Friday, March 28, 2008

Another MPV hating article for the fun of it

I was in Singapore about a month ago for the Singapore Airshow. Aside from getting to view in person the latest Subaru Impreza S-GT (WRX Auto) which looked like a truncated Toyota Caldina (which is pretty dull looking but not as bad as I first expected it to look) and the new Lancer Evolution 10, which in my opinion doesn't really look like it has differentiated alot from the Lancer GT/GLS that I recently drove (visually almost similiar), and in between complaining to my business partner about the ridiculously high cost of being a visitor to such an event (SGD50 for parking if we drove, SGD5 for a short 10minute busride!) I witnessed the performance of something that was as graceful as a hippopotamus wearing a tutu doing the nutcracker suite. It was the flying display of the Airbus A380. For those of you who are not aware of what an A380 is, I shall tell you that it is currently the largest passenger aircraft in the world. It is larger than the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet and is cleaner, quieter and flies smarter due to very military spec avionics. It is the stay-puft man, pilsbury, gigantor, el-lardo of the airline industry. Maybe some larger transport aircraft may 'dwarf' it, but that's only very slightly.

Imagine looking up and seeing that hippo feeling extremely light on its feet, making turns at around 100km/h without a worry. Technology does that. It enables a tutu wearing hippo like the A380 to actually perform wonders. I was looking up and wondering how many tons of aluminium, plastic and composite material larger than Jabba the Hutt could actually be wafting by extremely slowly doing circles while the commentator was blabbering away about the A380’s specifications with classical music playing in the background. It wasn’t as spectacular as watching a Sukhoi SU-30 doing its Cobra Stance and Falling Leaf-like stall manoeuvres, but it was indeed much better than watching some F16 doing a fly-by, which is pretty common in my books as I’ve seen tons of fighter aircraft flight displays in my line of work. So I usually ignore the Red Arrows, Black Eagles, Yellow Canaries, Flying Parakeets or any of that sort of aerobatic displays as they are all alike. I’d now like to watch someone invent something that is either humongous or small and dainty that can bend space and time. Enter a worm hole at one end of the runway and out the other. After watching the Sukhoi do all those gravity defying stunts, I want all jet fighters to have variable directional nozzles, canards and fantastic avionics so that I can see UFO-like movements. Imagine at an Air Show we have Lockheed showing is an Independence Day like mothership slowly clearing the mountaintops of the Titiwangsa Range for a flyby at next year’s LIMA exhibition. Or imagine the Puddlejumper from Stargate:Atlantis doing an appearance at this year’s DSA. Appearing on one end of the runway and disappearing, then reappearing right above the crowds. That would be amazing.

I suppose being exposed to all these events and technology makes some people (like me) immune to being really surprised about technology. But it doesn’t. Again I bring you to the Airbus A380 experience. It really is a sight to behold when it is flying slow. The International House of Pancakes (or the A380) feels like its not moving due to its size when you watch it fly by you at slow speeds. Lucky there are no traffic jams in the sky. You only have delays when you wish to land due to lots of air traffic. So you may now ask what is the point of this article?

None whatsoever. We also realise that aeroplanes are much more economical if they are large humongous Airbuses and that they can carry 800-900 people at one go. However, air travel is not a personal way of travelling to 99% of all flyers as private jets are expensive. There is a vast difference when it comes to personal transport for us. We have motorcycles, bicycles and even cars. It is of this point that I state that the general public is confused when it comes to purchasing cars. I mean, if you had the money to buy a private jet like a Global Express would you buy a Boeing 747 instead because you wanted the extra legroom? You’d buy the Global Express because it’s small, nippy, fast and still luxurious over Jumbotron over there. The rationale behind buying an MPV is exactly the same thing. You will never put your money down for an oil tanker for private use over a Wellcraft Scarab cigarette boat, but why in God’s name would you take out your check book and write a down payment for a MPV when you don’t really need one except for once a year? Buy that small sports car or decent 4 door saloon. Honda City excluded.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Size Does Matter.

I’ve been having some opinion lately about large cars and fast cars in general. I will post something on fast cars later and shall blabber about large cars for now. I once posted an article about how large cars were growing in size recently and I am still amazed on why we humans nowadays need so much space and size in a car . This was what I wrote in early 2007:

“The first problem is the fact that cars are becoming larger. Look at the current Honda Civic, it’s so large that an Accord from 1990 looks small compared to it. Before 1995, Honda didn’t have a need to have a Honda City, look what’s happened now? In the year 2025, the Honda City will be Accord sized and the Accord will be slightly smaller than your average terrace house. The Mercedes S class will be slightly smaller than a small bungalow and would need a ladder for you to reach the door, occupy 2 lanes on a highway and because of the miracle of lightweight materials, electronics and engine development, make 125mpg. We are obviously screwed when it comes to a desire for space. Years ago, before men invented MPVs, we all went round in 4 door Mazda 323s, Volvo 244s and so forth. I think those days were simple. So simple that we won’t go back there again because cars those days have their own set of issues. We were screwed then as well as in the future.”

Do we really need all that space? Remember that the rest of the world, which means you and me included, doesn’t live in America, which means we don’t have acres of road to play with and a roadside parking space that would easily fit an M1 Abrams MBT. What we have are jam packed roads, slightly undersized parking lots (no joke as you’d notice the amounts of dings and dents on your car after a few years) and terrible road and city planning where we inherited some very narrow backlanes that won’t even fit a W140 S-Class Mercedes Benz. We actually need small to medium sized family sedans at the most. This means Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Lancer sized cars and not Toyota Camry and Honda Accords which in their current generations are large cars. These cars are heavy as they are conventional build cars; i.e. steel chassis and body which means lots of weight = stodgy handling (which isn't good for the enthusiast) and fuel guzzling. They have no real place in our society, as they are as big as a W220 S-Class nowadays. The reason is that space is at a premium and the amount of petrol a 2.4liter Camry guzzles isn’t very sensible in times where oil reaches a hundred US Dollars a barrel.

Please notice that none of us or our children have grown to Godzilla sized adults compared to our parents or grandparents. None of us are 11foot 6 inches tall and none of us actually have a waist larger than a Sequoia tree. We as a human race have not grown so much in the last 20 years until it actually warrants so much space to be had in a car. My dad in 5foot 10inches, I am unlucky in that I am two inches shorter in fact. My closest friends range from between 6ft tall to 5ft 4in tall; and I am referring to men here. So where is the actual growth spurt that’s supposedly happening? If you say that this is Asia and Asians tend to be short I can find you a short European and show him to you in no time as it’s the same thing over there. However, we seem to be purchasing larger cars. Note that it is popular to own a Toyota Camry or a Honda Accord which now seems to be extra large saloons compared to when they first started out. The Camry is as large as the first Lexus LS400 and the Accord is as large as the first Legend. This is downright stupid.

I think the problem is that car manufacturers are that they have focus groups, motoring journalists and America to blame for. The focus groups tend to be from a wide range of people who are parents, rocket scientists, insurance salesmen, lawyers and mass murderers. These people are those that suggested some detail that have been incorporated into modern cars. They suggested cup-holders (good). They and motor journalists suggested the fact that they need larger cars for them to use in their daily commute. Let’s for example take the Honda Civic. In 1985 it was a small 2-4 door hatchback/sedan that was used as a second car for people who wanted a small car to ferry their kids to school or for that short trip to the market. Honda slowly increased the car in size until what I believed it was optimum during the 1992 EG series chassis. Everyone who sat in one had decent and more than ample headroom and legroom. I don’t remember sitting in a 4 door SiR and complaining that my knee was bashed against the front seat or that my head was touching the headlining. It was cozy for 4 people and a slight squeeze for 5. But never did I complain I was in agony from a lack of space.

The problem with focus group participants who complained about lack of space in their Honda Civic was that they went and sat in some larger car (like the Accord at the time) and wished their small compact Civic was that car. This is actually the same with some journalists who jump in and out of cars comparing them and saying that this is actually too small compared to that newer model They compared the previous Civic with the newly launched Lancer and when the newly launched Corolla came out and trounced both in size said that the Civic and Lancer are small. It’s like a stupid arms race that’s caused by comparing one newer make to another. Car manufacturer engineers should not always follow what journalists and focus groups say.

The 2000 Civic was even larger than the EK series that it replaced. It even had a flat floor that liberated lots of space at the rear. However, it was still a slight squeeze for 5 people. So they came out with an even larger Civic this time around. While it looks stunning, it’s huge. Is there a real point for the size? This is where America comes in. For Honda to make a decent profit, it has to build global cars. Being global usually means you have to design a car for America, the land of the big. Look at their burgers and you know what I mean. The phrase ‘Thunder Thighs’ was coined by an American and so did the word (and burger) ‘Whopper’. This is a place where people are large and the average waist size is 45 to 600 inches depending on age and diet (and the amount of beer drank during the year’s Superbowl). To sell the small Civic in America it had to grow in size. However, it has to be noted that because of its girth, Civics no longer handle like they used to.

The Civic grew and grew and grew. And it is still growing until Honda noticed that it had grown to a size where another model can slot below that one. This is the problem. However, it isn’t only Honda or Toyota that couldn’t’ stop making their cars grow. Everyone had small cars that became fat. The BMW 3 series grew until BMW had to slot in a 1series. I truly dread the day when the 1 series becomes larger a few generations down the road. What are we going to have? A ½ series? ½20I? ½30I? How about a Mercedes A 0.570 to replace the A170 as the baby Merc? This has got to stop.

What should be done was this. I used ‘past tense’ due to the fact that it wasn’t done and now its too late to change. Firstly, get a few psychologists to analyze focus group participants. Get to the root of their suggestions. It may be an inherent need for a participant to suggest a larger Civic as they actually wanted an Accord but couldn’t afford one in the first place. Secondly, shoot any journalist that actually complains on the fact that the latest Lexus super saloon a tad smaller than a Rolls Royce Phantom. And thirdly, IGNORE America. They’re just a country of 5 lane a side highways and bus sized ‘compacts’. Their viewpoint isn’t relevant in the global car industry. See? I have an answer for everything.