not carry the heavy safety requirements? Maybe not permit this new vehicle class from traveling on interstates? Just a thought.

Peter M | Dec 12, 2008 | 6:09PM

Sven, you crack me up. GM is behind Toyota in market share and has been slipping for years. The big 3 did lobby against seat belts and airbags for years, once they were forced to add them, then they made a big deal about having them.

GM and Chrysler are walking dead. The layoffs will happen regardless of spending other people's money on them or not. Ford has a chance. This has been coming for decades and we should let Chap 11 handle it.

jmcnamera | Dec 12, 2008 | 8:29PM