The Nation's Pulse

Cruel Irony

When gas was cheap cars got smaller; now that it's ultra-expensive, Detroit is making them bigger than ever. Go figure.

By 11.5.07

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Here's an irony for you:

In the 1980s, as gasoline got cheaper, American automakers downsized their fleets -- switching from heavier and rear-wheel-drive to lighter and front-wheel-drive. V-8s, if they were allowed at all, got small; 5.7 liters was about as big as it got. Most cars came with fours or sixes. It was the way of the future.

Now, gas is expensive -- almost twice what it was circa '86, in fact. And American automakers have responded with ever-bigger, ever-heavier cars. Rear-wheel-drive and V-8s are back, big time.

But just a bit too late, probably.

Oil is getting close to $100 per barrel -- and $4 per gallon regular unleaded might be just around the next corner. If the winter's unusually harsh; if things go sour with Iran. A late season hurricane.

Any one of several possibilities.

Things could get really ugly, really fast. American automakers still rely on large trucks and SUVs to bring home the bacon. And they've invested hugely in brand-new rear-wheel-drive passenger car platforms -- especially GM. There's a new Camaro on the way; also several new RWD sedans -- with hunky V-8s in them, too.

These are big-draw cars, no doubt. People love power, size and style. It's understandable. It's what made the 1950s and the '60s sizzle. And it's why the under-powered, under-sized '70s and '80s sucked. Efficiency is rarely exciting. Sit under one of those god-awful compact fluorescent light bulbs, if you need a refresher. They make your skin look like a three-day-old corpse on an embalming table. It's a harsh price to pay for a couple of kilowatts. So also driving a Ford Festiva, Geo Metro or Diahatsu Charade.

But they did get nearly 40 mpg -- and that matters when gas doubles in price overnight.

THE CANARY IN THE COAL MINE may just be Toyota's clunky-looking (but 50 mpg capable) Prius hybrid. It is the only passenger car out there that's basking in the warm glow of double-digit upticks in sales. And it's not that it's a Toyota -- though that may help some. For proof, look at the performance of some other Toyotas -- like the new Tundra full-size truck -- which aren't nearly as in the pink. Then check out the stats on other, similar models -- imported and domestic. The numbers are down -- even as size and weight have ballooned to historic proportions and available engines now routinely top 6 liters and deliver 300-plus horsepower.

It's not hard to figure why this is.

The middle class constitutes the bulk of the market for new cars. Depending on whose numbers you go by, the average middle class income is in the $50k range -- for a family. You could notch this up a little to say $80k or so and that would include virtually everyone in the country who isn't among the very top income earners (less than 10 percent of the entire country) or the "working poor " (people with family incomes under $30k annually) and the outright poor (those below the federal poverty line -- and they're not buying new cars anyhow).

Okay. Most of these middle-income types can't afford to buy a new car outright; they finance the thing -- and it's usually a pretty big-ticket item for their family budgets. The cost of fuel is not something they can ignore.

Now let's have a look at some of the latest offerings:

That new 2008 Pontiac G8 GT is mighty tempting -- like an Angus Thickburger at Hardees. Six liter V-8, 361 horses. Rear wheel drive. Ah, yes! But then, there's that 19 gallon tank to fill. And it will need filling often. Tentative estimates for the V-8 GT are 15 mpg city, 23 highway. (The V-6 version of the G8's not much of an improvement; 17 city, 24 highway.) For a huge V-8 pushing 400 horses, 24 mpg on the highway is actually damn good. It's easily 10 mpg better than a typical muscle car of similar output from the '60s.

But relative efficiency isn't the same thing as efficient.

At current prices (around $3 per gallon, depending on where you live), tanking up the V-8 G8 GT will cost you about $60. And that tankful will last the typical commuter less than a week -- so figure at least four fill-ups per month, or $240 bucks.

For many middleclass types, that's a lot to swing -- at current prices. A little runabout like the Prius (or one of the new "B" econo-subcompacts like the Honda Fit) may not make you feel all that spectacular when you stomp the gas -- but it costs less than half to feed the thing. The tank's smaller -- around 14 gallons is typical -- and the car itself can go 30-40 percent farther on a gallon of fuel.

Thirty dollars to fill up vs. $60. And maybe only three fill-ups per month vs. four (or even five).

Money matters. It's the speed bump in the road that forces us to slow down -- whether we want to or not.

We have no choice.

It's why we shop at Wal-Mart and Costco. And it's why we're snapping up high-efficiency cars like the Prius -- and saying "uh, no thanks" to big hogs we can't afford.

Muscle sleds -- and big RWD sedans and wagons -- worked in the '50s and '60s because they were cheap to feed. (Average Americans also had more disposable income.) When they suddenly became not cheap to feed in the early '70s, love turned to loathing. The divorce papers were filed. We -- most Americans, that is -- signed up for "sensible shoes" that took the form of smaller, lighter cars. GM, Ford and Chrysler went on crash diets. Almost overnight, RWD became an acronym for out-of-date dinosaur. The future was FWD -- and "cab forward."

Remember?

Now the circle's about to close again. The automakers have re-tooled and revamped their lineups and are once again building huge, powerful, flashy things the likes of which we haven't seen en masse since 1967 or thereabouts.

But the problem is it's 2007 -- and cheap gas is alreadygone. We don't even get a grace period -- let alone a few years to have our fling. At just the moment that this latter-day Renaissance of freewheeling excess is really getting started, the reality check's been mailed -- post-dated.

Much as we might love the idea, signing up for a 23 mpg G8 (or even a 28 mpg '09 Camaro) in these days seems about as sensible as an adjustable-rate loan on an overpriced Las Vegas McMansion. A "great room" with 15 foot high ceilings doesn't do you much good if you can't afford to heat it in winter. Just like a 361 horsepower muscle sedan gets to be not-so-fun when the SOB's bleeding you white every week.

Maybe we'll discover that half a mile under L.A. sits more oil than in all of Saudi Arabia. That would be wonderful. But odds are, we won't. Odds are, the price of fuel's going to keep on going up.

And the appeal of big cars with big V-8s is going to go down.

It's not something I look forward to. But it is something I expect.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.