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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Minicars Get Maxied

Posted to Car and Driver Forum on 07-04-06

Csaba Csere, you hit the nail on the head with your August Column, "Minicars? I don't see no stinking minicars". But you stopped short of defining the problem. And you didn't clarify the solution. Still, your examples pointed us in the right direction.

Just like the forties changed the way cars looked, the seventies changed the way they worked. The gas crisis gave us the first major advancement in functional body design since the twenties.

Like you, I recall the mid-seventies well. Until then I owned American cars and loved the torque of the small block V-8s. Then I compared my Chevy to the specs for the 1974 VW Dasher. I was impressed. When I traded up, I discovered how much weight was a factor in acceleration, handling, braking and economy - even with less power. I became addicted to the idea of light and efficient cars.

The Dasher was so much fun, I bought a Scirocco when it came out. It was a fantastic ride at the time. Two years later I traded in the Dasher for a 1978 Rabbit for my wife. At 1880 pounds,
it got 38 MPG with reasonable performance.

Giorgetto Giugiaro made history with these little cars in creating an excellent light-weight package that still held five people when needed. The VW Rabbit was state of the art in 1978. Unfortunately, art doesn't advance it's state at a steady pace.

Later I bought a 1985 Honda CR-V. It weighted only 2000 lbs and had lots of room. Twice, I actually hauled a standard sized refrigerator (no I couldn't get the tail-gate closed). This car also got mileage in the high thirties, but not better.

And now Toyota, Honda and Nissan are all introducing new economy cars. But they still only 38 MPG! And Nissan will struggle to get that.

What's the deal? Has there been no technical progress in the last 30 years? No, that's not it. Engines and transmissions are definitely more efficient. Could it be the few hundred extra pounds these "small" cars have gained? Yep. The improved drive-train efficiency has been totally eclipsed by the increasing weight of the cars. New does not always mean improved.

Think what could be done if we dropped window lifts, electric door locks and butt warmers. Then scale the whole car back so everything can be lighter. Focus on active safety instead of building tanks that tend to roll over anyway.

If Honda combined the body of the 1985 CR-V with today's drive-trains, they could be getting 50 MPG instead of only 38 in that little fat Fit. Don't get me wrong. Not withstanding a name borrowed from a rabid dog, Honda has done a wonderful job on Fit's package. They get a lot in a reasonable space. It just WEIGHTS too much.

Another "Mini" that's been "maxied" is the one from BMW. A car that small should weight half as much, and get twice the mileage. They could have at least IMPROVED on the original after all this time.

And why did Toyota replace the Echo weighing 2055 lbs with the Yaris which weighs 2326 pounds? Two hundred pounds LIGHTER than the Echo and it would have come in at 50 MPG instead of the high thirties. It may not be obvious, but 271 pounds can make a LOT of difference in such a small car.

It seems these masters of auto technology have forgotten the basic purpose of a car - to move a human from one place to another. How many tons of steel does it take to deliver a 150 pound person? With all the new light-weight materials at hand, we should have an effective ONE thousand pound car by now.

I also owned a 1975 MG Midget (I told you I got excited about light cars). At only 1300 pounds, it was so much fun to drive, I forget the mileage. One evening I left the lights on and had to push start it in a 30' driveway. Yes, I got it started... AND stopped before hitting the garage door. Try THAT with their Yaris, Fit or Versa.

But it's not all bad news. Lotus has shown the way forward in the sports segment with the new Exige. Colin Chapman would be proud to see them living out his creed - "Simplify and add lightness". WHEN will the rest get a clue? And more importantly, WHY haven't they done it yet?

Do they own too much oil stock? Would it upstage their complex hybrid solutions? Are the Fed safety trolls just too hard to deal with? There are lots of good questions at the heart of this
problem. And we're about to be in desperate need of some good answers.

Someone has to lead the charge.

Csaba, you have their ear.

Tell 'em who we are.

10-29-09 Here's some good data on weight effects of milage...

Drill into the PDF from the link above. Also included are the weight's effects on performance, as well as showing how much weight DOESN'T matter much once you exceed 65 MPH. Great stuff.

04-28-10 Lotus comes out swinging for lighter, more efficient vehicles 

Finally, someone conclusively demonstrates the key to automobile efficiency is light weight - the video says it all.

09-16-10 Ultra-Light Cars Reap Rewards of X Prize 

06-26-13  New VW Golf TDI BlueMotion is 'most fuel-efficient ever' with 73.5 mpg