Who Killed the Compact Car?

I was browsing through the March 1977 issue of National Geographic for a story on Egypt when I came across an advertisement for the 1977 Honda Civic, promising an EPA estimated 54 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway. In contrast, the 2008 Civic's fuel economy is only 29 mpg highway.

Why has the efficiency of America's greenest car company dropped by nearly half in a span of thirty years?

It is, of course, not fair to conclude that the forward march of technological advancement somehow left the automotive industry by the wayside. A modern car has many performance and safety features that would embarrass the 1977 Civic. And many of these features come at a heavy cost. As a Center for Auto Safety statistic demonstrates, cars with inertia weight less than 2,500 pounds dropped from 10.8% in 1975 to a mere 2.6% in year 2000 models. The Honda Civic, in particular, increased its curb weight over 50%, from 1,687 pounds in 1977 to 2,738 pounds in 2008.

But besides the necessary add-ons for safety and comfort, there is also the question of size. Vehicle sizes have been growing at such an alarming rate that the sub-compact category has been rendered almost obsolete. Many will testify to being upgraded from an economy or compact car at a rental agency to an intermediate or standard, simply because there are so few of the former. In fact, the traditional basic cars have grown so obese that the Big Three (comprising Honda, Nissan and Toyota, who are arguably more worthy holders of the title today than Detroit's Big Three) had to introduce three new models (Fit, Versa and Yaris) to cater to the sub-compact segment that used to be dominated by their Civic, Sentra and Corolla cars.

While automotive obesity is correlated with human obesity, the lust for bigger and more powerful cars is a legacy from a bygone era before the OPEC oil embargo, when fuel-economy was an oxymoron and energy conservation considered an European fad. With the popularity of pick-up trucks, and more recently SUVs, motorists in America have been used to gas mileages that barely reached double digits. It is joked that the gas tank of the Hummer (the most atrocious affront on aesthetics and the environment) was designed to hold enough petrol to transport it from one gas station to the next! I was recently in the market for a 4-door luxury sedan, and could find only two 4-cylinder cars with an acceptable carbon footprint (BMW 318i and Infiniti G20). Not surprisingly, both cars have been discontinued for years!

That is why Tata Motors' introduction of the 50 mpg Nano is a reason to rejoice for environmentalists of every colour and creed. The one-lakh-rupee car is also a dream fulfilled for thousands of Indians who have seen the original version of the "peoples' car" (Maruti 800) pass them by as it has shot up in price and stature. India's urban designers and developers now have a different kind of challenge on their hands, attempting to accommodate upto 10 lakh new Nanos every year on the country's crumbling infrastructure.

In the day we sweat it out in the streets
Of a runaway American dream,
At night we ride through mansions of glory
In suicide machines.
Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

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