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Fads come and go, sometimes on a whim, other times because of outside forces. Here at the halfway point of the new millennium’s first decade, car culture has sure taken some interesting turns.
Those of you who innocently took a test drive of a plain-Jane Nissan Altima when it was new in 2002, floored it, and nearly sprained your necks upon discovery of 240 horsepower, may have suspected that the standards of speed had risen a tad since the 90s. Turns out that was only the beginning. Nowadays, the Volkswagen Passat raised that same family car bar to an excessive 280 horsepower. We have little $30,000 Mitsubishis that can leave Camaros for dead. The 500-horsepower Dodge Viper suddenly seems ordinary, and the once-acclaimed Acura NSX is a joke. Whether or not you’re a speed freak, there are two trickle-down benefits: the minimum standard of horsepower has risen from 55 (Geo Metro) to 103, and very few cars in any segment are truly underpowered anymore. Not a bad development.
Cars just won’t stop growing. Every redesign has to be bigger than the last one; the new Toyota RAV4 is 14 inches longer than the last, and current Civics now dwarf Accords of years past. It’s an inevitable force of marketing; no one wants to pay the same money for less car, right? Bigger also means heavier; our cars pack more pounds than ever.
And there’s no rule that contradictory trends can’t coexist. Apparently Americans expect their cars to compete with the speed of sound while also using less gas than their walking shoes. The Toyota Prius hybrid heads into its third year with unsatisfied demand, a long line, and a price premium. All this despite an ample supply of the perfectly serviceable Corolla at the same dealers. No automaker wants to be caught with their pants down, and all are rushing to market with a hybrid, even if it means using systems developed by competitors (Nissan’s Altima will use Toyota hardware).
We seem to want our cars with more stuff and more personality. The 90s banality in our styling is gone, even on the most banal cars like the Accord and Camry. And notice how almost every car has power windows and locks standard, and how even the Kia Rio comes with six airbags and a powerful stereo. Is it any wonder that the average car now costs $28,000?
Speaking of "cars", we may be moving toward the day when that word will again apply as a general term. SUVs are suddenly for the foolish. They always have been, but now everyone seems to know it, too. Ford’s Explorer and Expedition are going down the drain, and the Excursion has already expired. The bigger the SUV, the bigger the sales drop. Little cars are selling better than ever, even old-timers like the Sentra and Neon.
Lastly, we’re going foreign, and fast. The Big Three’s market share was 60% at the early part of this decade; that will stand at or below 50% by the end of it. This is hardly a new trend, but its recent acceleration is alarming. One thing for sure is that in terms of the players, the market has matured. Only two major automakers set up American bases in the 90s (Kia and Daewoo), and the 2000s have brought none.
Cars can’t get bigger or faster forever, yet no one can stand still. Hybrids are hot, but the long-term experiences remain to be seen. What will become of all this automotive craziness? Check back in ten years.
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