Supersize me? No thanks

20

Author: James ElliottPublished:

It's easy to criticise modern car design, everything being oversized and bloated as shark-shapes have become whales.

In fact, there's a brilliant thread on C&SC's sister site Pistonheads called Classics dwarfed by moderns in which people take snapshots of perfectly reasonably sized old cars looking like Dinky toys next to their modern counterparts.

I have contributed to this a few times and recently took the opportunity to snap a 1960s take on a roomy, high-performance four-door, four-seater executive saloon next to its modern equivalent (ironically being run by PH's Paul Garlick) in the Haymarket car park to illustrate the point.

Admittedly this is like shooting fish in a barrel because the mantra we hear over and again is that we should consider the plight of the stylists and designers and the strictures they are having to adhere to.

Thanks to safety regulations, they say, you simply can't build a modern car on the same scale. 

Or can you?

MX-5s may have long-since passed through middle-aged spread and on to morbid obesity compared to their lithesome youthfulness, but what about that 1990s rash of zippy little Kei cars: the Beat, the Cappucino et al? These things were as small as a Lotus Elan. Or, even more recently the Smart Roadster. Small cars can still be built, so why aren't they?

Consider something like the evolution of the 911, it's bulking up (and bursting the banks) has been repeatedly brought to our attention this year thanks to the model celebrating its 50th anniversary. 

Some vital statistics: original 911s were 1600mm wide, 4135 long and weighed 1070kg, current cars are 20cm wider, 35cm longer and 400 kilos heavier (yup, nearly half the weight again).

Even if I concede that the apparent size of modern cars is (hideously) distorted aesthetically by roof height and rear light placement, there is no question that the footprint is demonstrably bigger.

And that it is actually a much more recent phenomenon than you would think.

There's a great picture on the PH Thread of a MINI dwarfing a Volvo estate, traditionally one of the biggest cars on the road. But this is no Amazon, or 240, it is 2006 Volvo against a 2011 MINI.

I've asked around and, while everyone agrees that the creeping legislation of the past 50 years has led to the gradual fattening of cars, no one can think of a specific legal reason why this process has accelerated so dramatically in such a short time over the past few years.

And, there must more to it than that anyway. My Triumph is narrower and lower and barely any longer than a Nissan Micra, but I bet you could add every modern safety requirement and still have more room inside.

So what is the cause specifically of the mega-supersizing of the past few years, is it simply because all cars are now built with the American market it mind, and, most importantly, when will it stop?

Comments

MrBenovich

Is it in the pursuit of safety areas? Or perhaps, as a species, we are just getting fatter through laziness, lethargy and the convenience of the modern world? The examples of everyday cars you show are, in the large part, cars for non-car people after all...

Chris Martin

Agree with Mr Benovich too, and maybe James hit the nail on the head first time - it is the 'Supersize' mentality. Car design, if we can really call it that today, is primarily led by the marketing men and the focus group surveys, and the trend now is simply 'bigger is better'. Maybe some of that comes from the traditional tastes of the US market, but there is also the fact that people have been buying oversized 4x4s to do the shopping, commute and school run while having no intention of ever going off-road, simply wanting to be the biggest on the street. None of them have yet matched boxer Chris Eubank who bought one of those chrome plated American prime movers (Peterbilt or Kenworth or similar) just for cruising around town, but the trend has filtered down to where now, as James points out, a new Mini dwarfs a Volvo.
As an aside to all this, and as you mention the MX5 is getting on a bit now, I believe there is still an untapped market for a simple light rear drive two seat sports car. Much as I like the look of the Morgan, the world is still waiting for the next MGB. Yes, it would probably now be considered too small - a sort of kiddies pedal car - but at least you could drive under all those big Tonkas filling up the road.

 

Alfatastic

I have a 2007 MX5 and its only 2 inch longer and 2 inch wider than the original (less than and inch taller, but I think the biggest gain apart from weight 200kg, is in the top of the wing and boot height that makes it look much bigger), that said it is only 4 inch shorter and 3 inch lower but 6 inch wider than my Alfa GT junior which has 2 more seats, and a larger boot.

Schneemann

The recent piece of legislation that you can't remember is to do with making the front of a car flatter, and increasing the distance between the top of the engine and the bonnet. This is all for pedestrian safety.

This is all in "Commission Regulation (EC) No 631/2009 of 22 July 2009 laying down detailed rules for the implementation of Annex I to Regulation (EC) No 78/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the type-approval of motor vehicles with regard to the protection of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users, amending Directive 2007/46/EC and repealing Directives 2003/102/EC and 2005/66/EC"

It was found that the safest car to be hit by if you were a pedestrian was a flat fronted Range Rover - the impact is spread across the pedestrian's body, and they are less likely to be thrown over the top of the car. A Maserati 3200GT, for instance, has an impact point below the pedestrian's knees.

So, if you raise the bonnet and flatten the front of the car, then to preserve proportions (until we all get used to high bonnets and flat fronts), the roof line needs raising, and everything else needs to be scaled up.

So yes, it's a recent phenomenon, yes, there is a reason for it, and yes - rather like 1970s impact bumpers - once the stylists get their heads around it, they will be able to find more aesthetically pleasing solutions to the problem.

See http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:32009R0631:e... for more information.

James Elliott

Thanks for that Schneemann, great response.

Group Editor, C&SC

Skodanske

Great article, this issue needs better attention because it's innately a wrong trend that formed over the last 10 years, I believe has nothing to do with increasing safety regulations, but rather the increasing inability of car designers and engineers of being efficient. And any gains in technology have been lost to increase of volume and sheer bulk.
The Mini (which is amusing because it clearly isn't, and the countryman is just a joke in the size of a school bus but with less room innit), even the new FIAT 500 are especially grotesque, expansive on the outside seen from a family station car made just in 2000, with entirely claustrophobic and cluttered innards, barely room for people.
The trend demonstrates nothing but ill considered waste and total disrespect/disregard for resources, regrettably those who buy these cars are equally indifferent to the bigger picture and just selfish/unintelligent.
Albeit I recently rented the new Citroen C1 which turned out to be a revelation, tiny car with ample space for 5 adults inside, bar luggage bigger than a bag of chips, no frills or fuss, extremely efficient and tons of fun, even quick w. a raunchy engine noise. But it's not a mainstream car and not a trendsetter.
New rules need to be set in terms of consumption, new cars, smart phones and other modern runaway pests, should conform to some components being the same across the board, with max sizes for each category of car and many cars, jeeps etc, should simply banned from urban environments all together.
It's not because I'm older, these trends and what they bring is not rocket science, it's just bad for no good reason at all.

markwillenbrock

Please don't encourage yet more legislation... whoever it was above me saying we should have size limits and standardisation should remember every government attempt at interfering with engineers and the generally disastrous consequences. Look at the US in particular! 

 

Cars are getting too big, but as Smart shows they don't have to be big.

 

Space efficiency is another matter. My big fat 4x4 seats 9 people,  but occupies less road space than my old Bentley, which had space for five. How many Smart cars would you need to move 9 people...

Chris Martin

Thanks to Schneemann we are all a little bit wiser now.
Informed comment like that justifies having a public forum, even if we have to wade through so much drivel to find it!
I was not aware of such legislation, but it makes sense and not surprising. So, if his theory is right, and the designers find ways of making sleeker shapes incorporating the new rules, they may yet get better looking, but I doubt we will we see a return to smaller cars.

 

Jeroen Booij

I couldn't agree more with your blog, James. Especially in the Mini's case it's clear things have gone wrong. A couple of years, when the new Countryman came out, I did a little experiment to see if a classic Mini (or actually a model made of cardboard in scale 1:1) would fit in the Countryman. It needed some squeezing but it did! See here: http://www.jeroenbooij.com/portfolio/mini.jpg

Chris Martin

And if anyone is qualified to speak about Minis it is Jeroen - love the book ! A Mini Jem in Gulf colours is a thing of beauty. But yes, we do have to ask exactly why BMW wanted to buy Rover just to get the MINI name, and then build big bloated non-Minis? Has anyone put that question to the good folks in Munich?

 

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