Worst Car Design Trends

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Looks may be in the eye of the beholder — we can argue about the aesthetic appeal of the Pontiac Aztek all day long without anyone proving they’re right — or wrong.

But functional flaws are objective.

Here are some picks of the litter:

* Steamroller wheels (and tires) –

I recently reviewed the 2015 VW Passat TDI (see here). It’s a middle-of-the-road, family-minded large sedan. Emphasis on economy of operation, quiet and comfort. Yet it comes shod with large diameter 17 and 18 inch wheels — which in turn mount what are known within the car biz as “low aspect ratio” — that is, short sidewall — tires.

Functionally, large diameter wheels and short-sidewall tires are a liability in almost every way imaginable. Yes, yes, they impart sharper steering response. In a track environment, ok. High-performance street… ok. But this is a Passat.

Not a Porsche.

I doubt one out of a thousand drivers would notice (much less complain about) the difference in steering feel/response between a Passat shod with 16×8 (better yet, 15×7) wheels/tires and one with 18s.

But the car would have dramatically less unsprung mass/rolling resistance — and fuel economy would increase noticeably.

I’d bet buyers would care about that.

The ride would be much better (less harsh), too. Less “tuning” of the suspension would be necessary to compensate for the tires’ lack of give. Replacement tires would cost less – and you’d need to replace them less often because standard-type all-season tires are less vulnerable to damage than these inch-high sidewall/low profile tires that are being fitted to family cars and even minivans these days.

Ironically, VW puts more sensible 16-inch shoes on the gas-engined Passat. But you’ll need to buy them over the counter and have them installed on your TDI, if you want the advantages of lower rolling resistance, better mileage and less susceptibility to blow outs.

The ultimate idiocy is low-aspect ratio tires and “twennies” (or twenny-twos”) on an SUV or pick-up truck. The gold toof crowd may think it’s “dope” — and that’s exactly what it is. Like putting M/S-rated knobbies on a new Corvette.


* Beefy behinds –

This one’s an example of the law of unintended consequences. The federal government decrees that new cars will be designed such that they are more able to absorb being slammed in the rear by another vehicle. The car industry responds by enlarging — and raising ever-higher — the ass ends of new cars. At the same time — and almost necessarily — the rear glass moves upward, grows smaller and (increasingly) slants ever more toward the horizontal (the “fastback” look). Result? More crashworthiness, perhaps, if you’re rear-ended.

But less rearward visibility, too.

It is becoming so hard to see what’s behind you that almost all new cars now come standard with remote-view back-up cameras. Indeed, these have been mandated by law. All new cars will have them within a year or so. But it doesn’t solve the problem. Arguably, it makes it worse. Because cameras do not provide the same field of view — or depth of view — as the human eye. It is harder, for example, to see a kid on a bicycle coming at you down the sidewalk as you’re backing up… until said kid is literally on the verge of impacting your car (or rather, the reverse). Because the camera’s view is too limited — and too shallow.

Cars built in the Bad Old Days (pre 2000s) may not have had all the “safety” features that current cars have. But in a very real way, they were safer to drive because you were less likely to need “safety” features” … because you were less likely to hit something because you could see where you were going (and what was going on around you).

Also: They (the pre-2000s stuff) tended to have bumpers. All new/recent cars have “fascias” — the industry term for the huge plastic ass-covers (they use the same thing up front) that are easily damaged in minor accidents and usually not fixable and which cost a small fortune to replace.

* “Collision Mitigation” technology –

It sounds like a good (or at least, not terrible) idea. An electronic safety net that deploys automatically when a distracted or inattentive driver fails to notice, say, that traffic up ahead has come to a complete stop — and fails to apply the brakes. The system intervenes, and — the latest versions of it — can actually bring the car to a dead stop without the driver even touching the brake pedal himself.

Anyhow, that’s how it’s presented in the TV commercials. But how does it work in the real world?

Not so great.

The system — which uses radar proximity sensors or cameras that feed info about what’s in the car’s vicinity to the car’s computer, which controls everything (including the braking system) — can’t tell the difference between a car temporarily stopped up ahead with its left turn signal on that’s in the process of turning off the road and a car actually stopped in the middle of the road that’s not going to move out of the way before you get there. In the former case, there’s usually no need to stop much less slow down — because the turning car will be gone by the time you get to where he is. To where he was. Your brain knows this, because you have a brain and can use it to draw conclusions from such things as the car ahead’s turn signal being on. The computer on the other hand, only “sees” an object in the car’s path — and because it cannot think/draw conclusions from clues such as a turn signal flashing, it reacts in its pre-programmed way, jamming on the brakes if you do not and even if you do, assaulting you with flashing lights and loud, obnoxious warning buzzers.

Which some might regard as … distracting.

* LCD touchscreen monitors –

Buttons and knobs are going the way of the eight-track tape player and the VCR. But as slick as the new integrated touchscreen LCD monitors you’ll find in many new cars may look, you may be appalled to discover (usually, after the warranty runs out) that every accessory controlled via the touchscreen no longer works once the touchscreen no longer works. That means: Air conditioning (and heat), seat heaters, the GPS, the stereo… whatever system is accessed and operated via the touchscreen. Which in many new cars is almost all of them.

Lots of buttons and knobs may be “busy” looking — while the touchscreen de-clutters the car’s dash. But buttons and knobs — being mechanical things — are naturally more durable than electronic things. More important, though, individual buttons that control individual things (e.g., the AC/heater fan speed) are not affected by the failure of other buttons for other individual things. If the knob or button that controls the fan setting breaks off or stops working, the AC/heat will still work. With a touchscreen, you lose it all — not just the fan speed control and the AC/heat but everything else, too — if the touchscreen goes dark or fritzes out on you.

Which will happen, eventually. Buttons and knobs can last decades. LCD touchscreens live shorter lives. And tend to cost a lot more to replace when they croak.

Here’s where an extended warranty (or some money put aside for just-in-case) might be sound policy.

* The Six Year Plan –

Soon to be (and in some cases, already is) the seven-year plan.

Loan, I mean.

For homes — which (usually) at least hold their value — a long-term financing scheme is a reasonable way to spread out the cost of acquisition. At the end of the loan — once the loan’s paid off — you’ll (usually) have something that’s still worth something.

Cars not so much.

Because cars are appliances. Like a computer or a ‘fridge. They are not meant to last forever or even for a very long time. They almost invariably lose value the longer you own them. Are worth less as the years go by. And often, are worthless (or nearly so) after about 12-15 years. But the key point is that they lose value from the moment they’re first tagged, the rate increasing as the years go by. At about 5-6 years out, many new cars are only worth about half what they sold for new. That is, what you financed when the car was new. Which means, you could find yourself under water — owing more than the car is currently worth — after just 5-6 years, depending on the vehicle. As loan periods extend to seven (and eventually, eight) years — as automakers and their finance arms resort to desperate measures to keep the wheels turning — this problem is going to get worse and become more commonplace.

Something’s got to give.

I’m just not sure what it’ll be!



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