Hooniverse Editorial: Carflation, or The Ongoing Bloat of Once-Small Vehicles.

Have you ever noticed that the car model you owned in the past has grown in size, in weight, and in displacement? This phenomenon affects almost every car line from BMW to Honda, with a few exceptions.

Remember when the name Honda was synonymous with lightweight, economical cars? The company established itself in the United States in 1970 with the N600, a small four-seater. It hit pay dirt with the introduction of the larger 1973 Honda Civic, a car that was light and fuel efficient yet could fit four adults in modest comfort. Honda sold many first-generation Civics during its seven-year run, as the car was just what Americans needed during the first OPEC oil embargo.

During subsequent redesigns, Honda offered more Civic models. What had been just a two-door truncated sedan became a three-door hatchback, a formal four-door sedan, even a five-door wagon. Engine size increased as well, growing from a 1.3-liter four-cylinder to a 2.0-liter–although you have to give Honda credit, because the engines were still relatively miserly in terms of fuel usage.
The first-generation Civic was a marketplace success, not only in the U.S., but around the world. To broaden its appeal , Honda increased the dimensions including height, width, length, and weight. With each succeeding generation of the Civic, the once-diminutive car became more substantial. Today’s Civic Sedan–which is now in its eighth generation–is actually larger than the original Honda Accord introduced in 1976. Take a look at the following comparative dimensions for a 2010 Honda Civic and a 1981 Honda Accord, both four-door sedans; I included the dimensions for a first-generation Civic sedan for comparison purposes. By 1981, it had already grown to the size of the original Accord (which itself is now almost as big as a Chrysler 300).

If you assume this size gain is confined to the Civic, think again. All of the major Japanese brands have been hit with the bloat bug. The once-small Toyota Corolla is now larger than the original Camry; the Mazda 3 hatchback (the spiritual successor to the Mazda GLC and 323 Familia Series) has outpaced the original Mazda 626; and the once-petit Datsun Sunny, marketed today as the Nissan Sentra, has grown almost as large as the original Datsun 810 Maxima.
The European carmakers are not immune from this impulse to super-size their most popular models, and the enthusiast who follows such things bemoans the growth of BMW most of all. The 3 Series BMW has always enjoyed a loyal following among driving enthusiasts for its performance, light weight, and handling prowess. The fact that BMW has been relentless in offering a manual-transmission option for all of their models endears the brand to everyone who loves driving. So, it should come as no surprise that, as the 3 Series started to gain weight, driving enthusiasts were not all that happy. Take a look at the expanding girth of the BMW 3 series Sedan compared to the BMW 5 Series sedan from the same era.

According to this table, the current BMW E90 3 Series weighs more than the popular 1982-’88 BMW E28 5 Series. Considered one of the roomiest BMW sedans offered at that time, it is as good an example as any–repeated elsewhere–of
how our cars have grown up over the last decade. We all know that safety features and the crashworthiness of the body structure add weight, but having the current 3 Series weigh almost 1,000 pounds more than a 5 Series is problematic. The BMW 7 Series is now approaching two and a half tons, which takes its toll on both fuel efficiency and driving dynamics. And it certainly does not help the cars live up to the BMW mantra of being the Ultimate Driving Machine.

One thing about American-made cars is that there is no direct correlation from one series to the next; in fact, sometimes the replacement actually shrinks in size and weight. Ford’s small mid-sized cars, from the Tempo to the Contour to the Fusion, are actually all comparable in size and weight. The same could be said for the Chevrolet Corsica-to-Malibu progression, and the Chrysler LeBaron to the Cirrus and Sebring models.
On the other hand, the domestic pickup has grown in weight, size, and power. Ford may even be considering a bigger-than-the-current-Ranger, smaller-than-the-F-Series truck in 2012. A good example of domestic bloat is the Dodge Dakota, a model that once competed with the Ford Ranger, the Chevy S-10, the Toyota Tacoma, and the Nissan Frontier trucks. Although it was always sized just a tad larger than the competition–positioned as a mid-sized pickup–it was still smaller than the full-size Ram. The following table compares the 1987 Dakota with the 1973 Dodge Ram and the current Dakota.

The weight on the current Dakota includes the standard 3.7-liter V6, while the 1973 Ram Club Cab had the proven Chrysler 318-cubic-inch (5.2-liter) V8. The 1973 Ram used essentially the same sheet metal from 1972 to 1993 until the drastic redesign of the Bob Lutz-inspired 1994 “Big Rig” style of the Ram pickup. Dodge is only offering the extended cab or crew cab for the Dakota and is missing sales for a standard cab pickup that’s smaller than a full-sized Ram. Many customers buy a small pickup in its cheapest form: a standard cab with a four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission. Utility companies and small municipal fleets use these trucks, a market that Dodge seems to have ignored with the current Dakota lineup.
Many of us complain about the fact that cars and trucks are growing larger and heavier. Yet producing safer vehicles comes with a price, as does loading them with myriad comfort and convenience features. Almost every car and truck today includes electric window lifts, air conditioning, multi-disc CD changers, electrically adjustable seats, front and side air bags, and engineered crumple zones to protect occupants in the event of a crash. All of these items add weight. Are we really ready to give any of them up to make a car lighter, possibly smaller externally, and more fuel efficient?
*All dimensions in the charts are rounded off to the nearest whole number for comparison purposes. Read more at Automotive Traveler.

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21 responses to “Hooniverse Editorial: Carflation, or The Ongoing Bloat of Once-Small Vehicles.”

  1. lilwillie Avatar

    You don't see much of a size difference when the '82 E21 is next to a '90 E30 but the weight is obvious when you lift them. All the added items such as ABS, Airbags, comfort items in the car bloat it terrible. The E30 may be a faster, better handling car when squared away but it sure doesn't have the lines of the E21.

  2. engineerd Avatar

    Excellent summary, UDMan! I wrote an article a while back for Ridelust comparing the CRX to the Prius. I was more looking at the necessity to go to an exotic powertrain in the Prius to get mileage comparable to the mileage in the CRX. Safety items, convenience features, and the desire to accommodate more and more people and stuff has meant cars are not only bigger, but less fuel efficient.

    1. JeepyJayhawk Avatar

      Drove by the KC Hummer dealer yesterday, saw all of the shiny hulking monsters for sale and thought "boy they must be bored."

    2. BlackIce_GTS Avatar

      But the newest one is the smallest and the oldest one is the biggest…
      If anyone doesn't know where that picture's from, it's worth a look

  3. Cynicist Avatar

    Modern cars could be a lot safer if they were lighter.
    I guarantee you some of this bloat comes from the fact that a smaller car can't hit a bigger car and survive easily. The weight arms-race is part of the reason why car enthusiasm is dying.

  4. ptmeyer84 Avatar

    I can't believe that the 3 series is 3800 lbs! So I looked up the 1 series thinking at least it would be under 3000 lbs, but I was mistaken. The 1 series is 3370 lbs. It just makes me sick…

  5. KAH Avatar

    Nice article
    One of my pet peeves is car bloat It gets to the point that they eventually introduce a model below there former base like the Fit, 1 series, maybe we will see a Polo brought over some day

    1. Mechanically Inept Avatar

      Yeah. The Fit and Polo are good examples of this. The 1 isn't, as it weighs just as much as a 3.

    1. Tomsk Avatar

      That's actually how they'd look parked side by side? Damn, son.

    2. Black Steelies Avatar

      I didnt realize the difference was that drastic but wow.
      It's sad so many ppl compare these two cars b/c one is just so full of win. [hint its not the CR-Z].

  6. Tomsk Avatar

    Great article! It's almost comical how many companies have had to introduce new model lines to fill in the bottom of the range because the prior entry level models had gotten so porky.
    Off the top of my head I can think of Honda (Fit), Nissan (Versa), BMW (1 Series) and Audi (A3), with Ford (Fiesta) and Mazda (2) soon to join the club.

  7. soo΄pәr-bādd75 Avatar

    And broke.

  8. soo΄pәr-bādd75 Avatar

    We looked at Versas when my sister was car shopping and it was incredible to me how large the damn things are inside such a small exterior! And built extremely well for such a low price, too. Versas are awesome little cars!

  9. Al_Navarro Avatar

    Great piece, UDMan. I'm quite certain the e60 that brought me to work today is the same size in and out as the 733 my high school girlfriend's parents had. Of course, I don't mind that too much…the 3/4 scale luxobarge is quite a comfortable conveyance.
    Seriously, everyone has to get themselves behind the wheel of any Se7en soon. Most are close to 1200 lbs, and the lightness affects most every aspect of handling positively.

  10. Black Steelies Avatar

    Even the new A4 is quite big. By its new dimensions, if you saw it even just 5 years ago you would swear it was the A6 of the future and of course mass hysteria would ensue- people would flock to fallout shelters and bulk food stores out of fear towards the hulking behemoth.
    Of course you wouldn't know it by sitting in the backseat- good lord what an uncomfortable vehicle.

    1. Mechanically Inept Avatar

      The basic A4 weighs 3500 pounds, and that's with a 2.0T and a manual. From there, it only goes up; I'd wager that the average A4 weighs close to 3800 lbs. How they manage to maintain performance with a 211 hp four and that much weight is amazing to me. And, yes, the Germans cannot design a good back seat. They should just sell their cars without them. Have you ever tried to sit in the back of a 911?

  11. Mechanically Inept Avatar

    The current Civic DX sedan with a 5-speed weighs in at 2630 pounds, which is 100-something pounds heavier than a base Fit, and lighter than all of its competitors (if I'm not mistaken). Honda has done a really good job with keeping the weight down on their small cars. Yes, it's almost 1000 lbs heavier than the original Civic, but 2600 lbs is really good for a modern car with all the modern equipment.

  12. ademrudin Avatar

    I'm always amazed that a new Toyota Camry now weighs more than a '65 Ford Galaxie

  13. Van Sarockin Avatar
    Van Sarockin

    The bloat is a typical evolutionary behavior, once a new species finds a secure niche. That creates opportunities for newer, smaller species to try to establish themselves, like Fits and Yarii and so forth. This has been going on as long as there have been models of cars. People like a model, the manufacturer wants to keep them coming back and selling more, so you start adding in extra content, stretching it to make it a little more ample, and after a while you’ve moved up a class size and gotten noticeably chunky.