At the Portland Auto Show last night, I spent hours jumping into and out of pretty much every car on the show floor from every manufacturer present showing off their lines. Growing up in Southern California at the heart of car culture, I’ve been enamoured with cars my entire life. In high school my dream was to go to the automotive design program at the Art Center College of Design. Ever since, I’ve owned a dozen different cars of all shapes and sizes and continued to follow car news. Some of my favorite websites still to this day include things like Jalopnik and Bring A Trailer.
But here’s the thing: the writing is on the wall. The auto industry is less important and central to American life than it once was. It’s responsible for quite a lot of damage to the environment and it turns out single drivers in passenger cars aren’t the most efficient way to move people around. Cities are choked with cars and parking and traffic all around the world, and the only ones showing progress are the ones that expell cars from city centers and instead offer better alternatives in light rail and buses and return streets to people on foot and bikes. That’s not even taking into account our grim economic future, and how car ownership may be quickly moving towards a niche hobby for the rich.
It was never more obvious than when I was walking a massive convention show floor, having trouble telling the difference between small crossovers from 6 or 7 different car brands that I sat in and looked around and were all completely interchangeable. Zooming out, the majority of the show floor was all crossover SUVs of the small, medium, and large varieties, and looking at the finest new four door sedans I had trouble even entertaining the thought of why someone would want to own a sedan in this day and age.
I think it’s a good thing that Americans are prizing versatility. One and two car families are more the norm these days and if you’re going to have just one car, it better work at shuttling people around, but also running errands and bringing home the occasional sofa. It should work ok in the snow if you drive up to the mountains, and if we’re being honest it needs to be safe and offer a good vantage point and driving position to be able to see pedestrians at night. So it’s not a surprise that a small SUV is kind of the do-everything-but-nothing-extraordinarily-well option that most people settle on. I remember being shocked to hear Ford is discontinuing pretty much every passenger car they make to focus on SUVs and trucks starting next year, but looking at an auto show today it makes logical sense. It’s a good financial decision to constrict a car brand since that’s what consumers are doing with their buying choices.
75% of the cars on the show floor were forgettable. They were mostly mid-market small SUVs that were certainly safe bets for any car company to sell. I was interested in things at the edges, or designs that break the mold in some way. So here’s what still felt interesting to me.
Plug-in hybrids might be the best-of-both-worlds cars for now. You take a regular car with a small efficient engine and you add a battery pack and electric motors to offer 10-30 miles of all-electric driving before the gas engine kicks in. For most short car trips, this means never touching fuel and it’s an attractive option for people with short commutes that live in suburbs where 2-3 mile long trips to run errands are the norm.
Just a few years ago you had only a couple options on the market but the industry is catching up with demand and there were a couple dozen options in all shapes and sizes.
The most exciting option to me was the new Subaru CrossTrek PHEV. It’s a bit more bad weather capable than a typical crossover, it has some of the flexibility and utility of a wagon, and it offers up 17 miles of electric driving. If Subaru ever moves PHEV power up their line, a future PHEV outback or forester might be the perfect all-arounder car to own.
Of all the other PHEV options I’d put the Kia Niro PHEV as another interesting mix of affordable pricing along with ample EV mileage that though it’s quite small, could be another good family car option. It’s the first car I’ve seen that reliably posts MPG numbers in the 70s and 80s for most city driving.
Wagons > SUVs
I can’t explain why I find every form of station wagon infinitely more interesting than most crossover counterparts (maybe it’s a chromosomal trait). I checked out every wagon I could at the show, and the only fascinating option was a new Volvo V90 Cross Country.
The thing is a beast, huge on the inside and out, extremely comfortable and well appointed at the top of Volvo’s line, and has some impressive ground clearance to tackle any sort of weather. If I had a garage big enough to house it and enough money to afford it, it’d be a great versatile family luxury car that could still go anywhere.
It’s a bummer there’s no hybrid or diesel option to help the fuel economy, but I realize the market for a wagons is extremely small, so I’ll take what I can get.
There is nothing interesting in the world of trucks
Someday I might replace my current truck with something more capable, so I took extra care when looking at the trucks on offer from every company. Boy has differentiation and innovation gone out the window in the world of trucks, even though trucks are the leading seller for the companies that produce them.
Everything is big and getting bigger. What we used to call compact or mini trucks are all considered mid-sized now, but even at mid-size, the physical differences between a new Ford Ranger and a Ford F150 or a Chevy Colorado and a Chevy 1500 or a Toyota Tacoma and a Toyota Tundra are not that vast. The bigger versions feel maybe 10% bigger, and while trying to find parking for my own mid-sized truck the point wasn’t lost on me that it’s not easy to move these beasts around most US cities (even the mid-sized ones).
Nothing stood out, because there were virtually no new ideas on display. Big trucks are big sellers especially in huge vehicle fleets so all the American large trucks were out in force but no one is pushing boundaries and they all seemed interchangeable. Center dash screens and seating materials are getting bigger and better at the high ends, but there were no fuel economy standouts or new ideas on storage options. The off-road ready souped up 4x4s from Chevy and Ford and Ram were vaguely more fun and capable looking but priced way, way above the trucks they are based on.
Trucks should be an area ripe for innovation given their huge market. I think an all-electric or PHEV truck could be a gamechanger. I think an overland/expedition-ready truck could appeal to owners that never need to work at a construction site. I’d love to see more ideas for seating and layouts to ramp up the versatility beyond just a short cab or a crew cab.
Sports cars are the new Cessnas
I grew up surrounded by middle aged guys with sports cars. My neighbor was a CHP officer that collected Porsches. Across the street, my teen neighbor took a rusty barn find 1965 Mustang to showroom quality over the course of ten years. When I was a kid, every well-off white haired retired guy seemed to drive a new C4 Corvette.
Those days are long gone, and so the sporty offerings from each car company were pretty slim on the show floor. A fast fun car isn’t versatile, isn’t good at hauling family around or running errands, and is definitely trending towards being a luxury item. Even if they’re cheap, having an extra car for throwing around twisty roads on sundays is something most people don’t have the extra space or money for.
I jumped into every sports car I could but still about the only ones that seem interesting are the Civic Type-R (I will always be a sucker for cars with red interiors and especially red seat belts), The Kia Stinger (a BMW M5 clone at half the price of a new M5), and on the high end the Audi A7 is still a beautiful design as well as the new huge BMW 8-series coupe (if money is no object). The retro muscle cars from Chevy and Dodge and Ford were all yawns from me. I also found out my 6’3″ frame doesn’t even fit in most small sports cars I’ve long coveted. There will never be a BRZ/86 or a WRX STi or a Audi TTRS in my driveway because they’re too damn small.
Ten years from now, I don’t know who will be buying BMW M3 or M5 cars or laying down nearly six figures for a Nissan GTR or double that for an Acura NSX. Will any of these cars even still be made? Sports cars that don’t serve a broad purpose in our resource- and space-constrained lives feel like my weird neighbor growing up that was into his Cessna small plane. It was an expensive strange hobby that required him to drive far away to a small garage where he’d spend every weekend doing extensive upkeep while only getting to fly maybe once a month. People who race cars in parking lots might fit that same description but it feels like in 10-20 years having any kind of sports car at all will be a weird luxury fewer and fewer will be equipped to take part in.
Anyways, cars are boring and very same-same now. That’s a natural progression of a constraining market that is trending towards an identical answer for a similar set of needs, but as a fan of car design, I really miss the attempts to try new things, figure out new solutions, and see new answers to our everyday problems.
I used to pride myself on being able to identify nearly any car on the road by name, manufacturer, and year/era/generation based on silhouettes and tail lights. But today I honestly couldn’t tell you the difference between a HRV or a CX-3 or a Sportage or a RAV4 or a Tuscon or a Rogue if one flew past me on the highway.