16 June 2006

Why Don't Car Makers Make A Commuter Car?

While I have a one car family, most families do not. Most families have, at least, two vehicles, and many have three or more.

It make a certain amount of sense to buy one of those vehicles to meet the family's peak vehicle needs -- perhaps mom, dad, the kids, and a couple of friends, their bicycles, and their luggage on a rugged dirt path to some vacation cottage during summer vacation or Christmas Break.

But, a huge share of all of the trips made by most families are single passenger trips to and from work, single passenger day trips to business meetings and single passenger overnight business trips. On trips like these, you bring nothing but a briefcase, a lunch box and maybe an overnight bag. At peak use, you might drive your spouse to dinner, or a colleague from the office to lunch. In short, all many families need in a second vehicle is the passenger and luggage capacity of a Mazda Miata and nothing more. But, the vast majority of these trips will be made in urban traffic where a powerful engine does nothing, and people don't need their commuter car to have leather seats. An ability to park in a tight spot is more useful. The point is to keep second car costs down, not to pay the Mazda Miata price of about $26,700 MSRP.

True, there are lots of vehicles on the market which are fairly inexpensive and small, mostly targetted at single young people straight out of high school or college who needs a car, which will meet all of their needs, to drive with their friends to a party or the beach, cart all their worldly goods from apartment to apartment. The Honda Fit is the latest example of the genre and the pictures on the company webpage linked show the target audience. Another similar vehicle is the Toyota Yaris ($10,000-$13,000 MSRP, 34 mpg city, 40 mpg highway).

But, people in their thirties, forties and fifties commuting to work are a little vain. They don't want to convey the image that they are college kids, would enjoy some distinctive styling, and don't need the back seat and the gobs of potential cargo space found in most of these vehicles. They need two seats and a little bitty trunk, preferrably opaque so that no one will be tempted by the valuables you have in there.

A couple of German car companies have come close. The new VW Beetle (MSRP starting at $17,180 and up to 37 mpg city and 44 mpg highway in the diesel version), and the new Mini Cooper with BMW engineering, starting at $16,950 MSRP (27 mpg city, 35 mpg highway), are both nicely styled small vehicles, primarily designed for two passengers, although both have back seats,with only modest cargo space and decent mileage. No American and Japanese manufacturer, however, has a car in the U.S. market that is a good fit for the second commuter car role. Even the Beetle and the Mini aren't optimal, as they devote weight (which impacts fuel economy) and length (which impacts parking usefulness) to a back seat that can actually hold a couple of adults, which also contributes a little to the price of the vehicle, both in terms of materials cost and necessary engine size.

Why can't they make a two seater commuter car, with a small trunk, which is pretty inexpensive (I'm thinking under $14,000), gets good mileage (is 40 mpg city and 50 mpg highway too much to ask?), easy to park, and looks decent? It doesn't have to have a powerful engine. It doesn't have to have sports car styling. But, it does have to be something respectable.


Anonymous said...

The car you're describing used to be built by Honda: the CRX. I drove one for about 5 years and loved it. The last model year was 1991, but if Honda brought it back, I'd buy one.

Anonymous said...

interesting post. The mazda miata is generally not considered a very safe automobile from a crash-worthiness perspective.

The thing to remember is that we spent 15 years buying trucks and SUV's and the auto manufacturers are going to take a number of years to re-tune their product lines to adjust to the desire of consumers to have high-style economically efficient automobiles. The new audi a3 is a good example of this type of automobile.

I'm seeing people buying a cheap economy car and keeping the SUV in the driveway. I'm seeing people replacing the SUV and moving to an AWD minivan or one of the newer AWD luxury sedans from the japs.

Ironically, while the scion and the yaris and the fit are being marketed to the youth, they can't afford them and are largely being bought by people in their forties..

and I'm wondering if one of the trends we'll see over the next couple of years is a move towards modesty, moving away from showey expensive automobiles. I have two friends who sold their unreliable and expensive BMW's for more modest and realiable jap mid-size sedans.

Anonymous said...

I for one would love a single seat that did not look like a tricycle. I drive 40 miles One-way to work each day on mostly highway setting so it needs to be capable of doing 60-80 without a tailwind or long downhill headstart. I currently drive a Sentra with manual transmission and love it but the back seat, 4 doors and trunk are a huge waste. Give me a simiarly sized car with good crumple zones and airbags but no back-seat and I am sure it would be safer than what I have and better on gas with fewer seats and door panels. I need only enough room for breifcase and a few bags for trips to the airport and some might like to be able to store a set of golf clubs.

I see so many people driving alone to work in their SUVs grumbling about the cost of gas, give them an in-expensive and safe alternative and they will eat it up. I have a mini-van at home which my wife always has at least 1 child in with her.

Anonymous said...

It's very difficult to create a single passenger transportation that doesn't look like it was picked from a pink panther cartoon. I have been constructing a street legal single seat "sport" car that somewat amounts to an "Indy" style that conforms to Colorado Highway Dept. Regulations. Powered by a 1200 CC engine that had a previous life in a street bike, mileage should be great, power more than enough, and common sense safety designed in for peace of mind, and the unique look of that one-off custom.