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The great transatlantic automative divide

I caught my initial glimpse of Eurotopia back in 1991, on my first trip on the other side of the Atlantic (post age 2).

I remember driving down a German autobahn and feeling I was in Disneyland. The highway didn’t feel real. I couldn’t put my finger on why while I was there, though I thought perhaps the lanes were narrower.

It wasn’t until I was back in the States driving home from the airport in our family Suburban, surrounded by similar SUVs, that it hit me: the cars over there were smaller, small enough that from my perspective driving felt like a ride on Disney’s Autopia.

Miles per gallon was never on my mind

My fuller awakening to the transatlantic automotive divide took another 16 years. Back in ´91, I understood that European tax policies encouraged smaller cars and overall fuel conservation, but car size was my only point of reference.

Growing up, I couldn’t have quoted the fuel efficiency on any of our family cars. From the VW Bug when we were a family of 5 to the Suburban when our household grew to 8, I wasn’t sure whether they got 5 or 50 miles to the gallon. To be honest, just 5 minutes ago was the first time I actually learned those numbers: 25 mpg for our 1973 VW Beetle and 18 mpg for our 1982 Chevrolet Suburban (15 mpg in town).

A parallel auto universe

This summer while writing a blog on my experiences driving my parent’s Prius, I stumbled upon a statistic that shocked me: in 2007 the Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid are the only two vehicles in the US getting 40 mpg or better (46 mpg and 42 mpg, respectively). Outside the country, there are 113 vehicles in that category.

Seeing these numbers was like looking into a parallel universe. Here was an example of how we could cut our greenhouse gas emissions without burning food (ethanol and non-waste-oil biodiesel) or without simply waiting for a future technology (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles). All we had to do was look across the Atlantic.

While SUVs and light trucks make up over half the U.S. car market, minicars are the most popular European car class, making up about 35% of all car sales. In the US, our small cars- the compact category which accounts for cars larger than Europe’s mini class- account for less than 10% of the market.

To Europeans all our excitement over hybrids must also feel a bit like a parallel reality. While I, and many Americans, have been feeling proud of our advances in fuel efficiency achieved by the Prius and other hybrids, Europeans have practically ignored this new technology. They have plenty of cars to choose from without paying extra to carry a battery around.

Superminis, voiturettes and city cars

In Eurotopia cars have been shrunk to many different shapes: superminis, microcars, voiturettes, city cars, urban cars, station cars, bubble cars, etcetera.

Since moving to Spain, these cars have begun to enter my reality. I’ve become acquainted- and fallen in love- with the original cinquecento, the Fiat 500. Back in 1957, at 117 inches in length, it was one of the first city cars designed to help fight urban congestion.

With its distinctive design, small is not a sacrifice, but a style statement. Fiat reintroduced the cinquecento this year and the fuel efficiency on the diesel version is about 67 mpg.

This is just the story of one car, which had spin-offs in most countries, like the Spanish Seat 500, the quinientos, and nearly every other car in Europe has a similar story of small. According to statistics of Spanish car sales for 1998 (the only year I could find a statistic), minicars account for about 28%, subcompacts around 19% and compacts 18%. This means about 65% of car sales in Spain were for compacts or smaller.

Pick a car at random

As an experiment, last weekend on a walk in the Penedès region where my in-laws live (about an hour outside Barcelona), I decided to do an informal survey of the cars parked on the street. We passed plenty of compacts and subcompacts from brands I’m beginning to be familiar with like Citroën, Seat and Opel (GM’s European line), but I also saw a couple a bit smaller- about the size of a Smart- from a brand called Aixam.

When I looked up the stats for the Aixam online, it turns out they fall in the microcar category, meaning they’re small enough that they can’t be driven on the freeway and you only need a motorcycle license to drive one (a concept that exists in the US with Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, like the Kurrent from a video I shot in Seattle this summer). At 102 inches, the two-seater Aixam 400 gets 3.5 liters per 100 kilometers or 67 mpg and the Aixam Mac Cabrio convertible gets anywhere from 60-67 mpg (3.5 to 3.9 liters/100 km).

Gas at $7.50/gallon

Why is Europe such a different car universe? Part of the issue are the European gas taxes. Take, for example prices per gallon for April 17/18, 2007. In the US the price per gallon was $2.88. It was $8.37 in the UK, $7.52 in the Netherlands and $7.33 in Norway. Even in Italy which had the EU’s cheapest gas at that moment, they were paying $4.80 per gallon.

There is no talk of raising our gas taxes in the US (currently the average combined federal, state and local are 45.9 cents per gallon), the legislature is debating increasing fuel efficiency requirements for new cars. The senate passed a bill to raise the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards for the first time in 2 decades, from 24.7 mpg for cars and 22.5 for light trucks to 35 mpg combined.

Whether it passes through Congress and survives a presidential veto is questionable, but even so when you consider that Europe’s average is currently 37 mpg, the new goal no longer seems so ambitious, especially considering its target date of 2020.

“Gargantuan monsters being forced down the throats of the buying public”

How did we get so far off track? Why are cars sold in the USA bigger and heavier than their European counterparts, while GM, Chrysler and Ford all have more fuel efficient lines that they only market in Europe?

Even 50 years ago, the American legislature was worrying about the expanding auto and pointing fingers at Detroit.

In February of 1958 when the growing size of American cars forced the Senate to revise plans for their new parking lot to fit 185 instead of 200 cars, Connecticut’s Republican Senator Prescott Bush railed against “these gargantuan monsters being forced down the throats of the buying public“. Despite owning a Cadillac himself, he called them “too big, too fast, too powerful” and “enormously wasteful of raw materials”.

At the same time the Senate approved the plans for their oversized parking, the Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee was investigating auto prices. G.M.’s President Harlow Curtice testified that the 1958 Chevy was better than that of 1948 because it weighed 324 lbs. more and was almost a foot longer and five inches wider.

Wyoming’s Democratic Senator Joseph O’Mahoney was skeptical of the bigger is better theory: “You say it is a better car because it is longer, wider and heavier. Have you received any complaints from people who believe these things are disadvantages? Do you think the modern car is too big?”

In what would become typical of auto execs in the years to come, Curtis put the blame on the American public for the bloating of US autos, replying: “No, I don’t. Cars have attained their present dimensions as the result of popular demand.”

Do we buy what we’re sold or are we sold what we ask for?

Nearly 50 years later, another GM exec- this time vice chairman Robert Lutz- gave Washington Post columnist Warren Brown the same line: “We build and sell big cars and trucks in the United States because that is what consumers there say they want”.

This time Brown had been asking him why GM made a car like the Opel Corsa- “a little sports coupe that looks sharp, runs fast and gets 30 miles per gallon” and “proves beyond any reasonable doubt that fuel-efficient cars don’t have to be boring“- which they wouldn’t be selling it in the US. His response: “Europe and the United States are two different worlds.”

At this point, he’s right, but are they two different worlds because our automakers- who now earn 80% of their profits from SUVs and light trucks– continually reinforce America’s taste for gas guzzlers?

Fight for your right for big

With things heating up on the Hill for stricter fuel efficiency limits, it appears that automakers like GM have had their hand in trying to frighten consumers. Last May, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents Detroit’s Big Three and other automakers, spent $1 million on a print and radio campaign warning of a world of improved mpg.

One radio ad showed two men talking about buying a new pickup and the other advised him to do it fast because the .” According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, initial investment in cars that average 40 mpg will cost consumers a bit more- $1,000 to $2,000 extra per vehicle-, but over the life of the car consumers will save $2,500 to $5,300 per vehicle in fuel costs.

The Alliance also ran an ad playing to our safety worries with one woman warning that “automakers are going to be forced to build smaller and smaller cars” and her friend replying “safety is my top concern”.

As I explore in the faircompanies article Does size really matter in cars?, this concept of bigger is better is more hype than fact, especially with newer technologies like the crush boxes on minicars.

Yank Tanks

Whether it’s been pushed down our throats by automakers or not, today Americans have a strange fixation on bigger-than-necessary, in particular the Sport Utility Vehicle aka SUV, mum truck or Yank Tank.

In New York Times columnist Keith Bradsher’s book “High and Mighty”, J.C. Collins, a top Ford marketing executive, describes the lure of the SUV as about image. Collins even admits that their clients don’t really use all those extra gas-guzzling features: “The only time those SUVs are going to be off-road is when they miss the driveway at 3 a.m.

In Europe, the UK have their own growing issues with “Chelsea Tractors” (referring to the upscale London neighborhood) as SUVs like the Land Rover have gained status, but for most of continental Europe, an SUV is still a foreign beast.

Tailor-made vehicles

In most of Europe, vehicles are utilitarian. There is no one-size-fits-all vehicle, instead cars are just big enough for their purpose.

Larger families buy cars with more seats, but without all the extra metal, weight, height and endless storage space of American SUVs. Those who need storage space, like delivery people, may have a large truck bed, but usually the cab barely fits two people. Urban drivers buy small-engined city cars, bubble cars and voiturettes. Solo commuters buy two seaters, or simply a helmet and a moto.

A mini pickup

To Americans, this supreme usability can seem like a joke, or toy versions of the real thing. Take the pickup truck. A couple years ago while in Florence, Italy videotaping a wedding show, my co-workers and I were passed on a city street by an Italian “pickup truck”.

It was the three-wheeled Piaggio Ape and at 125 inches long, it falls between a Mini Cooper (150 inches) and a Smart (108 inches for the US version). But given that the cab is only 53 inches deep and 58 inches wide, when an over 6-foot-tall man unfolded from his seat and began to unload a ladder and paint cans from the truck bed, I must admit we all began to laugh a bit.

But the man seemed perfectly at ease with his rig and when I read the statistics on the Piaggio site, he definitely had the last laugh: it can transport up to 1500 pounds and it’s fuel efficiency is 29km/liter, or 68 mpg.


Last May, Paul Harris- columnist for the UK’s Observer- wrote a column about trying to rent a small car in America and continually being offered free upgrades to a larger-sized vehicle at rental counters across the country. At one spot in Texas, the agent gave him a look of “disdain or pity” at his choice and asked: “Are you sure you don’t want an upgrade, honey? The car you’ve booked is really small.”

He rejected all the free offers because he doesn’t like driving, or parking, big cars- something he observed as distinctively un-American: “The concept that you actually prefer a little car to a tank-like SUV seems difficult to grasp.”

Light trucks and SUVs, “just in case”

I had a friend when I lived in San Francisco who bought a truck that got 9 mpg. He was a banker and didn’t usually haul more to work than his briefcase and a set of gym clothes. But he wanted the option to haul things on the weekend.

I have another friend from Seattle who commutes 30 miles per day in an SUV. She’s single, but she wants the option to take off on weekend sporting getaways with friends – though most of her friends have their own SUVS and even a mini can fit a ski/bike rack. I’ve been trying to convince her give up her Yank Tank for a carsharing program (Flexcar, Zipcar) but she wants the ease of owning.

Why is it that we Americans need all the extras “just in case”? Have we gotten so used to saying yes to the upgrades- whether for a larger soda or extra legroom- that we think we need them?

Supersizing a Smart

Even when one of those super small European cars finally goes on sale in the US, it too has been given the upgrade. As explained to me by Bryce Lathrop of Seattle’s Green Car Company (I shot him driving a three-wheeled electric NmG and a highway legal electric motorcycle), something happened to the Smart Car on its way across the Atlantic.

“When we hear the Mercedes is going to mass produce Smart cars in the United States, you become excited and then you wait and wait and then they delay it and finally announce that’s it coming. But the car turns out to be 8 inches longer and nearly a thousand pounds heavier. Instead of a Mercedes high efficiency 3 cylinder turbo we get a Mitsubishi 4 cylinder and they say, ‘That’s because we can sell the car for less than 20 grand.’”

The road to a smaller future

Perhaps now we’re more price than fuel conscious, though there are signs that Americans may be beginning to demand more fuel efficient vehicles.Lathrop told me that the number of phone calls they- the Green Car Company- get every day correlates with the change in gas price, but it’s not just about absolute price and more about how much it fluctuates.

“Americans hate having someone in control of their life.  If the price bounces randomly there would be no way for a person to budget and there would be no way they’d let the gas companies interfere with their lives.”

The funny thing is we’ve been letting gas and auto companies interfere with our lives for decades. I just found out that Disneyland’s Autopia ride- recommended for families with kids, teens and toddlers- is sponsored by Chevron (the opening sponsor in 1955 was Richfield Oil). If they start young enough, you just never realize there’s any other reality.