By Matthew Master
In the last decade the motor industry has been forced to accept that the notion 'bigger is better' no longer holds water. Status cannot so easily be defined by scale, speed or a terrifying ticket price. The green alternative is championed by governments and celebrities alike. Miles per gallon has replaced miles per hour and small is most definitely beautiful.
But there is resistance from certain quarters, most obviously in the U.S. where the cars, and critically their engines, remain disproportionately large. The next, and arguably most difficult, step will be in altering deeply held perceptions across the automobile industry about what should make a motor car tick. Steps are being made in the right direction, but at present they are baby ones.
The SUV, or Sports Utility Vehicle, is a way of life in the U.S. today. The default choice for families who would once have driven station wagons and minivans. In the heartland of America the pick-up truck is similarly hallowed and ubiquitous, connecting its owners with blue collar, agrarian origins and traditional workmanlike values in an increasingly high-tech, disenfranchised society.
Yet even the average mid-size saloon car in the U.S. comes with a big capacity V6 as standard and is almost as commonly sold with an even larger V8, the preserve of low volume, high performance models in most other markets. The bestselling vehicle in the U.S. this year – and for most of the last thirty – is the Ford F-Series pick-up. The latest version has just been unveiled: The 2011 F-150 model. Its engine returns approximately 11 miles per gallon. That's against a fleet average target of 34 miles per gallon for 2012, as set out in guidelines by the U.S. Department of Transport.
This near-national obsession with oversized utility vehicles becomes an even greater problem as the boundaries between utility and road vehicle blur, with pick-ups morphing into 'double cabs' (gaining a set of rear doors and seats), that are kitted out with all the luxuries you'd expect from a high-end family car such as leather upholstery and climate control. These are not, no matter how strong the association or how capable the product, utilitarian vehicles, but are the lifestyle choice for anyone and everyone from teenage learners to harassed hockey moms.
In Europe, meanwhile, the broader embrace of small, economical cars remains at odds with a growing devotion to the premium SUV. Across the continent products such as the Range Rover, BMW X5, Audi /zigman2/quotes/207972355/delayed DE:NSU +0.63% Q7 and Mercedes M-Class are regarded as executive cars. Spacious, luxurious and powerful, they have become symbols of affluence and success. This is far removed from the erstwhile heavy duty abilities that gave rise to the original product a half-century ago.
While volumes are small in comparison with the U.S. market, the number of SUVs sold in Europe continues to grow at a time when logic would suggest they should be in rapid decline.
Altering these perceptions and retarding growth in this sector, both in Europe and the U.S., is essential in addressing the future of personal transport. For cars to have meaningfully low emissions and be truly fuel efficient – as they inevitably must – they need to be lighter, more aerodynamic and smaller. But the options are limited and often unattractive. Some middle-ground is being established with high-end marques such as Porsche and Lexus offering hybrid SUVs, but this is tokenism. Few are sold and those that are make little impact on the environmental concerns raised by the more popular petrol versions. A widening range of more compact SUVs is also appearing in showrooms, serving at once to dilute the strength of the problem while expanding it with increased affordability and choice.
A shift in public attitude appears to be afoot, however. In August of this year the U.S. experienced its lowest sales figures for new cars in nearly thirty years, but there were still two growth areas: Hybrid and diesel cars, the two most efficient fuel systems currently available to the mass market.
Over 24,000 hybrids were sold in the U.S. in August, with almost half of this number accounted for by the Toyota /zigman2/quotes/200537742/composite TM +0.49% Prius. And sales of that model in particular were close to 100,000 in the year to date.
Diesel's Slow Burn
Meanwhile sales of diesel cars have exploded in the U.S. The figures are tiny in comparison to overall sales of cars across the country, but Audi has seen sales of its diesel Q7 SUV increase by almost 90% in the last year, while the bestselling Volkswagen /zigman2/quotes/206736865/delayed DE:VOW +1.25% Jetta TDI, a compact saloon, has seen a year-on-year increase of almost 30%. Total diesel sales in the U.S. have risen by over 50% since 2009.
This is something that Audi, BMW and Mercedes have been plugging away at for years. The European mindset has now almost entirely accepted the modern diesel engine as a technology suitable for luxury and comfort as well as economy and agricultural strength. The advent of cleaner, quieter and more powerful diesel engines has gained them acceptability and even desirability. But diesel has been all but non-existent in the U.S. for over 20 years.
Shifting such an ingrained public perception is the stuff of nightmares for the marketing men, but perhaps they've managed it. When Audi developed its R10 TDI diesel racer in 2006, a car that would go on to dominate the U.S. Le Mans Series and win back-to-back victories at the Le Mans 24 Hour race, it was with this very challenge in mind.
In the intervening five years diesel has taken a gradual foothold in the U.S. and with tax credit incentives of around $1,300 on the likes of a VW Jetta, diesel sales have begun to eat significantly into the petrol market for the first time.
Of the top 10 best-selling diesel cars in the U.S. last August, six were still SUVs, and two of those, the Mercedes GL and Audi Q7, are some of the largest on the market. So America's love affair with big cars continues, but a groundswell of popularity in hybrid and now diesel technology, and the attendant reduction in fuel consumption and emissions, is a strong indicator of movement in the right direction.
In the UK a recent report issued by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders for the same month of August revealed that carbon dioxide emissions in the average new car sold in the UK had fallen by 4.7% for the first half of 2010. And in that time registrations of alternatively fuelled cars had doubled, to 11,468 units.
Paul Everitt , the SMMT's chief executive stated in the report that: "Continued vehicle manufacturer efforts to improve fuel efficiency and cut emissions has further reduced average carbon dioxide output during [the] first half of 2010." The report also claims that the registration of 'signposted' eco-models, meaning cars that have been branded to draw attention to their green credentials such as the Volkswagen Bluemotion range, has risen by 141% in the first half of this year. That amounts to 74,000 units and an increase of 850% on the same period in 2008.
So efforts by the industry to reduce emissions and a clear statement of intent from the buying public to champion greater environmental awareness in their transport sets a very positive tone for the future both in the U.S. and Europe.
Although exactly what that future holds is uncertain. Last year the RAC Foundation released a study suggesting that one fifth of Britain's 34 million motorists were planning on buying an all-electric vehicle in the next five years, taking advantage of a government incentive scheme that offers up to £5,000 in grants to buyers of electric cars from 2011.
The compact Nissan Leaf, the first all-electric family car on sale in the UK, costs a whopping £23,350, even with that grant. It also needs charging every 100 kilometers, which raises questions about the national infrastructure required to make such cars a realistic alternative to traditional motors.
So diesel and hybrid technologies will be with us for some time to come. Ever-improving in efficiency and becoming gradually more affordable, they are our short and even medium-term solutions for cleaner personal transport.
And it's a sign of the times that in 2011, for the first time in over half a century of production, the Ford F-150, that all-time American bestseller, will be available with a V6 engine instead of a V8. A small step, but a telling one.