Spiky-headed weight-loss guru Susan Powter once pleaded with the country's overfed citizens to "stop the insanity." Some heeded her advice (Kelly Osbourne), some didn't (David Anthony Higgins; anyone who's eaten multiple KFC Double Downs). The auto industry didn't either.
Tightening safety regulations, feature bloat and heightened demand for cars that consumers perceive to be safer (i.e., larger ones) have led to the enfattening of automobiles over three decades. These larger, heavier cars have amassed tremendous technical complexity, much of which has gone toward managing the physical stresses of size while retaining a semblance of fuel efficiency.
In thirty years, the Toyota Corolla progressed from a sprightly, "Oh, What a Feeling" econobox to a staid interstate cruiser. A full-grown sedan-in-a-blanket, if you will.
Edmunds.com reports small (i.e., compact) cars now weigh, on average, 549 pounds more, have 61 more horsepower and have a 6.4-inch longer wheelbase than they did in 1990. So, where small cars once were indeed small, they are now larger. But since they're smaller than larger cars, they are still, by definition, small. (Immanuel Kant, call the front desk.)
Actually, car size isn't quite so relativist as all that. According to the U.S. government, it's interior size that determines whether a car is classified as big or small, which is how you end up with the Rolls-Royce in the same class as a Honda Civic, and why cars get bigger yet never change their definition.
The Honda Accord sedan was more comfortable and sporty than its smallish rivals when it arrived on the scene three decades ago. Now it's in the same class as the Ford Crown Vic!
The major culprit in cars' expanding waistlines is indeed safety specs—better side-impact protection, more robust crumple zones and taller front ends designed to protect the lives of people who've wandered into busy streets. In essence, we've traded agility for safety and comfort, which in most cases has resulted in a dampening of that "driving feel" you grew up reading about.
To be fair, automakers have been trying hard to shed weight, and rumors persist that Ford may even consider a magnesium frame for the next F-150, likely cutting out hundreds of pounds. Yet, none has yet been able to offset the bloat.
There is some good news. According to Edmunds, small cars now get 2.5 more miles per gallon in combined fuel economy estimates since 1990 by way of advancements in engine technology, even with all the extra power needed to move them along.
The ubiquitous Ford pickup shrank considerably after the gas shocks of the 1970s. But after that it ballooned into the masonite-hauling behemoth we have today.
It's not just small cars that have burst out of their shorts. Midsize cars and pickup trucks have also exhibited serial widening and increased gravitational pull over the past three decades.
Will the bloat continue on into the next decade? We're betting the safety curve will eventually level out, leaving less finagling for regulators to do. Plus, as lighter, stronger materials become cheaper to produce (with some help from supercar buyers, and the defense and aerospace industries), we'll finally see some dramatic weight reduction, which will affect the development of all the rest of cars' systems. If not, the Jabba the Hut Edition F-150 may end up clogging your driveway.