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Disturbing Trends: Drivability

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On: Fri, Oct 14, 2011 at 2:13PM | By: Chris Salamone

Disturbing Trends: Drivability

Ahh, the Lincoln MKT. Equipped with a 3.5L V-6 EcoBoost, this poster child of US-inspired drivability achieves a combined 18 mpg and, in the words of Edmunds.com, "the MKT's size and weight make it anything but sporting." So, what's wrong with this picture?

As time goes on, the auto industry has made great leaps and bounds in technology, performance, and design. Even so, there remains a group of trends in the United States which neither improves driving nor contributes to the advancement of automobiles in general. We tend to call these trends ‘American preferences’, which is basically a polite name for corporations pretending to adapt to local customs while not shouldering the burden of influencing the market as a whole.

Although general mechanics have vastly improved over the last century, certain mechanical trends continue to negatively impact the drivability of cars sold in the US. Picture the BMW 3.0 liter twin-turbo diesel engine. When equipped with a manual transmission, it’s capable of jumping from 0-60mph in 5.3 seconds and impressive fuel economy. Which would you rather have, that BMW Inline-6 or a slower, less efficient Ford V-6 EcoBoost? The lesson: drivability is more important than fancy brand labeling which conjures images of somehow quickly saving the environment.

The first, and perhaps most troubling, trend is the American obsession with unleaded internal combustion engines. Everyone knows diesel engines are more efficient, torque friendly, and fun to drive. But diesel prices are sometimes higher than premium, you say?! Yes, in the United States that remains true. However, comparative fuel prices vary greatly between countries—largely as a result of demand. A country which relies on diesel as the primary source of fuel will tend to have lower diesel prices. Thus, if the US actually started using diesel more often, we should then see regulatory practices, taxing, and finally prices start to fluctuate.

Another unfortunate trend is our obsession with automatic transmissions. Since the late 1930s, the Big Three have strongly advertised all kinds of automatic transmissions with glamorous names, such as the GM two-speed Powerglide or the earlier Hydramatic. Anyone who has spent some time in a manual transmission vehicle will tell you the same two things: gas savings and the glory of complete control. Sure, nowadays greater fuel economy can be found with CVTs and finely tuned automatics, but looking at the big picture consumers must pay more for an automatic transmission at the initial purchase. The ultimate question: how long will it take for that extra $1,500 to $2,000 to be recovered by an average savings of 1 or 2 mpg?

Everyone can agree that a Corvette Z06 should be equipped with a manual transmission. Everyone can agree that paddle shifting is irritating at best. And, everyone can agree that diesel engines have certain undeniable benefits with torque and fuel economy. Just because US consumers have bought mostly automatic unleaded cars in the past doesn’t mean that’s what we want in the future. Our chief concern is drivability, not some colloquial obsession with unleaded fuel or tiresome non-interactive driving.


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