I’m not sure if you saw this story this morning, but modern cars are absolutely outrageously expensive to fix after even a minor collision. Some of this has to do with all the cameras and sensors and robotic feely-bits crammed into the extremities of cars, but a big part of the blame needs to fall on the fact that modern automotive design has effectively eliminated the bumper. And that’s idiotic.
I actually wrote about this an absurd six years ago, when I first started writing here, but so little has been done to improve the situation—actually, if anything, it’s gotten worse—that I felt this topic needed to be revisited.
Cars are safer than they ever have been, that’s indisputable. And modern bumpers, in the context of their role in modern collision-protection systems, are fantastic. They absorb energy, they take the fall so you don’t end up a custardized mass of people-pudding, and that’s great.
But that’s the only thing they do well. Outside of the most catastrophic situation possible, they’re actually more of a liability than a help.
That’s because the bumper, as it once was known, is effectively gone. The idea that a car would have stout parts, front and rear, to protect the more fragile painted bodywork and chrome and light units and all the expensive bits, is a thing of the past.
Bumpers have been swallowed up by painted bodywork, in service of both style and aerodynamics, so now the actual impact-absorbing bumper is buried behind thousands of dollars worth of painted plastic and metal, lights, grilles, and sensors. It’s like going into a battle with your shield held behind your ass.
Effectively, all of the expensive, painted parts bumpers were designed to protect are now exposed and vulnerable, even to the kinds of extremely minor mishaps that bumpers once laughed off with big, rubbery chuckles.
Just in case you’re not convinced that modern bumpers are useless, I’d like to show you some products that exist and are widely sold:
The very existence of all of these black rubber bumper mats and covers and protectors is an obvious admission that modern bumpers just don’t work. If you’re strapping gym mats to the ends of your car to protect the part of your car that’s supposed to be protecting your car, then it’s time to admit failure and move on.
Bumper repair costs in 2018 are generally estimated to be between $935-$1,580, with an average of over $1,200. Considering that this is the part of your car designed to absorb minor damage and mishaps, that’s absolutely insane. Because the very idea of a painted bumper is pretty insane.
A bumper should be forgiving. It should be something that can take minor damage without that damage even being noticeable, and it should sacrifice itself, as inexpensively as possible, to protect the painted, expensive bodywork. It should be made of materials that can still look fine with some scuffing and scratches and other minor imperfections, which is why those black rubber bumpers so many of us love to hate are actually the best bumpers ever.
There was a time when bumpers actually did do their job: a magical era of time between 1974 and 1982, when federal regulations mandated 5 mph bumpers. These were bumpers that could take a solid, brutal 5 mph whack and exhibit no damage at all.
This was the era of those large diving-board bumpers with thick black rubber inserts and fat, chunky black rubber bumper guards. They’re the bumpers that people don’t want, like the ones on say, BMW 2002s or MGBs.
But the truth is they’re really great at being bumpers.
Sure, car styling won’t necessarily be as sleek with bumpers that can actually take some abuse, but let’s be totally honest here—in this era of rampant SUV and crossover popularity, wouldn’t a bit of chunky ruggedness be just fine, stylistically?
Let’s just see. Here’s a 2018 Toyota RAV4, in all it’s best-selling, boring-ass glory:
Still awake? Good. Here’s a hypothetical RAV4 with bumpers that can take a bit of abuse and won’t cost $1,500 to replace:
Is that really worse? Really? Their aerodynamic impact should be minimal, since it’s basically the same shape. It’d just be made of harder-wearing, unpainted rubber material and extend away from the body just a bit more, to absorb minor impacts. I actually think it looks a little bit cooler.
Of course, this will probably never happen, because we’ve trained ourselves to believe that, somehow, a painted plastic bumper looks more “premium” or some other status-fellating bullshit, even though it’s absurd and fragile and when you get a big black scrape on the side you just have to live with it because it’s not worth paying $1,500 and somehow that’s better than a tough rubber bumper that can get the shit scraped out of it and look just fine.
I have confidence that automotive designers can come up with modern bumpers that look good but without the paint and fragile plastic-chrome grille bits and fragile, expensive lamps and sensors—or, at least they can design bumpers that actually protect the expensive parts instead of offering them up as sacrifices to the god of one little stupid mistake.
It’s time bumpers came out of retirement and pulled their weight. It’s time again to be forgiving of our very human mistakes of clipping a corner in a parking garage or slowly backing into a low pole or bike rack. It’s time for real bumpers again.