A brief history lesson, followed by a foray into the future.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | May 01, 1990

Dear Tom and Ray:

I've noticed the new ads for certain American cars are using words like "longer than last year," "heavier," "rear-wheel drive," and horror of horrors, "powerful V-8 engine." I thought the Japanese had taught us a lesson in the Seventies that we could NEVER forget. Does this mean the last two decades of responsible progress are going down the drain? Good Grief! Are we returning to the behemoth, gas guzzling, death traps of yesteryear?

RAY: Calm down, Augie. Things are OK, really! We are not going back to behemoths, gas guzzlers OR death traps. Your observations are correct. Cars are getting bigger, heavier, and more powerful. But they're also getting safer, more comfortable, more reliable, and overall, more fuel efficient.

TOM: Our "lesson" came in the 1970's, when gasoline suddenly became as valuable as extra virgin olive oil. When the gas crisis hit, American auto manufacturers were completely unprepared. The only way they could quickly make their cars more fuel efficient was to make them smaller...much smaller.

RAY: That forced several changes which were not entirely positive. It forced them to use smaller engines, build lighter cars, and switch to front wheel drive.

TOM: Let's look at these changes one by one. The reason American manufactures went to smaller engines in the '70s is because they didn't know how to make bigger engines that were fuel efficient. The only way they could double fuel economy was to cut the engines in half. Now, fifteen years later, with computer controls and fuel injection, they can make V-8s as fuel efficient as some four cylinder engines made in 1973.

RAY: Because the engines were smaller, the cars HAD to be lighter. A four cylinder engine simply couldn't push a 4000 pound car. The problem is that the very light cars have proven to be unsafe. We now have cars--like the Suzuki Swift and Honda CRX--that weigh as much as a large horse. How'd you like to come out the loser in a head on collision with Secretariat?

TOM: Aside from being safer, bigger cars are generally more comfortable. The added weight keeps them from being tossed around by road and wind conditions. The added length--specifically wheelbase length-- makes them more comfortable because it moves the wheels farther from where you sit.

RAY: Finally, because the cars were smaller, manufacturers were almost forced to switch to front-wheel drive to improve traction. Heavier cars did fine with rear-wheel-drive, but the lighter cars needed the advantage of having the weight of the engine on top of the driven wheels. Unfortunately, cramming everything up front made front-wheel-drive cars harder to repair.

TOM: Rear wheel drive has always provided a more comfortable and balanced ride. That's why Lexus and Infiniti, the two great new super cars from Japan (the country that taught us that lesson you mentioned) come standard with V-8 engines and rear wheel drive.

TOM: So we don't see increased weight, power, and the return of rear wheel drive as steps backwards. Technology has simply improved to the point where car manufacturers can give certain people the kinds of cars they've always wanted without sacrificing economy or safety.

TOM: If they go back to crank starts and wooden wheels, I think you have every right to get alarmed, August, but we don't blame Americans for wanting more comfort and safety than a Festiva has to offer.

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