I think we’ve all pretty much settled on the idea that Americans buy cars not to meet the demands of their typical day, but for real or imagined edge cases —pulling a trailer, loading drywall, etc. I can’t say for sure it’s true, but looking at the types of cars that sell, I think it more or less makes sense. Obviously, buying a car based on an attribute that you’re going to make use of maybe 5-10 percent of the time is irrational. So why is that a primary driver of car purchase decisions?
A couple weeks ago I arrived to my office/garage/shop to find a couple feet of snow blocking the driveway and without thinking twice, I just drove through it. That night, I was sent out to retrieve a favorite house plant from my parent’s unoccupied house.
Instead of trudging up their un-plowed driveway, I drove through a couple feet of snow drifts to the door. I approach things like driving my kids up the big sledding hill in the yard, etc. in the same manner. And now that I’ve swapped my summertime BFGs for Nokians, I don’t have to think about the weather at all.
I push the GX closer to the limits of its capability more frequently than the average Lexus SUV owner, but I’ve modified it for off-roading and most of the miles I put on it are just tootling around town. It’s mostly wasted. All things considered, I’d be better off with a Civic, except in those moments where having a ground clearance, four-wheel drive and a winch allows me to do the fun but almost always unnecessary things I couldn’t do in a normal car.
But I have the GX because it’s so satisfying to use that special capability every once in a while. I’ve had the same feeling loading absurd amounts of stuff into a minivan, or tracking our GTI. I imagine crossover owners get the same sense of satisfaction every time they make use of their car’s special attribute, the H-point. I bet that feeling, or the desire for that feeling sells more cars than just about anything else — even if it doesn’t really matter day-to-day.
In the last few months I’ve been thinking about retiring the GX to off-road/camping duty and getting a small rear-driver for winter commuter duty. I don’t drive much day to day, but the GX is not exactly fuel efficient and since I treat it like a beater, it has taken on the appearance of a beater — long pinstripes, paint flaking off in spots, etc. I probably will buy a different daily driver before too long, but I don’t see myself selling the GX.
Nobody, not even the “I just want basic transportation” people, make purely rational decisions about cars. When so much, emotionally and financially, is tied up in your car, it’s silly to expect people to make a spreadsheet decision on it.
Even if the drawbacks of a car like this outweigh the benefits of being able to drive through deep snow or follow a scary-looking trail back out into the woods, a lot of buyers are still going to overvalue one special attribute or another. It doesn’t have to be off-roading, or really performance. I’ll always remember loving the base VW UP! for its incredible packaging. Plenty of people bought Beetles because they were cheap and fun looking, even if there were more practical options.
If I’m an automaker making product decisions about future product, especially electrified product, it’s something I’d think about. Some cars are fast, some deliver impossible value, some are fun, some look great but do nothing else.
Unfortunately, if we look at the kinds of products that sell in America, it’s hard to imagine there are a lot of consumers who make big purchase decisions based on their concern for their carbon footprint. If you’re looking to build something that people care about, and can form a relationship with, it has to do something special.