Think Pieces

Michael's thoughts on the auto industry, its products, and/or this website.

A car should be an experience:
defining greatness

Detroit has been losing market share almost continuously for over four decades. With annual declines in the two point range, some people have begun to wonder if the end could be near. Detroit itself seems to have given up hope on ending this retreat. Ford, which not long ago aimed to regain its long-lost #1 spot, now just wants to avoid losses. GM's leadership has already conceded that its years as the world's largest auto maker are numbered. Instead, the focus seems to have shifted from regaining share to keeping a controlled retreat, with a prospect of survival in some form, from becoming an outright rout.

And yet some people remain hopeful that Detroit might regain its former greatness. The solution these people generally propose: "great products." However, what makes a car (or truck) "great" is never specified, as if this were readily evident. Well, it's not.

Even auto enthusiasts tend to focus on different things when evaluating a vehicle. For many, massive horsepower and ultra-quick acceleration are enough to make a car great. But I wonder about this solution in an age where thoroughly mid-market cars like the Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima are available with 240+ horsepower V6s for less than $25,000. The power card seems about played out.

Other auto enthusiasts focus on handling. From this standpoint, a great car is one with an agile, tossable chassis and quick, chatty steering.

Beyond performance, styling likely plays a role in many people's sense of what makes a car great. No area is more fraught with difficulty. First off, there's that proverb about beauty and the eye of the beholder. Some people appreciate subtle designs, others prefer styling that hits you over the head from a hundred paces. Also, is a copy of a great design also a great design? For many people, a design might have to be bold or innovative to be great.

The logical solution would be to define design greatness to include all of these things: beauty and innovation, subtlety when viewed up close and boldness when viewed from a distance. The problem, of course, is that these are rarely (if ever) achieved in the same design. Conventional wisdom holds that design innovation or at least design boldness conflicts with widespread acceptance. From this standpoint, if you want many people to absolutely love how a car looks, you've got to accept that many will also hate it. A fine balance must be struck with such a strategy, because at some point widespread dislike reaches critical mass and becomes public opinion. Few people are willing to buy a car they know many find ugly even if they personally like it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, greatness might refer to how well the car functions. For its exterior size, does it provide an exceptional amount of room and comfort? Does it transform easily between carrying people and carrying stuff? Is it exceptionally safe? Does it offer innovative features?

Greatness might also be defined in terms of quality. But what does "quality" mean? These days many people look beyond reliability and durability to fit, finish, and refinement. Does every moving part operate smoothly? Are all gaps tight and even? Of course, other people notice none of these things.

Quite likely it is no longer possible for a car to be great merely by excelling in an area or two. Even manufacturers that have been very successful in the past by providing excellent performance, comfort, or reliability are now seeking to improve in all areas. The day of the boring Toyota may be nearing an end. The day of the conservatively-styled BMW has already ended, to the dismay of many who preferred the more subtle (too subtle?) past designs.

For me, a great car not only excels in most of these areas, but is a distinctive whole that exceeds the sum of its parts. It drives how it looks like it should drive, and in both cases is memorable and unlike anything else. Everything about the car, weaknesses as well as strengths, fits together to comprise a coherent whole. Conversely, all it takes is one large thing that doesn't fit to shatter the wholeness of a car.

In short, a great car is a great experience. When you look at it, when you sit in it, when you drive it both the intellect and the senses are stimulated. A great car is interesting. Every sense save taste can be involved: the look of the exterior and interior, the feel of the steering and seats, the sound of the engine, even the smell of the upholstery. Above all, there's just something special about a great car.

Such cars are very rare, and those with more than two doors are even rarer. The reasons are many. But the legitimate excuses are few. Not only could Detroit do better here--every manufacturer could.

I've posted this topic on the Epinions message boards here. Have something to add? Have a car or truck you feel qualifies as as a great one? I encourage you to discuss it there.

Thanks for reading.

Michael Karesh, TrueDelta

First posted: November 1, 2005
Last updated: November 15, 2006

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