Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

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Thread: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

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    GMI Staff Member Premium Member Ming's Avatar
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    Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    Time For a Smaller Car Standard?
    By Ming
    www.gminsidenews.com
    5/12/08



    Sometimes things just don't make sense. Not always by design, but by virtue of the Grandfather Clause, or what is accepted due to a particular lobby or pressure group. For instance, it is illegal some places to carry a knife over 3 inches, but you can carry a gun with a permit. You can't, on the other hand, get a permit to strap a big sword to your back, even if it's less effective as a killing tool than a Colt King Cobra revolver.

    Motorcycles and car crash test safety standards are another example. You can speed down the freeway on a Suzuki Hayabusa crotch rocket, with little but your wits protecting you, but you can't drive a Suzuki Carry mini-truck, or a Suzuki WagonR on the roads here in the U.S. Some in the U.S. buy Japanese mini trucks for off-road and farm use, but don't you dare drive one on roads where mopeds and motorcycles are allowed, because your mini truck is "unsafe"!

    A recent article claims High Gas Prices Have Consumers Looking At Motorcycles. Another says More Commuters Eyeing Mo-Peds, Scooters. With gasoline prices where they are, and few cars that get the kind of fuel economy a 1989 Geo Metro provided without some kind of pricey hybrid setup, some Americans are moving way downscale to very fuel efficient 2-wheelers. Or at least they're dusting off the bikes they bought on a whim and are driving them for more than the occasional weekend cruise.

    But there's a gap between Aveo-sized cars and motorcycles and scooters that does not exist in many other countries outside of the U.S. And they are extremely fuel efficient and affordable vehicles that allow carpooling, something the U.S. government is trying to promote.

    This I think, begs the question -- should GM make a point of engineering a car of at least Matiz size (if not smaller) to pass U.S. crash safety standards? A car that mixes extreme affordability with fuel economy due to decreased weight and size? A vehicle one step up from a motorcycle? Or is GM married to the idea that Americans want larger, heavier, expensive hybrid and plug-in solutions for fuel economy?

    As an alternative, might the United States consider allowing a new class of car, like Japan's so-called "Kei Cars" (軽自動車 keijidōsha - literally "light automobiles"), also known as "City Cars" - or A-Segment cars in Europe - to be sold and driven here? GM has an alliance partner who sells them, and is in fact the number one maker of such cars in Japan - Suzuki.

    Of course the cars would have some required level of safety so as not to be deathtraps - they just would not be held to the same increasingly tough standards that apply to larger cars, trucks and SUVs.

    The Kei car standard originated in Japan after the Second World War, when most Japanese could not afford a full-sized car but had enough to buy a motorcycle. Kei car standards were created to help the auto industry in Japan, standards that placed motorcycle-type engines of small displacement in tiny car or truck bodies. The first Kei cars were hardly roomy and met the definition of "penalty box" -- but they were capable of carrying a family affordably. And the Kei standard has changed over the years to allow for bigger engines and different dimensions.



    The Kei car standard did not evolve as a way to save gas money, but now, with city cars that make amazingly efficient use of interior space, and rapidly rising gasoline prices, a type of car like this might make a lot more sense than it did even a few years ago, when I wrote a similar rant here proposing that GM go to Subaru and Suzuki for a minicar to sell here in the U.S.

    One of the first safety complaints from detractors of Kei or City Cars would be the idea of driving them at unsafe U.S. highway speeds, surrounded by large trucks. This would seem to be an easy arguement to defeat if City Cars were restricted as to where they could drive by the posted speed limit. A speed limit of over 55 for example, could be made off limits. Having been in a turbocharged Kei car driving around 60mph in Japan, I don't fear the speed aspect as much as others, but instability due to crosswinds at high speeds is something I experienced driving a larger Chevy Metro at 70mph with trucks whizzing by at 90.

    Mopeds are generally not allowed to be operated at a speed greater than 30 MPH on public roads and highways. Would the creation of a similar rule for ultra small cars be so outrageous and hard for the American public to wrap its collective mind around?

    Speed argument aside, what is left? The crash safety issue, and interior room. How is it that people like Ralph Nader managed to lead an ever burdensome and expensive crusade for vehicle occupant safety against automakers and yet the motorcycle came out more or less unscathed? If the Corvair was "unsafe at any speed", how is a Harley the model of crash worthiness?

    As for interior room, I was amazed at how roomy some Kei cars, with high rooflines similar to the Scion xB, felt when I lived in Japan. Seats would fold completely flat across the rows, any you could lay on them like a bed. The interiors of some felt far roomier than an S-10 Blazer I drove for some time, and the leg room in Kei cars was not so bad if you pushed your seat back all the way and I'm just over 6 feet.

    I'm not arguing against motorcycles, but rather am arguing for a similar exception. Once a tiny car is loaded down with 8 airbags and a beefier structure, it loses much of its fuel economy advantage. This is why we'll not see a Suzuki WagonR on our shores any time soon.

    Some will say that culturally such vehicles would not be accepted. But of course they forget, or simply do not know, that such cars have been sold in the U.S. in the past. Crosley was an American Automaker that made such cars. During World War II and gasoline rationing, the Crosley cars were popular as they got 50 miles per gallon with their 2-cylinder engines.

    Crosley Wagon


    Perhaps, as with the interior improvements in Kei cars in Japan and with the way the Japanese automakers have creatively pushed limits of the Kei Class rules (Kei class cars can avoid certain taxes in Japan - so it pays to stay within the class), they can also find a way to make the small cars crash worthy in the U.S. without requiring another class. And if they do that, GM had better not be caught with its pants down, this time.

    And it's not just sedans and hatches that a smaller car class could offer. Wagons, trucks and (my favorite) tiny vans could also be allowed on U.S. roads. If limited to feeder roads alongside highways, that would be fine for me, and I'm guessing a lot of other people would take advantage of such small cars, especially if gasoline prices keep rising. They'll be less of a novelty and will simply make more sense if predictions of $10 gasoline ever come true.

    At the very least, such minicars might make a good stop-gap until GM and other automakers find a way to make Hybrid and Plug-In technology truly affordable to the masses in such a nightmare gasoline scenario. Not everyone will want to buy a $20,000-40,000 car for the sake of fuel efficiency, and just because we have safety laws between motorcycles and cars that (to me) make little sense, we should not be denied the option of affordable, 4-seater, fuel efficent cars that slot between motorbikes and today's U.S. automobiles.

    Suzuki Lapin
    Last edited by Ming; 05-12-2008 at 10:06 PM.

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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    NOPE!
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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    Speed argument aside, what is left? The crash safety issue, and interior room. How is it that people like Ralph Nader managed to lead an ever burdensome and expensive crusade for vehicle occupant safety against automakers and yet the motorcycle came out more or less unscathed? If the Corvair was "unsafe at any speed", how is a Harley the model of crash worthiness?
    Because people are aware of the risks inherent with riding a motorcycle. In fact for many, it's part of the "charm" of owning one -- "oooh, you're so fearless!" What do the police call bikers? Donors?

    I, for one, would not want my wife and kids putt-putting around in a tiny kei-car, and it would be irresponsible for me to put them in that sort of danger. The driving conditions in North America really are different than they are in Japan and Europe. I don't know many people who are permanent urban fixtures, who don't normally need to take a trip on an expressway.

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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    Brilliant article! I have been a kei-car fanatic for many, many years, and would love to see them legalized to some extent for American roads (I do see a bunch of them being used on private road networks, such as UCF's Orlando campus). They aren't as crash-unworthy as some people automatically assume (see the smart fortwo, for example of a tiny car that can out-crash larger "safer" cars)

    ...and I'd like to note, the "Suzuki Lapins" in that picture are not stock. They're modified by DAMD to have Renault 4-style front-ends.

    Personally, I'd love to own a Suzuki Cappuccino, Honda Beat, or especially a Mazda Autozam AZ-1.

    [edit] One last note, the Crosleys aren't the only example of tiny cars being built and sold in America. There were also the American Austins/American Bantams (sidenote, original creators of the Jeep military vehicle), and the Hudson Jet, which was fantastically fuel efficient for its time. But it bombed so badly that Hudson almost died and was bought up (and ruined) by Nash.
    Last edited by DiRF; 05-12-2008 at 05:56 PM.

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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    I don't see them as avoidable. Few people will have the finacial means to buy hybrids so they will have to buy smaller cars. As Americans we refuse to pay alot for a small car, and the cheapest cars will sell. This is the perfect market for Chinese automakers to enter and dominate.
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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    Well for one thing, many of us Neanderthals carry swords or machetes regularly.

    I owned a 600cc Honda car in the 1970s. I also owned a VW Superbeetle. Neither of them would do well in a collision with an Escalade, but neither would a motorcycle.

    I say build them and the customers will appear. What you lose in crashworthiness you gain in agility.

    The vehicle is no more dangerous than a pistol is. It's the operator who controls the machine or the tool.

    REAL DRIVER TRAINING will do more to cut road deaths and injuries than all the airbags in the world and all the windbags in Worshington.

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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    I like Suburbans... Don't you?

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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    If the stinking government would stop regulating EVERYTHING for our "own good" then we wouldn't even have the discussions.

    One man wants a small car, and a lobby screeches, "But it's too dangerous! Think of the children!"

    One man wants a big car, and a lobby screeches, "But it guzzles gas and can hurt other people in small cars! Think of the children!"

    Geesh! If I want my family to be safe, then maybe I'll buy the minivan (that I currently have). If I am single, or half of a couple maybe I want a small car.
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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    I have a family of three (me, my wife, and a baby).

    We drive a small 4-cylinder minivan and a 3-door hatchback.

    No problem.

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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    I wouldn't be too quick to invest in small cars.

    It's getting clear that the high oil prices are driven my market speculation from major financial firms....I know it's against some of your religions, but oil prices may not in fact be caused by high demand or greedy oil companies and they are likely not permenant.

    Experts from the US government, Exxon, and Marathon have all recently agreed that given the current supply and demand curve, nothing is different than it was 4 years ago when oil sold for $65/bbl.

    Just want to put that out there......The last thing that big oil wants is gas prices so high that everyone moves to cars like this and demands less fuel and eventually no fuel.

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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    The problem with the argument of doing a smaller class of cars, especially ones with those kinds of limitations, is people would much rather get a decent medium-sized used car than buy a city car. The exception to the rule, the Smart, might sell 30,000 cars in a year, so it is almost a novelty in the car market.

    I also hate all this talk about taking out crash standards, there needs to be a certain minimal level of protection for people in a crash, bottom line. We don't need car companies sacrificing safety for price or weight or fuel economy. The reason motorcycles aren't regulated is because there's little any manufacturer can do to make a motorcycle safer to the rider.

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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    Well, I for one, don't see why they haven't developed a street going 4 wheeler (ATV), like they said, you can ride a motorcycle with almost no safety equipment, wht not a 4 wheeler?

    That would be pretty cool.
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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    I think we need smaller cars. We have something like 4% of the world population but use 25% of the worlds energy. Doesn't seem right in my mind. I know small cars don't work for everyone, but I can think of at least 10 people I know that drive SUV/Trucks because they like the seating position. It will be interesting to see what happens when the baby boomers are not driving anymore.

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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    I don't necessarily object to these cars being available, but I don't claim any excitement either. It isn't just crash standards, it is the massive amounts of large trucks, suvs, minivans etc and just she sheer mass of these vehicles.

    The infrastructure in the USA can easily support these large vehicles as opposed to Japan where there are lots of narrower roads where small vehicles are really the only viable way to get around. Also in this is average speeds on major roads and being able to safely accelerate to and maintain those speeds.

    The size of the population, I am 6ft/210lbs, and there are plenty of people out there taller than me, or rounder than me, there are of course plenty of people who can fit in these cars but your potential market is reduced.

    Not all factors would rule out these types of cars but many of them would be concerning enough for people to not buy them.
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    GMI Staff Member Premium Member Ming's Avatar
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    Re: Time For a Smaller Car Standard?

    Quote Originally Posted by PeterPuck View Post
    Because people are aware of the risks inherent with riding a motorcycle. In fact for many, it's part of the "charm" of owning one -- "oooh, you're so fearless!" What do the police call bikers? Donors?

    I, for one, would not want my wife and kids putt-putting around in a tiny kei-car, and it would be irresponsible for me to put them in that sort of danger.
    I know the moped drivers on the island of Oahu in Hawaii where I grew up were doing if for the macho image. All the way. Arnold on a Scooter with a biker jacket and shades.

    And some are talking here like a Kei car has no safety standards whatsoever. In fact, I'd much rather be in a crash in a WagonR or Kei Truck than on a motorbike.

    At least in Texas you can get by on feeder roads, with long distances between stoplights if you take an occasional trip or if you just don't want to pay the toll on your daily commute (Sam Houston Tollway 8). And in places where there is ONLY a freeway (say, like on a trip to San Antonio), there are usually a few twisty old country routes that were there before the highway was put in, sometimes right alongside it for a good portion of the way.

    Also, consider that my parents and family managed to survive driving cars unsafe by todays standards. My father drove a Spitfire convertible. Surely it was no safer than a Kei car of today (no this is not my dad).



    But as others stated above, this argument some make is a bit like the argument others make regulating against people choosing to buy and drive giant trucks and SUVs.

    If I can go out and buy a Monroe Ironhide Edition GMC Topkick (some could argue that I'm "endangering people around me" or using too much fuel), I should have the same freedom to buy a Suzuki Carry minivan with a tiny engine that sips fuel (yes, by DAMD aftermarket conversions ) and isn't a "safety tank" approved by Ralph Nader.


    Last edited by Ming; 05-12-2008 at 07:54 PM.

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