Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Ask a Car Critic

Dear Car Critic,

Why do so many modern cars, not just sports cars but sedans and even station wagons, have low-profile tires like you’d see on a racecar? I rode in my kid’s Honda Accord and the ride was so harsh! What’s the point?

Chuck M, San Diego, CA

Dear Chuck,

I can offer you a simple answer and a more complicated answer. The simple answer is: people think low-profile tires look cool. The more complicated answer is: in accordance with mimetic theory, people want to buy the products that would be used by the ideal human whom they admire and wish they could be. They can’t afford the Aston Martin DB10 that James Bond has, but at least they can at least have a car with similarly sporty tires.

Not satisfied with my own hunch on this, I asked a tire guy. (I was at his shop after blowing out my second low-profile tire in under three years.) He said the same thing: low-profile tires look cool and that’s more important to people than having a smooth, quiet ride and not having to worry about big potholes (like the one that destroyed my first low-profile tire).

All this being said, there is a safety benefit to these tires. Because they’re wider they have more contact with the road, which improves traction, and the shorter sidewall means they squirm less under hard cornering. Granted, these characteristics generally benefit a driver who’s going too fast to begin with, but they can help in an emergency situation. (For example, I was driving on an interstate highway when a UPS truck came right into my lane. My extremely sudden swerve into the next lane might not have gone so well with traditional tires.) One other safety benefit is that the larger wheel rim can support bigger brake discs, which (if your car has them) enable faster stopping.

Dear Car Critic,

What is it with drink holders? Can’t people drive across town without their fricking Big Gulp? Cars never used to have these … what changed?

Sandra S, Spokane, WA

Dear Sandra,

While I am appalled by America’s evident addiction to soft drinks, I do find drink holders totally appropriate for road trips. Coffee is a must for very long drives, and I wouldn’t want to hold it in my lap. It would also be hypocritical of me to badmouth drink holders, because I’ve had them on all my bicycles since 1978 (though of course we call those “water bottle cages”). But drink holders on shopping carts … that’s just silly.

Dear Car Critic,

It’s time for a new car and my husband wants an SUV. I’m concerned about the gas mileage and frankly the sheer size of these vehicles, but my husband keeps emphasizing the safety aspect. We have two kids so he may have me over a barrel there—but I thought I’d check with you. Thoughts?

Emily W, San Antonio, TX

Dear Emily,

Of course there are good reasons to buy an SUV (e.g., you ski every weekend, or you’re a tradesman in a snowy, mountainous place and need to haul your tools around, or you have a fragile male ego that needs to be coddled), but safety isn’t among them. It is an absolute myth that SUVs are safer.

I used to work in risk management, and we evaluated risk along two axes: severity and likelihood. It may be true that an SUV protects its passenger effectively in an accident, but it’s also true that SUVs are more accident-prone. The reasons are threefold: 1) higher rollover risk, 2) greater weight leading to slower stopping; 3) overconfidence on the part of the driver. There was an excellent article about this, by Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker twenty years ago; you can read the abstract here and the full article here. As Gladwell put it, “The benefits of being nimble—of being in an automobile that’s capable of staying out of trouble—are in many cases greater than the benefits of being big.” He cited data on deaths per million vehicles, as provided by a study conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in conjunction with the University of Michigan, showing that, at that time, SUV drivers had far higher rates of death than drivers of small and even compact cars.

That data being rather old, and Gladwell being perhaps less than 100% reliable, I have researched more modern statistics about car safety. My first stop, the ratings website managed by the National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), was not very helpful. I looked up the safety ratings for a variety of SUVs and they were all five-star, which might help explain why SUVs have a reputation for being safe. But then I started plugging in other vehicles at random, and they all got five stars as well. I tried my own car, my family members’ cars, my neighbors’ cars—everything was five stars. (It’s like the useless rating of all maple syrup in America: it’s all Grade A, whether it’s the tasty golden stuff that rises to the top or the murky brown stuff at the bottom.) Everyone gets a ribbon! What a joke. I think for the most part the NHTSA focuses on crash test dummy results, not the likelihood of an accident. The only difference I saw between the Ford Expedition and my car is that my car gets five stars across the board whereas the Expedition gets only three to four stars (depending on year) for rollover rating. (The only vehicle I could find with fewer than five stars was the four-star MINI Cooper, about which the NHTSA cautioned, “During the side impact test, the interior door panel struck the torso of the rear passenger dummy, causing a high lower spine acceleration.” To which I respond, who rides in the back of a MINI Cooper, besides your annoying baby brother who probably deserves a good spine acceleration?)

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent, nonprofit organization, is more helpful as it publishes modern data on deaths per million vehicles. It covers a decent variety (though alas, it’s not comprehensive). As of 2020, the Ford Fusion averaged 25 deaths per million and small cars in general averaged 54; the Ford Explorer had 22 deaths with midsize SUVs averaging 27. My first takeaway is that SUVs have gotten a lot safer in the last 20 years. That said, my second takeaway is that SUVs are not safer across the board. If you really want a safe vehicle, don’t assume SUVs are the way forward; simply peruse the IIHS website and find some individual vehicles with good numbers (and/or look up the car you already had your eye on). For example, the Subaru Outback shows just 6 deaths per million vehicles per year, while that Jeep Grand Cherokee you might assume would be safe has a whopping 103 deaths per million. (My own car, a basic station wagon, which I assumed would be safe because it’s a Volvo, isn’t listed on the site, but the 4WD version of it boasts just 5 deaths per million.) Suffice to say, limiting your new car selection to SUVs on the basis of safety doesn't make much sense.

Dear Car Critic,

It feels like from a cultural perspective, there was a golden era of motor vehicles that’s now behind us. It was mainly a guy thing … it was just so much fun to sit around and gab away about cars, happy as clams. Where did this go?

Mark A, Grand Junction, CO

Dear Mark,

I hear you, and your letter makes me think of the classic Tom Waits monologue “The Pontiac.” Now, I can’t say for sure that men everywhere have stopped talking about cars (which would be like proving a negative), but I’ve witnessed this shift myself. I would say that historically, and thinking back to my dad’s generation, a big part of what men talked about when they talked about cars was how to fix them, which I think has become less of a DIY thing over the years, with the rising complexity of modern vehicles. My own car doesn’t even have a dipstick and I had to look on YouTube to figure out how to get the digital dashboard to show me the oil level. The cultural change is similar, perhaps, to how men used to talk about navigation at great length, comparing various routes you could take between point A and point B, and how that’s now been made obsolete by GPS. And then you’ve got the younger generation that increasingly doesn’t even drive (for example, my own daughters haven’t bothered to get their licenses). On top of it all, we have endless new entertainment options that take up a lot of people’s attention. So those are a few theories for you, anyway.

Dear Car Critic,

How do you get little animals out of your engine area when they go there to escape the cold? Man I dunno but I think car mammals are funny.

Amanda A, Portland, OR

Dear  Amanda,

I don’t know how seriously to take this question, but I totally agree car mammals are funny. Case in point: a friend of mine finished grad school  and bought his first proper, non-beater, grownup car, a nice Audi sedan. Then he was called away to a postdoc in Sweden for a year, which consisted primarily of doing a lot of testing on lab rats, about which he felt kind of conflicted. Well, he came home to discover that a family of rats had taken up residence in his car and eaten all the upholstery and electrical wiring, costing him many thousands of dollars in repairs. He shrugged it off, chalking it up to karma.

Getting back to your question, it seems like if you could manage not to drive your car for a good while, especially during a cold snap, the animals would leave for warmer environments (though hopefully not the cabin of the car). Or, you could try sending in a very svelte, slinky cat.

Dear Car Critic,

Why are so many modern cars so ugly?

Bruce H, Brooklyn, NY

Dear Bruce,

I know, right? This bothers me a lot … I drive down the highway looking at all the cars around me, noting my reactions to each in turn: “Ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly, passable, ugly, kinda cool, ugly, ugly, ugly.” I suspect the problem is the endless need that the automotive industry has for novelty. As of 2020, the US automotive market size was almost $900 billion, meaning they’re able to get a whole lot of people to replace their perfectly good cars with newer ones. So, despite how expensive these things are, the industry treats them like fashion products—thus nobody is working really hard at creating timeless, classic designs. That’s my theory, anyway.

I did a little research for you, too. As described in this article, the car designer Frank Stephenson, who “reincarnated the MINI” and designed the (also cool looking) Ferrari F430, says “carmakers have this mindset that bold, shocking designs convey confidence in their brand and product” and “they assume that consumers will eventually catch up to their way of thinking.” Meanwhile, he complains, modern designers have “lost the appreciation for sketching on paper, and this contributes to the new, robotic, cold designs the industry is imposing on consumers.”

Of course, it’s also possible to complain that too many cars look too much alike, which kind of flies in the face of the “bold, shocking” claim. Maybe it’s both. Or may it’s just that, by and large, cars are lame.

Dear Car Critic,

Did Harry inherit more than William?

Wendy C, Granite Bay, CA

Dear Wendy,

I’m sorry, you’ve got the wrong columnist. I know nothing about the royal family (and couldn’t care less).

Dear Car Critic,

What is a PZEV vehicle?

Robert M, Phoenix, AZ

Dear Robert,

It stands for “partial zero emissions vehicle,” which is linguistic blasphemy and a mathematical impossibility. On a less snotty note, this is the class of gas-powered motor vehicles that are the cleanest running.  As detailed here, PZEV vehicles have more sophisticated catalytic converters that turn nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide into less harmful gases, and fancy filters to keep unburned fuel vapors from escaping into the air. Now, if you’re trying to figure out of your own car is a PZEV, good luck with that. I went down that rabbit hole and was lucky to make it out alive (and no more informed than when I went in, alas).

Dear Car Critic,

I’m kind of torn when it comes to cars. On the one hand, I feel like I shouldn’t be swayed by “wow” features I’ll never use, like the cool little paddles alongside the steering wheel to shift gears. On the other hand, I want to own a car I will really love, even if it’s much fancier than I really need. Does that make me a hypocrite?

Lily A, Ashland, OR

Dear Lily,

I wouldn’t sweat the features that you don’t use. I mean, on the most fundamental level, most of us drive around with nobody in the rear passenger seats 90% of the time, but we wouldn’t want to switch to a two-seater. Meanwhile, most modern car tires (but not SUV tires!) could easily handle 100 mph safely even though almost nobody goes that fast (and none of us should). Most cars strike me as vastly over-engineered, but when we consider what’s at stake—literally life and death—perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. (Road traffic accidents, as documented by the CDC here, are a leading cause of death among people ages 1-54, second only to accidental poisoning, which includes overdoses.) I chose my car primarily because it’s safe, secondarily because it’s not ugly, and thirdly for its fuel economy, and although I adore the idea of its Geartronic shifting paddles, I never use mine, either. (I do wish my car were a stick shift.)

Hey Car Critic,

Why do you exist?

Ron M, Boston, MA

Dear Ron,

If I take your question literally, the answer is: because my parents wanted a girl, and my three older siblings all came out male. But I’m guessing that’s not what you’re asking. I’ll bet you’re chafing at the fact that, despite having no credible qualifications or education, I get to have my own column. That’s a harder question to answer, and you’d have to ask my publisher what he sees in me. My best guess is that it’s just because I’m dirt cheap. Meanwhile, though Ray Magliozzi’s “Car Talk” column is obviously far superior to mine, I have to say reading it sometimes makes me sad, as I think back to the radio show Ray no longer gets to do with his late brother Tom. Maybe people would rather read a hit-or-miss column from some rando who doesn’t even like cars.

A Car Critic is a syndicated journalist whose advice column, “Ask a Car Critic,” appears in over 0 blogs worldwide.

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