Sometimes you don’t realize just how much weight you’ve put on until you try to squeeze into an old pair of trousers. It’s not much different in the world of cars. In most areas of the U.S., the gradual expansion of girth of the automobile through the years is easily absorbed. It’s a big country, with plenty of space — big trousers, if you will. I haven’t heard U.S. owners complain about the larger dimensions of the latest Range Rover, for example.
Both the acceptance and absorption of this automotive evolution isn’t a worldwide phenomenon, and shouldn’t be. A recent trip to the U.K. reminded me of the tight trousers analogy, and the brilliance of small cars. Maybe Dean Wormer in National Lampoon’s Animal House was right: Fat (drunk and stupid) is no way to go through life. America should take notice.
I have the pleasure of playing with a 1963 Jaguar E-type when I’m on my regular trips to England. It feels like you’re behind the wheel of a missile as you gaze across the long hood, effortlessly passing other vehicles in rural Warwickshire. The torquey inline-six sounds fantastic, sucking crisp British air through the SU carburetors as you accelerate hard after each left-handed gear change.
Replace the E-type with a Jaguar F-Type, and you suddenly find yourself forced to concentrate on the placement of the much wider two-seater in the narrow lanes. You must take heed not to clip the modern Jaguar’s side mirror on a hedge or, worse yet, whack it on a truck traveling in the oncoming lane. Imagine falling asleep in a king-size bed and waking up in a twin mattress. The dimensional difference between the old and new British sports cars is that extreme.
You don’t need to rewind the clock to appreciate smaller vehicles. I also spent time in a handful of new, not-for-the-U.S. Mercedes models while in England. Round one was the Mercedes-AMG A45, the hatchback version of our CLA45. It felt right at home on the tight, twisting British roads. I was blown away by how fast the small, 380-hp Mercedes could travel over particularly challenging sections of tarmac.
I didn’t fully realize just how impressive the AMG A-Class was in the tight conditions until I swapped it for a Mercedes-AMG C63 S Estate. Don’t get me wrong, I love the 510-hp wagon—it’s a dream vehicle for my selfish car-geek needs and as well those of my family—but you sure feel every extra inch of the one-size-bigger Mercedes when driving on the other side of the Atlantic. The AMG C-Class is no doubt faster in less constricting conditions, but I’d pick the A-Class if I needed the quickest point A to point B machine for the back roads of England.
Even those with a far lighter right foot can appreciate the positives of downsizing. Smaller and lighter cars tend to return superior fuel mileage, carry smaller, cheaper tires, and are easier to park. Often, they’re more fun and involving to drive as well, even in the vastness of America.
My wife owned two midsize German wagons before stepping down a class size with the purchase of a Volvo V60, which has roughly the same dimensions as the Euro Mercedes C-Class wagon. She’s now regularly reminding me how pleased she is in the slighter vehicle, especially when it comes to maneuvering in busy parking lots and for running errands encompassing popping in and out of multiple stores.
Our kids are more than happy with the V60’s rear-seat space, and we’ve never regretted the minor step back in cargo space. If we need more room for lugging around gear, we’ll purchase a rooftop carrier. Why pay more for the extra space that comes along with a larger vehicle when you only need the convenience some of the time? It’s like every American is sworn to the Boy Scout motto—Be Prepared—even if that provision will rarely if ever be utilized.
It’s going to take time for our country to get their head around the idea of rightsizing. I recently talked to a contact at the local Ford dealership about the Fiesta and Focus and how they are selling. He informed me they are doing fine, but as soon as Ford offers factory incentives on, say, a Fusion or Escape, customers can’t seem to pass on a bigger vehicle when it’s only slightly more expensive per month. The buyer may come in with their eye on the smaller option, but they tend to take the “supersize me” carrot and drive away in the larger car. They seem to have little concern for the higher fuel consumption and more expensive tires, let alone potential insurance cost hikes. As seems to commonly be the case in our great country, it comes down to the physical size of what you’re getting for your money.