Leavitt: America’s love affair with cars is over

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

Americans, who used to drive the coolest vehicles on the planet, have learned to settle. (photo by Irv Leavitt)

If you go outside and look up and down your block with a discerning eye, you may see what I saw when I looked at mine yesterday:  Eastern Europe in the late 20th century.

The parked vehicles all looked almost alike, as if they were squeezed out of the same tired old communist factory.

This is not the America I grew up in and love.

I like trucks and truck-like vehicles. But it’s not much fun when that’s all there is.

Most drivers now own pickups and sport utility vehicles, accent on utility, as in utilitarian. These vehicles all look pretty much alike because they’re made to do things for people, not mean things to people, like sedans used to.

And if you’re a car guy, like I am, you may worry about an America where cars don’t mean much to people.

As our love affair with the automobile has reached November, we have lost our passion, and learned to settle.

There have probably been times when you tried to unlock someone else’s identical-looking SUV, thinking it was yours, but soon realized it was not only not yours, but it wasn’t even built by the same manufacturer that built yours.

Just another gray lump of metal and plastic.

This is the way we are now, and we’re not likely to change if the price of gasoline goes up.

We’ve bought so many SUVs that the Big 3 American car companies have enjoyed two straight years of record-breaking sales.

So now Chrysler, Ford and GM all have plans to stop making most of their sedans, saying they can’t sell enough of those to make it worthwhile.

Why should the Big 3 build sedans anymore? Most people have gotten used to repeatedly buying one basic product, and they’re not even thinking about replacing it with something different.

It’s full circle, back to Henry Ford. Make the Model T every day, year after year. Any color you like, as long as it’s black.

Eventually, Ford was forced to retool to build another car, the Model A, in four colors, after years of serious loss of market share to competitors. The retooling took years more.

Will it happen to the Big 3, too? Something worrisome, but a little different, is already underway.

Toyota, which used to make sedans that outsold everything on wheels, now devotes two-thirds of its monster manufacturing system to SUVs. And it seems like every other SUV on our streets is a Subaru Forester. Subaru has enjoyed 83 straight months of year-over-year sales growth.

And then there’s the almost equally ubiquitous CRV, made by Honda, which used to be dedicated to making teeny cars.

It seems to me that most of the world’s major auto companies are now trying to sell basically the same vehicle to the same people.

So far, that’s working out, though sales are slowing down a lot this year.

But Americans who are buying any vehicles this year are mostly buying SUVs, because they like a lot about them.

A typical grouping of American cars — three dull SUVs, one dull sedan. Whee! One is red. (Photo by Irv Leavitt)

“I drive a Honda CRV,” said Louise Gilmore Donahue of Lake County, Ill. “I like the cargo space for bags of landscaping bark, plants, bushes, my mother-in-law’s walker, and various family members. The higher level of the cargo space is a little easier on the back than reaching down into a trunk.

“The crash protection rating is extremely good. In a sedan-SUV crash, the people in the sedan are at a disadvantage, in part because they could be struck in the chest rather than the legs. Also, when I looked at sedans, the MPGs were about the same as for the CRV. Finally, the improved traction makes driving in snow much easier.”

SUVs are also in demand where snow isn’t a factor.

“We needed a third row for our dog that was suffering from cancer, so that our border collie would stop jumping on him and causing him pain,” Southern California resident Sarah Hicks Gottschalk said.  “Having a dog that likes to herd cars, (the border collie) needs her own row, and I know that sounds over-the-top, but it’s total chaos if she has another dog or person next to her.”

Linda Karstrom Shepherd, a Florida resident: “It’s nice to pull into a drive-up ATM and have everything at eye and hand level.”

Height is a concern for Tom Krajecki of Chicago, too. “I’m 6-foot-9-inches tall,” he said. “They keep reducing the leg room in cars.”

Chicagoan Lou Medellin said he values his Dodge Journey’s three rows of seats. “I do Lyft and I am an XL vehicle, which allows me to make more money. Gets me through the snow, too,” he said.

As you may notice, all the SUV owners are talking about convenience, not the thrill people used to get from paying tens of thousands of dollars to buy an automobile.

I recently ran into two people who chose their new SUVs by mapping out the features on spreadsheets. That’s not exactly the hallmark of an exciting experience.

“We made fun of people who drive SUVs until we bought one,” Chicago’s Marc Alberts said. “They make sense for families if you frequently pack a lot of groceries or equipment for kids.

“If you’re single, or a couple without kids or they’re grown, they are a waste of space.”

Indeed, I recently talked with several people who prefer sedans, and none of them had kids at home.

Unlike the SUV owners, few if any of the sedan owners had a new sedan. Not anywhere near new, I suspect.

The biggest group of people without kids at home are baby boomers, who happen to be the biggest demographic group of Americans, period. Why aren’t a lot of them regularly replacing their sedans, the way their parents did?

And for that matter, why aren’t childless millennials interested in buying any cars at all?

The reason may be that while SUVs have been boring and pedestrian for about 10 years, sedans have been boring and downright ugly for 40 years.

Recently, I asked Facebook friends to name the most beautiful car they remembered. All but one were pre-1973.

Toronados, Mustangs, Corvettes, Chargers, GTOs, XKEs. That’s what they loved.

Meanwhile, few sedans, trucks or utility vehicles have been designed with much style since before most people were born.

That means millennials have grown up rarely seeing anything on the road that looks exciting. So of course they aren’t interested in cars.

Style isn’t dead. Open up your kitchen gadget drawer and you’ll see more design excellence in your little Oxo potato peeler than the enormous automobile crouching in your driveway.

From the end of World War II through the 1960s, automobile styling was at its apex. David Gartman, a sociologist specializing in car culture, has posited that people with unsatisfying jobs felt better about life when they bought cool cars — even though they were going into debt to do it.

But as emission reduction and mileage became important, the engineers got more say in what cars were like than the stylists. The design department budgets went way down.

Some auto historians say that in the 1970s, American car companies without their own design direction tried to make their cars look cool and clean like Mercedes. Instead, they wound up looking more like the boxes that a Mercedes might come in, if Mercedes came in boxes.

That was also the decade when American cars were mechanically cheapened, for a variety of reasons. So the Big 3 had to fix that first, and to their credit, they did. And they started making competitive small cars, too.

They thought they were done. They weren’t. They neglected, for whatever reason, to bring back innovative design.

The engineers stayed in control, as if mileage was sexy. People got used to it.

The car companies had stopped trying to achieve what they had been craftily devoted to for decades: differentiation.

No more “wow factor,” as they used to say.

One of the ways the car companies, back in the day, used to create differentiation was through a plethora of models. Some models even had sub-models, providing more choices of different looks, different drive trains. That way, they could appeal to a variety of tastes within the same brand.

That seems impossible now, when the direction of all of the companies is to caress the bottom line by drastically reducing the number of models, which were already drastically reduced from where they once were.

But that’s OK.

The millennials are happy with public transportation and ride share, and the baby boomers can keep on driving their 2007 Buicks.