Big guy, little car
Bet he wouldn't be smiling were he wedged into a subcompact car.
What happens when the downsizing trend meets an increasingly bigger population
Graze your head on the doorframe of a historic 18th century home and it may dawn on you that people used to be shorter. It's true: the average height of people living in industrialized nations has increased approximately 10 cm, or four inches, in the past 150 years.
Scientists believe the sudden growth spurt — unearthed skeletons reveal no significant differences in height from the Stone Age through the early 1800s — came about when malnutrition, especially in children, began to get addressed. As better food became available, children started growing straight and tall through adulthood. Add to that today's roly-poly obesity epidemic and it's easy to see that we humans have starring roles in our own Land of the Giants.
At the same time, automobile manufacturers are compelled to make ever smaller and more fuel-efficient cars, partly to meet tightening fleet fuel-consumption targets and partly because clogged cities, particularly in Europe, simply can't handle many more vehicles that aren't space-efficient.
So how do you fit a clientele that's literally growing in size and weight into transportation modules that, by government decree and market forces, have to get smaller?
Canada's burgeoning class of subcompact cars has seen numerous new products burst onto the scene in the past two years. Fresh nameplates like the Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2, Chevrolet Sonic and Fiat 500 have joined the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Kia Rio in a "B-car" segment that promises both fun-to-drive frugality, as well as technology and luxury furnishings that wouldn't look out of place in a Jaguar. Penalty boxes these are not. But do they fit?
Charles Mott, product manager of the Chevrolet Sonic at General Motors in Detroit, says the Sonic four-door sedan and five-door hatchback were designed to fit a large proportion of people all over the world, where the Sonic flies the Chevrolet flag in 130 countries.
"It's a tall car for tall people," Mott says, noting that both Europe and North America are home to plenty of tall customers, so a singular product has to appeal to a broad spectrum of buyers, typically up to the 95 to 99 percentile of adults who are well over six feet tall.
"The front seats will fit enormously tall persons, while a 5-foot-10 individual can sit behind a 5-foot-10 driver easily," he notes, explaining that the Sonic's back seat also got a lot of attention from designers. With 41 cubic feet of space in the back seat, the Sonic is a B-segment overachiever, offering more real estate than even compacts like the Toyota Corolla.
In addition to accommodating all shapes and sizes of people in everyday situations, subcompacts also have to maintain some buffer space between flesh and metal in the event of a collision. Explains Mott: "Safety is still paramount, despite the size of the vehicle. The Sonic's roof and A-pillars have good clearances after impact."
After a 30-year absence Ford brought back its Fiesta subcompact to North America, but not before it became one Europe's best-selling cars ever. The four-door sedan is appealing, but it's the five-door hatchback that really grabbed eyeballs (the fluorescent paint colours helped) when the Fiesta touched down here last year. The fluid exterior design is hard to render in such a stubby body, but Ford's designers worked miracles. The story changes inside, however.
The front seats are laudably spacious and comfortable, but it's the rear bench that really punishes the Fiesta buyer's family and friends. It's not easy for an adult to find a comfortable position for more than 10 minutes in the tiny back seat. There's only 33 cubic feet of space, not much more than you'd find in the microscopic back seat of the Fiat 500 (which doesn't come with four doors). What was Ford thinking?
Antonella, is that you ...?
"We have a specific person in mind when we plan a product and we design the vehicle around that person," says Mike "Dr. Derriere" Kolich, Global Body Interior, Seat and Restraints Engineering at Ford's Product Development Centre. In the case of the Fiesta, that person is Antonella, an attractive but fictional 28-year old woman who lives in Rome, Italy. Her fun-filled life (like that of MSN Autos writers) is focused on friends, clubbing and parties.
Antonella is a character invented by designers to help them better tailor automobiles to their intended customers; it's the personification of a demographic profile that describes Fiesta's target customer. Ford is using avatars like Antonella to bring a human element to the drudgery of poring through demographic information - especially helpful when an increasingly international design team needs a common, memorable focus.
"We identify the wants and needs and attributes of the customers, and the outcome has to be the embodiment of a broad range of requirements," says Kolich. What is surprising, he says, is that the latest version of Ford's first world car really does appeal to buyers all over the globe. "We've learned the differences in people in two markets - Europe and North America - are not enough to design two different products." It's an indication that in addition to harmonizing global emissions and safety standards, global consumer tastes appear to be merging, too.
Unfortunately, Antonella is a single woman who doesn't ferry a lot of her friends around Rome in her Fiesta, given the pitiful space in the back seat. Although equipped with five seatbelts, the Fiesta would have a tough time doing suburban chores like dropping off the kids at high school. They don't fit because the scenario doesn't mesh with Antonella's imagined lifestyle.
Not much by the way of legroom here ...
What she does like is cheeky style, something the Fiesta has in spades. Kolich says that was one of the design targets stylists had to deliver on, but there are tradeoffs. "We have to strike a balance between visual appeal and practicality, putting pressure on guys like me to create space," he says of the challenge of carving useful cubic feet out of a swoopy body. "We could make it more boxy, but will it draw customers?" Kolich asks. "All of the manufacturers are struggling with the same issues in this segment."
GM's Mott seems to agree with his counterpart. "Consumers tell us style is less important in the economy class, but they tend to be biased," he says. "We kill ourselves to have the best-looking car," adding that the Sonic exudes a certain swagger and youthful attitude. He says the Sonic was the recipient of the best expertise from GM's divisions around the world.
The Sonic does boast a useful back seat where two adults (three in a pinch) can find reasonable comfort for at least a few hours. Is the boxy Sonic the right solution? Ford's Kolich suggests the sales numbers will tell the story.
A Ford-versus-Chevrolet smack down might have been the main event a few decades ago, but there are more than 30 manufacturers today vying for Canadians' attention and lines of credit, especially in the growing B-segment. There's no shortage of subcompact models to choose from, ranked here by SAE cubic feet of space in the front and rear seats:
Honda Fit: 51 40
Chevrolet Sonic: 49 41
Nissan Versa: 50 40
Hyundai Accent: 52 38
Kia Rio5: 54 35
Mazda 2: 51 36
Toyota Yaris: 48 38
Ford Fiesta: 50 33
Fiat 500: 45 30
Mini: 47 27
How did the diminutive Honda Fit top the list? Its clever packaging is based on a front-drive platform that incorporates a long wheelbase and wide track in a small footprint, resulting in remarkable interior space. The efficient layout helped create a comfortable cabin with space equivalent to a compact sedan.
"Honda has been designing vehicles based on its Man Maximum/Machine Minimum or MM concept, the origin of Honda's automobile design, which started with the first-generation Civic in the 1970s," says Maki Inoue, spokesperson for Honda Canada Inc. The MM edict is a fundamental approach to Honda car design that calls for maximizing the space available for people and minimizing the space required for mechanical components.
Key was Honda's decision to hide the fuel tank under the front rather than rear seats, combined with a semi-independent, torsion-beam rear suspension that doesn't intrude into the cabin. The Fit's utility was further enhanced with the second-row Magic Seat with its four-mode — tall, utility, people and long — storage configuration. Because the rear seat doesn't straddle a fuel tank as in most vehicles, it's free to flip, flop and split-fold in ways that would impress a Romanian gymnast.
Sayonara, spare tire
Reportedly the Fit's unique seating system came about after the design team had spent long hours watching people in supermarkets and how they stored their groceries and other cargo. In some international markets where the Fit is marketed as the Jazz, the car is sold without a spare tire to further enhance carrying capacity. In fact, look for the spare tire to go the way of the dodo, replaced with an aerosol can of tire sealant, as every major automaker toils to find more space and trim weight in their small-car designs.
"In the case of the Honda Fit, the current-generation Fit was developed with the goal of creating the ideal small car for a new age," says Inoue. A new age that invariably includes taller people and expanding waistlines, unfortunately.
A 1967 Shelby GT500 Super Snake sold for $1.3 million. Do you think classic cars were made better than modern rides?
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- Yes, the quality of cars from the 1960s and '70s is the best
- No, modern technology makes cars better today
- Maybe, it's hard to say since most Canadians get a new car every 10 years