Auto manufacturers face increasingly strict rules and regulations for safety and fuel efficiency from the government, and many consumers are demanding the same when they’re buying new vehicles.
But you don’t get something for nothing, and most of these new technologies come with compromises—or, at the very least, something that buyers aren’t always used to experiencing.
I frequently hear from readers who think there’s something wrong with a car, or that it’s poorly designed, when it’s actually related to something that was mandated or even something that the reader wanted when buying the vehicle. And yes, of course, I have a list!
Transmissions that upshift too quickly
Put your foot on the throttle, and before you know it, your automatic transmission has shifted up four or five gears – and without that “power pull” that you get when the transmission stays in its lower gears longer. But those higher gears reduce engine revolutions, which in turn helps reduce fuel consumption. With mileage at the top of the list for both governments and consumers, automakers are grabbing every trick they can to ease the pain at the pumps, and you’ll have to get used to mainstream cars that offer less-than-exhilarating acceleration.
Forward-leaning head restraints
Get into many vehicles today, and their head restraints lean so far forward that they often push your head down. That’s because they’re “active” restraints, designed that way to help improve your safety. In a collision, they cradle your head and neck to avoid the snapping motion that can lead to whiplash.
You’ll see even more of them thanks to the importance of rear crash protection with the U.S. National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash tests.
Just as with many other aspects of vehicles, some automakers have active head restraint designs that are better than others, and some incorporate the entire seat design as an active system.
Thick windshield pillars
Can’t see around those thick pillars at the edges of your windshield? Blame crash standards that are increasingly focused on roof strength to better protect occupants in case of a rollover collision, since those pillars are what keep the roof from folding like a pancake with the weight of the vehicle.
They’re getting thinner again on many vehicles with more widespread use of high-strength steel, but many of these newer materials are also more costly than the stuff they replace, and so the price goes up. Be careful what you wish for … are you seeing a pattern here?
Minor collisions write off vehicles
It’s not all that unusual for a car that doesn’t suffer a lot of visible exterior damage in a crash to end up written off by the insurance company.
In days gone by, when cars were “built like tanks,” they’d sustain relatively little damage – but they’d pass the crash energy right through to the cabin, where occupants would be smashed around. Today’s vehicles crumple up to absorb the crash, reducing the risk of serious injury to the passenger. That means that cars will have more parts that require replacement or extensive repair after a collision.
Put those costs together, along with the high price of replacing airbags that have deployed, and it could be more to fix the car than it’s worth.
Yes, that’s annoying, but on the other hand, it’s better to walk away from a crash and buy a new car, than it is to be carried away from the scene to the hospital … or worse.
False tire pressure readings
Most new cars come with tire pressure monitoring systems, or TPMS, which warn you if a tire is low on air. They’re required by law on new vehicles in the U.S., although they’re not mandated in Canada.
You can directly trace their development to the Ford/Firestone fiasco in 2000, when several Explorers shod with Firestone tires ended up in single-vehicle crashes. There was much finger-pointing, of course, but much of it primarily came down to the fact that you can’t take a top-heavy SUV around a corner like a NASCAR driver on under-inflated tires and expect to come out safely on the other side.
And since most drivers never check their tire pressures, the U.S. government decided that the automakers needed to do it for you…
The systems aren’t without their issues, including a propensity for false readings, especially if the ambient temperature changes quickly. They also warn when you’re 25 per cent below the optimum pressure, which means that you could be running on tires that have lost enough air to affect your fuel consumption, but are still not low enough to trigger a warning.
Buy a tire pressure gauge and check your tires monthly, using the pressure number in the owner’s manual or on the label in the door jamb (not the number molded into the tire, which is the maximum it can hold.)
A narrow “greenhouse”
A common complaint with many new cars is that the “greenhouse” – the window surface – is relatively small, and the tops of the doors are too high, creating a car that can feel claustrophobic. It’s not just a styling decision. Instead, it’s primarily about safety, and specifically, side crash standards.
Metal is stronger than glass, and in order to improve their ratings, manufacturers are giving you more of the former and less of the latter.
Cars are expensive
You may remember the Tata Nano, which made headlines a few years ago when it was announced that it would sell in India for the equivalent of about $2,000. Drivers here jumped at that: why can’t we have a $2,000 car as well?
Why not indeed? Well, it’s basically because the Nano was little more than a scooter with a roof. That base price gave you a two-cylinder engine, choice of three colours, and a fold-down rear seat. If you wanted a heater or air conditioning, you paid extra. It only had seatbelts because they’re required by law in India. It didn’t have any airbags, anti-lock brakes, or electronic stability control. It had one wiper blade and one exterior mirror.
Consumers want two wipers blades and two mirrors, of course, along with more than two cylinders, air conditioning, a decent stereo with iPod hookup, Bluetooth, power windows, keyless entry, and numerous other safety and convenience features.
We’d love the $2,000 price tag; we just don’t want the $2,000 car that goes with it. Be careful what you wish for … you may just get it.