Friday, March 4, 2011

Carmakers Aren't Dumb, They're Just Selling What Dumb Buyers Want

The New York Times published on 02/25 that the Chevy Cruze is available as a special "Eco" model that saves a bunch of weight in lots of places, tucks its elbows in at speed to make itself more slippery, and shifts to a higher gear than the other models.  All this it does in the name of squeezing every inch from every drop of fuel.

If you want the Eco model to really succeed, you're going to have to row your own.  That is, the automatic is not your friend.

I've been saying this for years.  Shifting isn't that hard.  Two feet, two hands going, just like riding a bike.  One foot goes down just as the other is coming up - just like riding a bike.  Shifting while doing that and steering, it's all just a matter of practice.  If you can walk and chew gum at the same time, you can probably handle a manual with little difficulty.

NOTE: If chewing and walking are beyond your reach, maybe driving isn't for you, either.  There's a lot more then just working your jaws and your feet when you slide behind the wheel, so perhaps you should study up on the bus schedules.

I'm a sometime participant over at, where the goal is distance at almost any cost.  Well, not any cost.  But you see people willing to make some sacrifices to really make their fuel dollars stretch.  There's everything from the nearly-stock looking Ford F-250 that rings the bell at 28mpg, to the wildly modified Aerocivic, a Honda that's been transformed into a surreal 95mpg spaceship.  These are vehicles that aren't using any kind of hybrid systems, they're delivering those mileages with modifications regular people can do.  As they say, the most significant change you can make is to adjust the nut behind the wheel.

My average is down lately.  Not driving my truck makes it perform poorly when I do drive it.  But I recently found a Toyota pickup at the junkyard with the manual steering box; swapping that into my truck would eliminate the power-sapping power steering system.  That means better mileage, and a little less weight up front.  A little less plumbing, too.  Without having made ANY modifications to my truck, my running average is 30mpg, a number the EPA never considered putting on its economy sticker.  On one memorable run, I've managed 39.5mpg.  That's the kind of performance people are buying the Cruze Eco for.

Well, why would you buy an Eco?  If you could get that kind of mileage out of a 20-year-old hoopy, why would you bother with a brand-new, expensive car?

Why indeed?  Like I said, no modifications.  Just a change of habits.  Slow down a tad, ease off the gas well in advance of the lights - if it's red, there's no point hurrying up to it, is there?  And if you ease off the gas now and take your time getting there, maybe it'll be green by the time you do arrive, and you don't have to come to a complete stop.  So you didn't have to throw away all that kinetic energy.   Your average speed is exactly the same as it would have been - funny how that works, isn't it?  You don't get to go very fast, but you never come to a stop, either.

Back in the day my Dad had a 1970 SAAB (anybody besides me remember when it was all caps?) 96 sedan.  It looked a bit like a VW Beetle that got stretched out a little on a warm day.  It wasn't fast, not especially stylish - a little weird to be honest.  None of my friend's dads had one. But I loved that car.  Dad really bowled me over when he casually mentioned that the SAAB averaged around 40mpg.  This was at the time a good number for a new car, around 1980 lots of little Japanese econoboxes would deliver 40mpg, but not all of them, and they were brand new.  The SAAB was ten years old at the time.

Not a big surprise in retrospect.  SAAB was first and foremost an airplane builder.  They knew how to make the most of their little car's meager 55hp.  If you can't have big power, then don't give your modest power much resistance.  It worked.   Skinny tires, a smooth underbody, aerodynamically good shape overall.  The low curb weight was in its favor, too.

Now cars are crazy heavy.  They have lots of automatic everything, windows, locks, AC, etc.  The mileage they deliver is abysmal.  But when buyers keep complaining simultaneously about the high price of fuel, the sociopolitical folly of sending our money to foreign producers (I'm looking at you, Canada!), and the woeful thirst of modern cars, I can only shake my head in wonder. 

The answer is right in front of you.   It's your own hands, your own feet, your own head.  The way you drive affects your fuel economy.  Think about how you drive and you can make a difference right now without spending a single extra dime to make it happen.  You could drive an older car and avoid the huge buy-in cost of a new one, and drive it in such a way as to make it a serious penny pincher.  You could drive a new car in such a way as to make the extra investment for a hybrid a ridiculous waste of money.

You could drive a hybrid in such a way as to have to mark on your calendar a reminder to fuel it up once a month, whether it needs it or not.  You know, just to keep the fuel fresh.

The automatic transmission is a symptom of larger issues: drivers abdicating responsibility for their own driving, their own in-the-moment decisions.  It's like voicing displeasure with the government without having voted for any of the candidates.  Don't like it?  Too bad, you didn't put forth any effort in the decision making process.

It used to be a phrase that described putting forth the effort to make things work for your own good, and it's so appropriate here I can't pass up the opportunity:

Shift for yourself.

1 comment:

  1. Hi! you're absolutely right! :) Some people go for looks before performance and safety :)