Monday, August 07, 2006


Why do American cars suck?

When I rent a car, I fight hard not to get stuck with a Chevy Malibu or any other small to medium-sized American car.

The front seats seem flimsy, as if their moving parts have worked loose and will dislodge in an impact. And U.S. car manufacturers have somehow never gotten the concept of headrests. Long after European and Japanese car makers were producing contoured front seats with headrests that would actually support your head in a comfortable seated position, American car makers in the 1970s and 1980s were grudgingly putting these little upholstered tumors atop the front seats. Even as they've installed larger and better headrests in more recent years, they seem to have continued the tradition of designing seats to maximize your chances of a whiplash injury.

carseat carseat2
Figs 1 and 2: Whiplash injury, U.S. carseat/headrest design.

If I had to guess, I'd say it's not labor costs -- which are undoubtedly comparable in Europe if not Japan. It can't be inferior engineering ability. It's not the trial lawyers. The profusion of airbags come standard in the VW models under $20 K would have kept them quiet.

Could it be the same marketing phenomenon that I believe also explains Americans' attitude to air travel and health care? Basically, it's extremely important to Americans that having more money to spend should translate into marked improvements in the quality of life. Therefore, there has to be a wide gulf between first class and coach.

So it's important to the marketing departments of U.S. automakers to keep mid-level and economy cars crappy so that luxury cars will seem that much better. Just a theory.

Upholstered tumors

Too funny!

Sometimes I wonder if designers use "bad design" as a form of negative reinforcement.

"Got whiplash? That'll teach you not to buy our most expensive car."
... or teach you to buy our most expensive car."

Well, you know what I mean.

I hate trying to figure out where stuff is in American cars. They seems to have a blockage when it comes to where to put things like the tilt of the steering wheel or how to brighten the lights on the dash.

But, I do have a great word verification word:
zwwautcc=a french dance aka "zee watusi"


vitidb: a vitamin for debutantes.
I like the theory that they make the economy cars badly on purpose, but it doesn't explain why the reliability of even the more expensive cars also sucks.

Maybe the frequency of redesign has something to do with it. Each new management regime wants to put its stamp on the company, and the easiest way to do that is with new models. Compare to, say, the Honda Civic, which has been around pretty much forever, with constant improvements in quality. Just a thought.
They do their best not to sell good cars, it seems -- and so keep losing business to such as Honda etc.
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