Hooniverse Editorial: Carflation, or The Ongoing Bloat of Once-Small Vehicles.

Have you ever noticed that the car model you owned in the past has grown in size, in weight, and in displacement? This phenomenon affects almost every car line from BMW to Honda, with a few exceptions. Remember when the name Honda was synonymous with lightweight, economical cars? The company established itself in the United States in 1970 with the N600, a small four-seater. It hit pay dirt with the introduction of the larger 1973 Honda Civic, a car that was light and fuel efficient yet could fit four adults in modest comfort. Honda sold many first-generation Civics during its seven-year run, as the car was just what Americans needed during the first OPEC oil embargo. During subsequent redesigns, Honda offered more Civic models. What had been just a two-door truncated sedan became a three-door hatchback, a formal four-door sedan, even a five-door wagon. Engine size increased as well, growing from a 1.3-liter four-cylinder to a 2.0-liter–although you have to give Honda credit, because the engines were still relatively miserly in terms of fuel usage. The first-generation Civic was a marketplace success, not only in the U.S., but around the world. To broaden its appeal , Honda increased the dimensions including height, width, length, and weight. With each succeeding generation of the Civic, the once-diminutive car became more substantial. Today’s Civic Sedan–which is now in its eighth generation–is actually larger than the original Honda Accord introduced in 1976. Take a look at the following comparative dimensions for a 2010 Honda Civic and a 1981 Honda Accord, both four-door sedans; I included the dimensions for a first-generation Civic sedan for comparison purposes. By 1981, it had already grown to the size of the original Accord (which itself is now almost as big as a Chrysler 300). If you assume this size gain is confined to the Civic, think again. All of the major Japanese brands have been hit with the bloat bug. The once-small Toyota Corolla is now larger than the original Camry; the Mazda 3 hatchback (the spiritual successor to the Mazda GLC and 323 Familia Series) has outpaced the original Mazda 626; and the once-petit Datsun Sunny, marketed today as the Nissan Sentra, has grown almost as large as the original Datsun 810 Maxima. The European carmakers are not immune from this impulse to super-size their most popular models, and the enthusiast who follows such things bemoans the growth of BMW most of all. The 3 Series BMW has always enjoyed a loyal following among driving enthusiasts for its performance, light weight, and handling prowess. The fact that BMW has been relentless in offering a manual-transmission option for all of their models endears the brand to everyone who loves driving. So, it should come as no surprise that, as the 3 Series started to gain weight, driving enthusiasts were not all that happy. Take a look at the expanding girth of the BMW 3 series Sedan compared to the BMW 5 Series sedan from the same era.

According to this table, the current BMW E90 3 Series weighs more than the popular 1982-’88 BMW E28 5 Series. Considered one of the roomiest BMW sedans offered at that time, it is as good an example as any–repeated elsewhere–of how our cars have grown up over the last decade. We all know that safety features and the crashworthiness of the body structure add weight, but having the current 3 Series weigh almost 1,000 pounds more than a 5 Series is problematic. The BMW 7 Series is now approaching two and a half tons, which takes its toll on both fuel efficiency and driving dynamics. And it certainly does not help the cars live up to the BMW mantra of being the Ultimate Driving Machine. One thing about American-made cars is that there is no direct correlation from one series to the next; in fact, sometimes the replacement actually shrinks in size and weight. Ford’s small mid-sized cars, from the Tempo to the Contour to the Fusion, are actually all comparable in size and weight. The same could be said for the Chevrolet Corsica-to-Malibu progression, and the Chrysler LeBaron to the Cirrus and Sebring models. On the other hand, the domestic pickup has grown in weight, size, and power. Ford may even be considering a bigger-than-the-current-Ranger, smaller-than-the-F-Series truck in 2012. A good example of domestic bloat is the Dodge Dakota, a model that once competed with the Ford Ranger, the Chevy S-10, the Toyota Tacoma, and the Nissan Frontier trucks. Although it was always sized just a tad larger than the competition–positioned as a mid-sized pickup–it was still smaller than the full-size Ram. The following table compares the 1987 Dakota with the 1973 Dodge Ram and the current Dakota. The weight on the current Dakota includes the standard 3.7-liter V6, while the 1973 Ram Club Cab had the proven Chrysler 318-cubic-inch (5.2-liter) V8. The 1973 Ram used essentially the same sheet metal from 1972 to 1993 until the drastic redesign of the Bob Lutz-inspired 1994 “Big Rig” style of the Ram pickup. Dodge is only offering the extended cab or crew cab for the Dakota and is missing sales for a standard cab pickup that’s smaller than a full-sized Ram. Many customers buy a small pickup in its cheapest form: a standard cab with a four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission. Utility companies and small municipal fleets use these trucks, a market that Dodge seems to have ignored with the current Dakota lineup. Many of us complain about the fact that cars and trucks are growing larger and heavier. Yet producing safer vehicles comes with a price, as does loading them with myriad comfort and convenience features. Almost every car and truck today includes electric window lifts, air conditioning, multi-disc CD changers, electrically adjustable seats, front and side air bags, and engineered crumple zones to protect occupants in the event of a crash. All of these items add weight. Are we really ready to give any of them up to make a car lighter, possibly smaller externally, and more fuel efficient? *All dimensions in the charts are rounded off to the nearest whole number for comparison purposes. Read more at Automotive Traveler.

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