Sunday, November 22, 2009

More for the "What's in a name?" files

Bear with me here, but a TV ad just inspired me to produce a history of family vehicles in the US since 1950, as told by me, with minimal and probably inaccurate research.  It's probably not worth your time to read it, but I published it anyway in the off chance that you value your time less than I do.

So... back in the day (we're talking WWII here), some bright American car manufacturers looked at the vehicles that were used to ferry luggage and passengers to and from their towns' train stations.  After the war, they started producing these "station wagons" for domestic use.  As anyone who lived through the 50's, 60's or 70's (or seen Wonder Years or That 70's Show) will tell you, the idea was quite popular. 

Station wagons have a bunch of awesome capabilities.  They can ferry large families.  Pets can fit in the back, which is removed from the human area but not as inhumane as, say, a trunk.  There's room for a lot of gear.  Surf boards fit nicely on the roof.   Such practicality lead to widespread adoption by folks who might be conveniently stereotyped as "house wives" or "family men."  The natural result, of course, was that station wagons became irredeemably uncool.

In the 80's, Detroit answered by taking an existing platform, the utility van,  fitting it with windows, adding some domesticated features, and producing... the minivan.  Unlike station wagons, minivans were never cool, but they were definitely popular.  I should know, I was there.  Head over to a soccer park on a Saturday or the Kiss and Ride at a public school on a weekday in the late 80's or 90's and you'd hardly see anything else.  Incremental improvements in the minivan continued for years.  There was a drop-down compartment for sunglasses.  A second door added on the left for more convenient loading.  Child safety locks, standard.  Eventually, automatic electronic doors and tailgates.

As vehicles though, minivans were terrible.  The ride was bumpy, especially in the earlier Dodge caravans.  The steering was loose and wobbly, the brakes unresponsive, the throttle finicky.  The vans were much taller than their station wagon predecessors.  A high center of gravity, when combined with poor handling and suspension, meant for a ride that was as rocky as it was bumpy.  House wives loved the "visibility" that came from sitting high.  Huge blind spots to the rear eliminated some of that advantage.  The fact that the car was simply not maneuverable enough to respond effectively to any newly available information... well that more than eliminated the rest.

There were two strikes against the minivan then.  First, it was uncool.  Second, it was mechanically inferior to normal passenger cars and wagons.  Foreign car companies addressed this second problem.  Honda released a minivan with significantly better handling and reliability.  Subaru released a popular all-wheel drive station wagon.  Volvo released a popular, super-safe, super-reliable station wagon.  Audi, BMW and Mercedes released luxury performance wagons that were hugely popular in Europe.

Needless to say, Detroit demonstrated no capability to make a better mouse trap.  The problem THEY saw wasn't that minivans were terrible vehicles but rather that men with families lacked the self-confidence to drive them.  The solution, we all know, was the SUV.  An SUV is a minivan for a male who's not man enough to admit that he's driving one.  Yes, the men who actually use their SUVs to tow things are excused from this judgment, but you and I both know that such cases amount to little more than rounding error among the overall sales.

SUVs continued in the tradition of domesticated features.  DVD players for the kids, automatic everything (even automatically collapsing seats), oodles of connections for cell phone chargers, you name it.  They also continued in the tradition of terrible driving performance.  The Dodge Caravan might have been a terrible platform, but at least it was based on a car (the old Chrysler "K" arrangement, from the LeBaron and others).  SUVs were built cheaply on a truck chassis.  They rode higher off the ground and were much heavier.  They used truck engines which were geared for towing instead of acceleration or economy and got terrible gas mileage.  Credit where it's due: a Dodge Caravan circa 1990 set the bar so incredibly low that the even worse performance of a Ford Explorer circa 2000 is a feat worthy of mention.

So SUVs were terrible, but terribly popular.  Foreign auto makers made great cars, but no one was buying them.  The solution, once again, was to disguise their quality product in order to fool the American market.  Toyota spiffed up the interior of the Aussie Outback-conquering Hilux, called it a 4Runner, and sold a bajillion of them.  Then they put an SUV body on a car frame, called it a RAV-4, and sold a bajillion of those.  Honda followed suit with the CRV.  VW created an incredibly awesome new platform.  The thing looked like an SUV, handled like a sports car, won the Darpa challenge, and you could buy it with a sophisticated diesel engine or as a hybrid.  Then they inexplicably called it the Touareg, as far as I can tell, no one bought one.  Then Porsche (who had co-developed the platform) put a 500HP engine in it, called it a Cayenne, and some rich people bought them.

The lesson of the Japanese car-based SUV lines though was that Americans were actually willing to purchase a decent vehicle as long as the styling was aggressive enough and the television ads featured a lot of flying rubble and mud.  Slowly and tentatively, companies started to respond.  Lexus released an SUV that was based on a Camery.  Acura released the sporty RDX, which gets 28 mpg.  These "crossovers" were all based on car or car-like platforms but dressed up to look like the light trucks with which Americans were infatuated.

As the crossovers continued to succeed, the foreign auto makers became bolder.  Honda designed a hatchback called the Fit, Mazda released a hatchback "3" (a rebranding of the old 323 models) and Toyota made some stuff that was so wacky that they had to call them Scions.  Then they made the Venza.

Which of course brings us back to the beginning.  Take a look at a Venza or a Fit sometime (or even a newer Chevy Malibu).  You'll never see the words in any marketing copy or hear them in a television ad, and there's a lot of plastic molding trying to fool you, but if you step back and take a good look, you'll realize what I've realized.  These are station wagons.  They've swapped the woody panels and the rear-facing seats for SAT-NAV and a 320HP engine with dual exhaust (Chrysler even released some monstrosity with a "Hemi" and battlement style slit windows that they called the Magnum), but they're still station wagons.  It's been a few decades in the wilderness, but we've "crossed over" to the place we never should have left.  I just saw testosterone-drenched ad, during a football game, for a station wagon.  Who'd have thunk that all we needed was a new term and some plastic body kit?

1 comment:

Melch said...

This is a disturbingly accurate account of events.