The most disappointing automotive trends (of the past 2 decades)
The world went too far with these things, shouldn't we turn back?
This article is part of the "(of the past 2 decades)" series I decided to write for myself (and for you - if you are patient enough to read through them), recapping what was going on in the world from 2000 to 2020. In this article I review the most horrendous trends that swept through the automotive sector leaving skidmarks on every true car lover's heart.
10) Start-stop engines
It's not the button, but the clutch-activated system.
Start-stop technology sounds like a super plan as presented by the marketing departments. The car starts saving fuel at red lights? Great idea! But anyone aware of how little fuel is burned at idle may start to question this approach and will look at the other side of the scale to see what’s required to achieve this.
First of all, the car needs a stronger starter motor to cope with the increased amount of starts. Okay – having a stronger starter motor is not that bad, although it costs a little extra. Second is having a higher quality (AGM, aka Absorbent Glass Mat or other similar) battery that can provide stable current even if the car needs to be started a hundred times within an hour. Having better quality sounds fine, although yet again – it’s more expensive. But batteries need to be replaced about every 5-7 years, meaning you will regularly have to pay this fee, not just at the dealership. So can the start-stop system save enough fuel to cover the extra cost of a deep-cycle battery? One could twist the numbers to make it look appealing, but considering average European driving habits, the answer is a clear no. Especially if users begin their journey by turning off this feature if it bothers them.
What makes it disappointing: Requires a deep cycle battery for debatable gains.
9) Trademarking literally everything
No new cars can be sold without having a mysterious combination of letters on the engine cover. Even though usually they stand for the same fuel injection, turbocharging or valve-control principles.
Getting lost in marketing buzzwords and call-.signs is no hard task in the automotive world. HDi, DSG, iDrive, 4Matic, DNA, MDPS, HSD and the list could go on. That is actually no new development, but this trend has certainly intensified a lot in the 21st century, making it very annoying. The strategy of car companies is fairly simple when it comes to the domain of intellectual property: they try to file patent and trademark applications for every possible technical solution, no matter how tiny or unimportant it is. Sometimes they create a slightly modified version of an already existing part just to have a new patent for it, or trademark even the smallest buttons in their new products.
That is a bit disappointing if you think about it in detail, because the industry is aware of the fact that some trademarks may not be unique or innovative at all, but they want the customers to believe so. And certain manufacturers built great fame and recognition for reselling things that are actually made by 3rd party vendors such as Magna-Steyr, Bosch or Magneti Marelli under their own trademarks. Some say that is the human capital value added, which is okay. But if you pick up a 2019 catalogue of a fancy brand and look through all the 3 letter acronyms you may ask: „Do all these things really need their own name? Couldn’t we just call all adaptive suspensions ’adaptive suspension’, all hybrids ’hybrid’ and all the infotainment systems simply ’car radio’?” We certainly could if the technical differences disappeared – but as long as buyers fall for this cheap trick they are bound to stay.
What makes it disappointing: Buyers get lost in a maze of seemingly manufacturer-specific options.
8) Metallic paint
Paintjobs aren't boring because of dull customer taste. Even Opel launched an 'Exclusive' colour option.
Debating personal taste of colours is not the topic of this recap, but metallic paint pushing out the good old solid paint is an objectively negative progress. Although metallic paint has quite a few advantages, it usually fails to produce vibrant colours. There are some shades and cars where the use of metallic paint is appropriate, because it reveals shadow lines and arches in the bodywork, but in the past 20 years the average car became less colourful due to the metallic parts embedded in the paint. Metallic colours just don’t pop out as well, since the focus is on the colour’s light distortion properties rather than the colour itself. But not all cars have interesting shapes and contours that we would love to look at all day. Let’s face it: nobody will run up to your Škoda Fabia to praise how great the rear wheel wells look in the light. But you may score some good points for buying it in the most tempting red available.
What makes it disappointing: Your average car doesn’t need it.
7) World engines
There's nothing wrong with small turbo engines - but one size does not fit all.
Many manufacturers refer to it as „global engines” – but what they mean is having the same engine in their line-up for all their cars in every market in the world. It seems logical – developing different engines for North America, Asia and Europe sounds very expensive, it’s much easier to produce one that fits all. But that also means they have to cover wholly different segments with the same bore-stroke ratio.
Peugeot went so far that as of now they only produce two types of engine blocks (1.2, 1.6) for petrol engines and two other for diesels (1.5, 2.0). They may tweak it with a turbocharger, variable valve timing system or intercooler on some variants, but generally the cylinder and piston dimensions remain unchanged. Which is a problem, because in the past sporty engines had bigger than normal bore diameter with short connecting rods giving them very explosive attributes. Utility engines used the opposite design remaining slightly slow to respond in terms of RPM, but delivering excellent torque from very early on, making them ideal for carrying a lot of weight. As the idea of having less and less of these specialized engines became widespread many people disappointedly found out that the engine in their new car is less suited for their needs.
What makes it disappointing: Engine characteristics disappear.
6) Headlight self-leveling
Humankind invented the possibility of a misaligned headlight beam due to a faulty sensor on the rear suspension. Image by the excellent Standard Motor Products, Inc.
Ever occurred to you that while driving at night the oncoming vehicle totally blinded you with blueish-white light? Blame the headlight self-leveling system. While it has been available on certain high-end luxury cars for decades, its mainstream advent came with the widespread appearance of HID lamps (also a worst trend candidate) that require headlight self-leveling as standard. In theory this is actually a fantastic solution to not to blind other commuters. Unfortunately it sometimes does just that as it is manufactured using many complex mechanical connections, actuators and level sensors. Fixing them when broken can be quiet costly, so the 2nd or 3rd owners of premium cars with such headlights often neglect their self-leveling system and keep driving at night with blinding lights. Latest generations of headlight-leveling proved to be more reliable, but still there are thousands of cars on the roads with headlight beams pointing upwards.
What makes it disappointing: Best example of a system that should either be manufactured fail-safe, or not manufactured at all.
5) Tyre repair kits
Fix this with a tyre repair kit, if you can! Photo courtesy of the fantastic TireZoo in Bloomington, MN.
In the good old days cars came with 5 wheels standard. 4 equipped and 1 spare in the boot, on the rear door or the underside of the vehicle (which is the worst location by far), but since punctures were common, always having a spare tyre was mandatory. As technology evolved, pneumatic tyres became less prone to punctures and – more importantly – public roads nowadays contain far less debris that could cause tyre deflation. Which gave some manufacturers the idea to migrate to space-saving tyres and then come up with the awful concept of totally ditching the 5th tyre and replacing it with a tyre repair kit.
Both are steps backward, but tyre repair kits provide no solution in case of a total blowout, which can still occasionally happen due to an accident, manufacturing imperfections or if someone deliberately damaged your tyre. It is really only good to seal small leaks so you can roll into the nearest service station where they will rip you off for a replacement tyre (which you could have had on board at the first place). If they don’t have the same exact tyre on stock, you will have to buy a pair, since in the EU you can’t have differing tread patterns on the same axle, so it is ultimately a more expensive solution.
What makes it disappointing: Temporarily fixing a faulty part which you could replace right away is stupid.
4) 6 disc CD-changer car radio
Does anyone even remember how a CD works? Photo by The Car Spy.
A 6 disc CD-changer radio system was probably one of the coolest extras you could have on your car in 2000. Most car came with a cassette player, or nothing. Even if it had a CD-player, it could only manage 1 pathetic CD at a time. No wonder such options costed a fortune. But 5 years later having only a 6 disc CD-changer car radio was considered miserable to the DVD players popular in 2005. Then, by 2010 every kind of discs were obsolete, the MP3 capable head units were the king. In 2015 having only one of those put you way down in the car audio prestige ranks, as smarter infotainment systems hit the showrooms with operating systems such as Windows CE or Android.
The pattern that should be recognized here is that no matter how much you pay the dealership to have a car fitted with the most expensive audio system, the automotive industry lags way behind in these trends and asks for serious money for even outdated technologies. The 6 disc CD changer is an excellent symbol for this and should always remind you to not make the mistake of fiddling with the entertainment extra options. Just leave them in the factory as currently people enjoy music streamed from YouTube or cloud and car manufacturers are nowhere close to offering you that comfort. By 2020 or 2025 they will probably come up with a pricey option for that which will belong in museums by 2030.
What makes it disappointing: Progress in technology triggers all kind of car radios obsolete quickly.
3) Big rims
At Renault they ain't shy about rim size with both Scénic versions wearing 20 inch shoes.
Tyres (precisely faulty tyres) were already discussed, but rims were going through major changes as well. Namely they’ve been getting bigger. And bigger. And then much bigger. Renault for example offers their Scénic family hauler with 20 inch wheels standard. The same model in 2000 came with 14 inch wheels. And while the Scénic may be an outlier, the general trend is that there have been an increase of about 3 inches in the average size, they’ve became more low-profile and steel rims were almost fully replaced by alloys.
The reason that’s interesting is because the weight accumulated on the axles directly reduces the power of the drivetrain and it’s self-explanatory that bigger wheels equipped with bigger tyres weigh a lot more. If we turn back on the Scénic’s example, an old 14 inch wheel (tyre+rim) weighed about 14 kilograms. A new 20 inch one weighs approximately 25 kilograms. And since you need 4 of them we arrive at a difference of 44 kilograms in total. Now that is a real gain compared to not carrying a spare wheel! (Reminder: a spare wheel is sprung, while the wheels equipped are unsprung rotating mass!) This also makes the use of aluminium alloys a bit laughable, since there’s little point in trying to reduce the weight of the rim by using a different material if engineers are increasing the size so extremely. It will still end up weighing a lot more.
The original Scénic from the millennium with regular wheel size.
To tell the truth such direct comparisons are a bit misleading, since those cars may use completely different suspension design, and to some extent bigger cars inflated the demand for bigger rims. But car companies overdid it, there’s nothing wrong with having slightly smaller, higher profile tyres. Actually that extra rubber acts as an excellent shock absorber between the road surface and your body. Reserve bigger sizes for performance cars, staying in the 15-17 inch range for your daily driver is a perfectly reasonable golden mean.
What makes it disappointing: Imperfect roads.
2) Fake parts
Mercedes-Benz is putting fake exhaust tips even on high-end AMG models.
To perform its task, a car needs various equipment. As described above, it needs wheels. It also needs steering, some kind of drivetrain, a chassis and other basic things. More advanced cars can have climate control, massage seats, leather upholstery or roof racks. They all serve some purpose. But does a road car require fake exhaust pipes, fake air intakes, Formula 1-like rear diffusers or carbon fibre stickers on the door panels? It doesn't, but customers feel more inclined to buy if they can have them. That's a worrying anomaly, because it puts manufacturers that don't dress up their products as tuned cars at a serious disadvantage. Think again: honest products that don't waste a bunch of plastic on disguising their tiny exhaust pipes, putting on extra non-functional elements and imitating expensive performance materials are less likely to sell.
The Ford Mustang has been a long-standing statue of fake air vents. Even though they somewhat fixed that.
It actually sounds somewhat familiar to human relationships. Less attractive women may put on a make-up to seduce men - nothing wrong with that, they can love each other just as much as an owner can love it's car with fake exterior parts. The greater issue unfolds when everyone starts putting on tons of make-up to compete in this pointless race and naturally beautiful designs become impossible to distinguish from straight-up ugly cars full of plastic styling elements. It ain't easy to come up with a solution for this dilemma, but looking back at history may help. Fake parts have been around for infinity in the form of pointless chrome decorations, weirdly shaped hubcaps or the first alloy rims which tried to copy the looks of superior spoke-wire wheels. It is up to common sense to find a level at which these counterfeit parts can be tolerated, because they will never completely disappear. The cause of the current surge in the amount of car make-up might be related to the trend that manufacturers are increasingly trying to appeal to exotic (Asian, Latin Amereican and Middle East) markets where they don't yet have a developed car culture. What's nice for them may be too much for our sophisticated European taste. It is up to the likes of Drivetribe readers to try and correct this oddity.
What makes it disappointing: Too much is ugly. A little is OK. None is the best.
This is what an SUV should stand for: countryside cottages, unpaved roads and the smell of horse manure.
First things first: There are many people out there who can utilize the capabilities of an SUV. They may already had a Range Rover, Land Cruiser or a Lada Niva in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. So SUVs as a category are not completely useless. But the fact that in some countries every 2nd car sold is now an SUV is weird, to say the least.
Let’s not play Greenpeace here. Forget about the carbon-footprint or fuel consumption of these vehicles. Let’s just focus on the sociographic aspect of buying an SUV instead! Women buy them. City dwellers buy them. Gangsters buy them. Short people buy them. Even men looking for sporty cars buy them. What’s wrong with these people? They are buying the complete automotive opposite of what they need. To make matters even more complicated there are SUVs with two-wheel drive and cars that want to look like SUVs, but merely reach what gearheads call the crossover level: cars with worse aesthatics, worse ride quality and worse visibility. Now what are those for?
SUVs may also embody what the British dub a 'Chelsea tractor': rich neigbhbourhoods, bad parking habits and Louis Vuitton bags.
Whilst I’d once again emphasize that SUVs are cool if they are used for the right purpose, their sheer size and high bonnet line also raises the question of trust in road traffic situations. Lorry drivers sit in heavy vehicles as well, but since driving all day is their occupation you somewhat trust them. It’s much harder to trust SUV drivers who can be anybody with a driver’s license. If they sit so high above traffic level, you can’t make eye-contact with them and you can’t know whether they are fiddling around with their phones or if they have noticed you. Therefore it is no wonder that the proposal of banning SUVs gained popularity in countries such as Germany.
Then we have these car-SUV hybrids that are derived from existing models. In this case, the Golf, Passat and Polo.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg – rollover problems due to high centre of gravity, higher servicing costs, awful manoeuvrability and lack of direct control amounts for a lot of cons against owning one. But the main concern is that SUVs are chipping away from the market share of regular cars, meaning manufacturers have to axe the production and development of family cars, hot hatches or sports cars in favour of high-riders, which is really a sad thing for a true automotive enthusiast. Not that I wouldn’t like a bit of off-roading in a proper 4x4, but that’s not what drives the demand for an SUV-ized world. People are actually sacrificing their comfort, money and the joy of driving to sit in these thingies. I’m totally clueless why the masses started buying SUVs at this scale, thus far my mind was unable to come up with any reasonable solution for this phenomenon, so it’s better to end my column here and leave it to the comments of Drivetribe to reveal any positive aspect of the SUV-buying craze.
What makes it disappointing: Nothing can really justify crowding the streets with SUVs and SUV-like things if you don’t need the off-roading capabilities.
(Not so) honorable mentions:
Dual-clutch gearboxes, Touch-screens, Growing front-grille size, Engine noise generators, Piano black plastic, Electric throttle control