I’m looking for a new vehicle again. Two years after buying my first new car, it’s time to unload my Saturn. (A Different Kind of Car, same awful dealers.) So what do I buy? A very complicated question. I want more than a four-door appliance. I want something with character and soul. I want value, utility, performance, gas-mileage, and reliability. I want something that looks good, but not just like everything else on the road. Most importantly though, I want my vehicle, meaning I want something that’s an extension of my personality. Fundamentally, I don’t think that these desires are much different than those of most people. But when I look at what’s available in the U.S. market, I see very little that excites me.
Europe, however, is another story entirely. Every time I go to Europe to write a story for this magazine, I’m amazed at the architecture: three-door hatchbacks, five-door hatchback sedans, “3-L” microcars, sports coupes, station wagons of all sizes, mini-minivans, SUVs unlike those in the States, plus all the typically American four-door sedans and pickups (though in smaller quantities). Now I’ll be honest, it’s not like I get excited about all of the weird cars I see driving around Europe. The two-stroke-engine powered, built-with-communist-pride Trabant—a very small, two-door, clown car that resembles a shrunken ’55 Chevy—does not particularly excite me. But the diesel sipping, mini-Golf VW Lupo does. So does the car/minivan hybrid Fiat Multipla. But I can’t buy either of these vehicles in the U.S.
The point isn’t just that “they get cooler cars than we do here.” (Although I think this is a valid assessment, the editors of several sports car magazines already make this point regularly.) My point is that we just don’t have much variety in the U.S. when it comes to basic vehicle architecture. Look at the U.S. lineup of any car company today and what do you see? A bunch of four-door sedans, SUVs, and pickup trucks of various sizes. Maybe a couple “sporty” coupes (in quotes because marketing people think that all coupes are “sporty,” even if they’re Camrys, err Solaras).
Why aren’t more different types of cars—namely hatchbacks, wagons and microcars—more readily available in the U.S.? And what about the really new ideas for vehicle architecture? The only company pushing the envelope at the Detroit Auto Show was CorbinMotors with its single-seat, enclosed motorcycle cars. Or should I believe that the four-door pickup (a very old idea that’s “new and revolutionary” here in the U.S.) is progress?
So it’s obvious that I’m not going to be driving anything like those wacky Boyd Coddington-looking “Future Cars” that automakers used to show back in the day. Fine, I can accept that. I might even be able to accept the fate of driving a four-door sedan. But I still want that elusive “extension of my personality” vehicle. So what do I do? I could, like millions of other Americans, spend some cash to customize my new car. How much cash? How about $19.3-billion? That’s how much money consumers spent last year purchasing aftermarket products, according to SEMA (the Specialty Equipment Market Association).
That’s a pretty big pile of leaves, and from the looks of the OEM’s rabid participation in last fall’s SEMA trade show, one that the car companies would like to play in. Too bad for them, but the SEMA-member companies are the ones holding the rakes.
While the aftermarket industry has long been viewed by the OEMs as a bunch of degenerate drag racers and anarchist engine-tuners, something has happened in the last few years: aftermarket business has taken off, while becoming legitimized in mainstream America. Or to put it another way, even my mom went to Circuit City to get a CD player put in her car. On the other side of the playing field, OEM’s have been limiting options, reducing complexity, and decreasing build combinations. Limiting choice, in the name of productivity, quality and speed. Forcing people to buy bland four-door sedans and then spend our cash modifying them to get just the vehicle we want—one that’s not available from the factory.
I can hear the screams now, “But you told us to do that!” I know; AM&P has and will continue to promote the holy grail of faster-cheaper-better. Simplifying vehicle build is a useful tool for meeting those demands. But let’s face it, people want choice. We want more options. We’re consumers and we want it all.
And we’re out there looking…