Cars, Culture, and the Modern World

Sophia Relph is a mechanical engineer who researches fluid mechanics by day, and writes about cars by night. This blog intends to not only explore the physical and mechanical nature of automobiles, but to investigate their cultural significance and the meaning they impart as texts and works of art.

Get more updates, thoughts, and commentary by checking out the CCMW Twitter account @carsmodernworld.

Washington Auto Show 2022: Public Policy Day

Word count: 1240 (~7 minutes), Last modified: Sat, 29 Jan 2022 19:50:33 GMT

Buses, bikes, and cars, oh my!

Last week, I attended the public policy conference at the Washington Auto Show. Front and center were a number of new electrified vehicles, amid a vision of a sustainable, just world of tomorrow, and not unlike the cities of the future imagined by Tomorrowland, world's fairs, and film alike, this vision centers the private automobile. One question remains unanswered by the conference's many and varied speakers, however; is a car-centric vision the right one to take?

2022 Hyundai Tucson

Word count: 3384 (~19 minutes), Last modified: Sat, 27 Nov 2021 17:19:27 GMT

A eulogy to the car commute.

It is a widely accepted fact that compact crossovers have exploded in popularity as the new car of choice for American car buyers. By and large, these vehicles offer perceived value adds such as greater interior space, a higher driver position, greater power, and all wheel drive, while compromising on other metrics such as affordability, fuel economy, and crash compatibility with smaller road users such as small cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians. This increasing popularity is reflected in the statistics of the car we drive; according to Joey Capparella of Car and Driver, as of October 2021, unibody crossovers occupied 13 of the 25 best-selling cars in the US, with mainstream sedans like the Toyota Camry and Corolla as well as Honda's Civic and Accord being outsold by their respective competitors to the Tucson, their RAV4 and CR-V respectively. Capparella even goes on to mention that the Tucson, which takes 22nd place, is demonstrating a dramatic increase in sales compared to last year (though some of this can certainly be explained by the usual jump in sales associated with the release of a new model.) It is apparent that the modern automotive landscape is increasingly characterized by the prevalence of these compact crossovers. Given the Tucson's strong sales, it is a perfect example case to study the popularity of these vehicles, and their place in the material culture of early 2020s America.

2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI Autobahn

Word count: 2786 (~16 minutes), Last modified: Sat, 16 Oct 2021 17:21:54 GMT

It was revealed not long ago that Volkswagen would discontinue selling their base level Golf hatchbacks in the United States, instead only selling the GTI and R performance trims. This could have happened for any number of reasons, but a few stand out. Firstly, because the GTI and R are performance cars built on a mainstream compact family car architecture, they can be sold at greater profit margins while retaining a relatively lower investment to produce. Second, it is likely enough that the Golf simply did not sell very well, again, driving VW to focus on variants of it (no, not the Variant wagon) that promise higher profit margins (again, performance trims that command a higher price while using a small car architecture. This is somewhat borne out in fact; Golf sales plunged by a factor of three between 2017 and 2020. Third, perhaps Volkswagen is simply very confident in the performance of their sporty compacts; perhaps they simply think that the GTI and R are so good that they can present a product line all their own. Are they right? Let's find out.

2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI Autobahn

Word count: 2786 (~16 minutes), Last modified: Sat, 16 Oct 2021 13:05:08 GMT

It was revealed not long ago that Volkswagen would discontinue selling their base level Golf hatchbacks in the United States, instead only selling the GTI and R performance trims. This could have happened for any number of reasons, but a few stand out. Firstly, because the GTI and R are performance cars built on a mainstream compact family car architecture, they can be sold at greater profit margins while retaining a relatively lower investment to produce. Second, it is likely enough that the Golf simply did not sell very well, again, driving VW to focus on variants of it (no, not the Variant wagon) that promise higher profit margins (again, performance trims that command a higher price while using a small car architecture. This is somewhat borne out in fact; Golf sales plunged by a factor of three between 2017 and 2020. Third, perhaps Volkswagen is simply very confident in the performance of their sporty compacts; perhaps they simply think that the GTI and R are so good that they can present a product line all their own. Are they right? Let's find out.

2013 Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 SEL

Word count: 1891 (~11 minutes), Last modified: Sun, 12 Sep 2021 19:15:09 GMT

Perfect is the enemy of good.

For all its longevity and sales success, the Volkswagen Jetta feels as though it lives in the shadow of its siblings, particularly the Golf. While the hatchback is celebrated as a fun, sensible import compact option, with the GTI having achieved near-legendary status as the ur-hot hatch, the Jetta seems to enjoy little of the same reputation, with even its performance GLI trim playing second fiddle to the hatchback GTI. Given Volkswagen's positioning in the American car market as a more refined, executive-friendly alternative to the likes of Nissan and Chevrolet, where does the Jetta come in? Is it an unsung budget luxury car? A long-overlooked performance gem? An unremarkable sedan of remarkable mediocrity? Driving one can help us answer these questions.

2021 Honda Civic EX Hatchback

Word count: 3166 (~18 minutes), Last modified: Thu, 26 Aug 2021 01:12:55 GMT

The tenth generation of the Honda Civic marked the return of the hatchback body style to the United States, after an absence of three generations, with the exception of the seventh generation Si. This surely caused quite a stir, given the enduring reputation of the 1990s Civic hatches as light, nimble, enthusiast-friendly machines. However, as any car enthusiast will tell you, car design has changed profoundly since the 1990s; gone are the one-airbag interiors, the standard manual gearboxes and station wagon bodystyles. Modern cars, by and large, are heavier, more powerful, and safer than the Civic hatches of yore. Has this change destroyed the potential for a modern interpretation, however? Or can the same spirit still be found through modern automotive design?

2012 Ford Focus SE

Word count: 2241 (~13 minutes), Last modified: Tue, 20 Jul 2021 02:24:35 GMT

During its 20-year stay in the North American car market, the Ford Focus became a recognizable name in the compact car market as a dependable economy offering, and with the ST and RS performance variants, has achieved a reputation of remarkable performance too. However, every throne must eventually be vacated, every dynasty broken, and the Focus' reign was toppled in 2018 with the discontinuation of the third generation Focus in the United States, with Ford electing not to bring the fourth generation to the States in order to focus on crossovers and SUVs, a decision that is difficult to dispute given the popularity of those models. Discussed here is the plain-Jane, bog-standard Focus sedan.

2013 Volkswagen CC 2.0

Word count: 2810 (~16 minutes), Last modified: Sat, 26 Jun 2021 18:26:33 GMT

"Coupe"-styled sedans have seemingly become all the rage in the last decade, with many manufacturers developing sedan models with lower, sleeker rooflines, and fastback-like silhouettes. Such models include the Mercedes CLS-class, the BMW 4-series, and Audi A5, as well as more mainstream offerings, like the tenth generation Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra. By and large, these designs seem to trade interior space for a sleeker, more aggressive style, and perhaps somewhat lower drag. This may well be a product of the trend towards centering crossovers as the "default" commuter and family car, forcing midsize sedans to adopt pretensions of sporting ability, capitalizing on their lower center of gravity and ligher weight compared to crossovers. Having debuted for the 2009 model year, the VW CC, a derivative of the Passat midsize sedan, was relatively early to buy into this new design trend. However, that doesn't mean that the CC really succeeded in capitalizing on that "sporty midsize family car" nature imagined by "coupe" sedans: Only 142808 ever sold in the United States over their nine-year production run, less than the Honda Accord sells in a year. That's not very many cars. Considering that the Dodge Charger, another sporty family sedan, vastly outsold the CC, despite a similar MSRP, this implies that something about the CC just didn't resonate. By exploring this car further, we can begin to guess what.

2011 BMW 328i

Word count: 2621 (~15 minutes), Last modified: Fri, 26 Mar 2021 14:27:47 GMT

is it just me, or is the 'double kidney' grille thing a bit morbidly offputting?

Does it live up to the legend?

The BMW 3 Series is ubiquitous today, not only in enthusiast spaces, but on the road at large. It enjoys a well-respected reputation for driving performance, as well as luxury, and the 3 Series has been emblematic of the compact executive sports sedan segment for decades. The popularity of the 3 Series, both historically and today, thusly begs examination: A car, after all, does not achieve such a reputation, such a widespread presence as the 3 Series, without selling something other cars can't offer.

2019 Ram 1500 Big Horn 4x4

Word count: 3523 (~20 minutes), Last modified: Sat, 21 Nov 2020 19:26:12 GMT

Pickup trucks: Is "quintessentially American" good or bad?

Pickup trucks, particularly full size ones, are rather popular. Marty Miller writes for Experian that they are "the most common vehicles in operation at 20% share" and that they represent a whole 16.5% of new vehicle registrations in the United States, as of August 2019. According to GoodCarBadCar, the Ford F-150, Ram Pickup, and Chevrolet Silverado were the top three sellers respectively as of the third quarter of 2020. It goes without saying that there is a lot of money, and a lot of interest, in full size pickup trucks right now.

2019 Ford EcoSport SES AWD

Word count: 3283 (~19 minutes), Last modified: Sun, 01 Nov 2020 18:07:05 GMT

CUV-Commodity Utility Vehicle

Ford no longer sells small cars in the United States. Their sedan lineup is gone, replaced by a growing number of crossovers, some more carlike than others, with the Escape standing out as a direct replacement for a compact or midsize sedan. However, at the smaller end, Ford's product line is rounded out by the subcompact EcoSport. A product of the Brazilian love for compact SUVs, it echoes early CR-V and RAV4 models, with its side swinging tailgate, tall stance, and quirky, cutesy styling. While the majority of subcompact CUVs now sold in the US stylistically echo hatchbacks, the EcoSport seems to delight in being a truck.

2016 Jeep Cherokee Latitude FWD

Word count: 4210 (~24 minutes), Last modified: Tue, 15 Sep 2020 14:21:24 GMT

OK Boomer.

What's in a name?

The Jeep Cherokee has existed on and off as a family-friendly SUV since 1974, ever a downsized, more affordable sibling to the flagship Wagoneer or Grand Cherokee. Normally, that would be the end of it with regards to car branding, given the penchant automakers have for reviving old brand names (Bronco, Blazer, Eclipse Cross). However, several of Jeep's products bear the dubious, if not unique, honor of being named after real communities of people. In this case quite obviously, the Cherokee people of the southeastern United States. Unlike the four-wheeler named after them, the Cherokee were in fact not created by AMC in the mid 1970s, but were instead related to the Connestee people, from the 200-500s[1][2]. The Cherokee Nation has been recognized as sovereign by various treaties since 1725, and has been in contact with European settlers to the Americas since the 16th century[3], but that sovereignty was ignored by President Andrew Jackson's enforcement of the Indian Removal Act, resulting in the "Trail of Tears," in which not only the Cherokee, but other Native American tribes as well, were marched hundreds of miles, by threat of military force, out of their ancestral homelands westwards [4]. An estimated 4000 people died during this act of ethnic cleansing.

2020 Toyota Corolla LE

Word count: 3451 (~20 minutes), Last modified: Thu, 06 Aug 2020 16:33:56 GMT

The Toyota Corolla is the best-selling car in the world. As of 2016, 44.1 million Corollas had been sold, far outstripping other bestsellers like AvtoVAZ's Lada 2100 series and the Volkswagen Beetle. Now, these astronomical sales numbers are of course cumulatively counted over every generation of the Corolla since its inception in 1966; counting sales by specific model revisions would likely show a different winner. However, the fact remains that Toyota's compact family sedan has been wildly successful, and its reputation as the de facto compact option has been cemented. Considering the significance that we place upon automotive nameplates, and on names and symbols in general, any new Corolla, no matter how revolutionary its design relative to its ancestors, must exist as a member of a lineage, not as a standalone model. No Corolla built today exists outside the brand context that it has built for the last 50-odd years. Much like other cars with nameplates that bear particular significance, like the Golf GTI and its celebration as the original hot hatch, or the Dodge Charger and the way it tries to recall the muscle car heyday of the late 1960s, the Toyota Corolla's name calls to mind all the qualities that would make a family compact so successful. In other words, the newest generation of the Corolla, released as a 2019 model, had very big shoes to fill.

2006 Honda Civic EX Sedan: The New Century Was A Few Years Late

Word count: 3294 (~19 minutes), Last modified: Tue, 21 Jul 2020 18:35:51 GMT

In no small part due to the coronavirus pandemic, I have had little access to review cars as of late. Please excuse the hiatus. It should also be mentioned, in the interest of academic integrity, that this 2006 Civic sedan is my daily driver. As such, I both have exposure to its performance and behavior, as well as emotional attachment, that I lacked with all the other cars I have so far written about.

2017 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport

Word count: 3893 (~22 minutes), Last modified: Sun, 19 Jul 2020 20:26:23 GMT

I'm now convinced nobody needs more than 400 horsepower for anything.

What is it?

The Lexus IS, Lexus' "entry level" rear wheel drive sedan, cannot escape comparisons to the BMW 3 series. No automotive writer worth their salt would dare ignore the 3 Series when talking about the IS. The 3 series has earned itself a reputation as the canonical One True Sports Sedan, against which all else is contextualized. Since it debuted around the turn of the century, the IS has been analyzed entirely in opposition to the "German sports sedans," in a supposed David-and-Goliath struggle. Considering the engineering and economic might behind Toyota, this isn't exactly an apt comparison: After all, Toyota has pioneered developments in suspension and transmission technologies for decades. Perhaps it's time to judge cars like the Lexus IS on their own merits.

Second generation Chevrolet Volt: Extended-range EV, PHEV, or grift?

Word count: 1973 (~11 minutes), Last modified: Sat, 07 Mar 2020 18:42:38 GMT

Take off your glasses and squint-doesn't it look like a full blown EV?

The original Volt was developed in the late 2000s and debuted to the public in 2010, coming out just in time for the economy-minded cultural landscape of the post-Great Recession world. The second generation Prius had already established a bridgehead for hybrids, with its funky Kammback styling and futuristic UI design: Though the Prius was (and still is) divisive, its impact was significant: It made hybrids mainstream. Unlike the EV1 of the 1990s, the Volt did not emerge into a vacuum. Instead, it came into a world where hybrids were becoming more widespread, where fuel economy was something to brag about, and where EVs were just starting to enter the mass market. In the days of the first generation Volt, hybrids were as much a fashion statement as a financial choice: Maynard writes for the New York Times in 2007 that the Toyota Prius grew in popularity in those years specifically because it was guaranteed to be seen as a hybrid. This may well illuminate why the second-generation Prius became so much more iconic than the first generation: While the first generation was little different from a hybrid Echo, the second generation, with its Kammback form factor, looked and felt different. It was the first car that was a hybrid in spirit, rather than in body. Maynard writes that owning a Prius in those halcyon days was a statement of one's concern for climate change and the environment. The phenomenon of the Prius even made it as far as the celebrity scene as well. That combination of distinctive styling, unique technology, and outstanding fuel economy to boot proved to be a winning recipe. General Motors answered the demand for hybrids with mild hybrid cars and hybrid technology-equipped trucks, but with both of these approaches obviously offering limited fuel economy improvments, the Volt ended up being their first seriously fuel-economy oriented model. For this, however, GM pulled out all the stops.

Manumatic Transmissions: A Technical History

Word count: 2987 (~17 minutes), Last modified: Tue, 18 Feb 2020 19:41:51 GMT

Stick shifts on the way out?

Perhaps sadly, it is getting more and more difficult to find new cars with manual transmissions in the United States. The new eighth-generation Corvette will not feature a manual gearbox, and the last GM economy car to feature a manual transmision seems to have been the 2019 (pre-refresh) Chevrolet Sonic. Many budget-oriented subcompacts (Yaris, Versa, Accent) do offer manual transmissions, but sportier models seem to be increasingly focusing on dual clutch transmissions or straight up automatics. Car enthusiats of course mourn the disappearance of manual transmissions, and for good reason: a manual transmission offers intuitive and direct control of drivetrain behavior, virtues which enthusiasts naturally prefer. That said, however, the landscape is changing: modern automatic transmissions offer more gear ratios and gear selection algorithms that outdo even the most dedicated 1990s hypermiler, and typically feature better fuel economy than manual transmissions, defeating the traditional logic that manuals get better fuel economy. Even on the performance front, modern automatics like the ZF 8HP shift far quicker than manuals, and even approach the shift speeds of dual clutch transmissions (though DCTs will probably always reign supreme on shift speed). More and more performance cars are using torque converter and planetary gearset automatic transmissions, and it seems that the dominance of those gearboxes is cemented.

2019 Nissan Altima SL

Word count: 3041 (~17 minutes), Last modified: Sun, 16 Feb 2020 00:43:06 GMT

The Nissan Altima takes the "grand" out of "grand tourer." It's a super-commuter's chariot, a grocery store franchise owner's limousine, the vehicle of choice for the dad who is both too considerate to get an SUV and too sensible to get a full size sports sedan. The Nissan Altima is a car that does not attept to be all things for all people, like the Civic or Corolla. Instead, it sits smugly in its market niche, comfortable among peers like the Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry. The Altima talks the talk a modern midsize car is almost required to, pretending on the outside to be a sports sedan, but inside, it walks the walk of a daily driver, with soft yet predictable steering, good fuel economy, and tall highway gearing. The Altima may not be particularly exciting, but therein lies its strength. As I mentioned in my review of the Nissan Kicks, sometimes predictable sells more than quirky does.

2019 Nissan Kicks and Versa: Does "Bargain Basement" mean anything any more?

Word count: 4492 (~25 minutes), Last modified: Wed, 12 Feb 2020 22:54:38 GMT

This piece was originally prompted by a discussion I had with some friends, with the core question being: Is it worth it to buy a cheap new car? After all, for new Nissan Versa or Mitsubishi Mirage money, you could get something faster, more comfortable, more efficient, and less embarrassing. If you're strapped for cash, why buy a new cheap car when you could get a used car that gives you so much more? To try and find an answer to, or at least additional fuel for, this debate, I test drove a Versa S (5MT) and Kicks S (CVT), both of which share Nissan's subcompact platform, and share Nissan's (and Renault) 1.6L HR16DE engine.

2004 Subaru Impreza Wagon

Word count: 2457 (~14 minutes), Last modified: Mon, 21 Oct 2019 15:28:33 GMT

The obligatory "Lesbaru" discussion.

I feel as though the common association of Subaru with lesbians is the elephant in the room for this review. As a lesbian myself, is it even possible to take seriously any lesbian perspective on Subarus that doesn't touch on how much lesbians supposedly love Subarus? I am loath to fall into the trap of allowing my literature and art to fall into patterns supposedly prescribed by the nature of my identity. However, I might also be remiss in omitting one of the most well known instances of "cars as material cultural traditions" currently present in the modern cultural zeitgeist from a project specifically intended to investigate such things.

1998 Buick LeSabre

Word count: 3496 (~20 minutes), Last modified: Sat, 05 Oct 2019 15:31:20 GMT

A Quality American Motorcar

Buick seems to get a bad rap with American car enthusists now. Of course the Skylark GS/GSX and Regal T-Type and Grand National are remembered fondly, but their reputation seems to have been tarnished by the 80s and 90s, decades when GM seemed to flounder or falter, moving to front wheel drive platforms and trying to hold off both Japanese and European import cars. These decades were admittedly difficult technologically, with new regulations and market constraints moving in constantly, demanding smaller, lighter, more efficient cars that still were maneuverable and interesting to drive; gone were the days where massive personal luxury coupes were the pinnacle of American automotive style. In the late 70s through the 90s, the luxury sports sedan became in vogue: Buyers wanted performance, comfort, efficiency, and value, and it is difficult for anyone, let alone GM, to satisfy all those requirements. We tend to ignore GM's family car offerings from the late 70s through the early 90s: The 80s and 90s cars that we find sexy and memorable today are the sport compacts and grand tourers. We remember the Mazda RX-7 and the Toyota Supra, not the Dodge Shadow or the Oldsmobile Aurora. History is written by the victors, and the consensus seems to be that American automakers lost the 1980s, and spent the 1990s on the ropes.

The Fast and the Furious: No Problem Too Big For A Car

Word count: 2983 (~17 minutes), Last modified: Wed, 04 Sep 2019 18:53:41 GMT

What is the Fast and the Furious?

First, I refer here to the franchise as a whole: The eight core films, as well as the spinoff Hobbs & Shaw, which I have not yet watched, and I therefore will exclude it from this analysis.

2013 Mini Cooper Countryman

Word count: 4212 (~24 minutes), Last modified: Thu, 08 Aug 2019 13:28:20 GMT

Do small cars need to make excuses for themselves?

In the United States, small cars have always been vilified. We all know this, and most of us tacitly accept it. In the extravagant blossoming of American industry and society following the Second World War (fuelled by steel and oil made cheap by the economies of scale of war), Americans looked to the future, to the horizon, to find purpose and identity in the postwar landscape. In just a few short years the Soviet Union had the bomb, and no longer was America simply America: to some, a war had begun, both in economic and military terms, but also cultural ones, for worldwide supremacy. Was this really a relevant fight to happen at this point in time? As an engineer, I'm not really qualified to say, but the fact of the matter is that Americans have never felt the need to reinforce their own culture as fervently and uniquely as they did in the 1950s and 1960s. Given the track record of American passions, it is only logical that American cars got bigger and bigger in these decades. We love excess, and even when we condemn it, we are secretly amused by it, and maybe even grudgingly respect it. Americans love feeling important, and we love feeling like we got a good deal. Big cars made with cheap steel and burning cheap gas gave postwar Americans lots of comfort, lots of speed (Sometimes. I can't believe we ever accepted two- and three-speed automatic transmissions as anything other than a crime.), and lots of car for our money, and dirt-cheap fuel meant that we could even drive long distances without breaking the bank. What's really important here is that these cars made their drivers feel important, and sophisticated, and like they made the deal of the century. It doesn't matter whether our cars were overpriced or whether they weren't, or whether they were cheaply built or not: I said in my Kia Forte review that the impression an artifact of consumer culture makes can be just as important, if not more so, than its actual physical nature. We put stock in the way things make us feel because our feelings are the reality we inhabit: we are inherently irrational creatures, and no matter how we spin it, our experiences in our lives and our world are affected by our feelings, our preconcieved notions, and our biases. Yes, this is a driver of great evils in our world, but it also lets humans see beauty and personality in the mundane and the everyday. Without the ability to ascribe personality, emotional value, and a perceived identity beyond mere physical description to our world, we would not have many of the greatest (subjective!) works of art of our time. We like cars that make us feel good, because a car that feels good is a car that is good.

2015 Kia Forte

Word count: 2761 (~16 minutes), Last modified: Mon, 24 Jun 2019 14:16:26 GMT

Is Kia really so bad?

The name "Kia" has earned itself some notoriety in American car culture: I remember when I was younger, "Kia" felt like a shorthand, catch-all term for forgettable economy cars that are no fun to drive and less fun to look at. Was this a fair mindset, collectively? Perhaps it was, as Kia, Hyundai, and Daewoo, to a lesser extent, were all working hard to break into the American auto market in the early 2000s. Newcomers to the market seem to always be mocked (perhaps a failing of car culture), but with Korean manufacturers being extremely interested in the American market in the early 2000s, I'm sure that it must have felt like a rehashing of the import car "crisis" of the 1970s and 1980s. The story of the plucky Civic and Camry vanquishing the stodgy, inefficient Malaise-era American offerings is a classic story of automotive history. American automakers took until the 1990s to really catch on to the market trends that Honda and Toyota were driving, but by the 1990s, Japanese "import" offerings (increasingly built in the US), had become safe. They had become the default. So in the 1990s into the 2000s, when Hyundai and Kia were trying to break into the US market, it was a challenge to the status quo, just as Japanese economy cars were in the 1970s. So why didn't we root for Hyundai, as we did for Honda? Why such antipathy towards Korean manufacturers, when we hold Japanese manufacturers and their products in such high regard? Well, at the time, we didn't really root for Honda. We took time to get used to import offerings, and we will take time to adjust to Hyundai and Kia as well. We love an underdog, but we hate challenges to what we assume as the status quo. We can abide by the toppling of huge corporations, punished for their hubris by plucky challengers, but we hate the undermining of what is safe and reliable for us. We feared Hyundai and Kia because they were a threat to the cars we had accepted as safe, as the standard.

Death of the Econo-Sport?

Word count: 1455 (~9 minutes), Last modified: Sun, 16 Jun 2019 18:58:31 GMT

In MotorTrend's June 2019 issue (Vol. 71 No. 6), Kim Reynolds writes about the "Sunset of the Sedan", discussing why Americans are increasingly passing over sedans for crossovers; The objects of comparison are the soon to be discontinued Chevrolet Impala and the infamous up and coming 2020 Chevrolet Blazer. The Blazer, for the right price, matches handling with the Impala, and beats it by many metrics of comfort and practicality; the Blazer and other midsize crossovers like it boast SUV space on the compactness of a sedan platform, and ultimately, that level of practicality and comfort is what a lot of Americans crave. The Honda CR-V is a great example of this: it doesn't master the road any more completely than a Civic would, but it boasts a safe feeling user experience with plenty of space and the features we have come to expect from contemporary cars. Crossovers sell, because we're more married to how our cars make us feel than how our cars perform numerically.

2015 Honda CR-V AWD

Word count: 2938 (~17 minutes), Last modified: Sat, 15 Jun 2019 22:16:49 GMT

Honda CR-V: The official car of coming out to your parents on a road trip.

What is it?

The fourth generation CR-V might be considered an admission of guilt, or a sign of the times. It is a symbol of the domestication of the small SUV: no longer is the compact SUV an affordable, yet capable, platform for adventure: the decent gas mileage, parking maneuverability, and ample space of the compact SUV has won out over permanent four wheel drive, high approach and departure angles, and resistance to high-centering. Perhaps there is some loss of self-respect here, but perhaps the CR-V has just become more honest about the kind of people who buy it: why have an offroader, or at least something that purports to be one, when the most offroading you'll ever do is parking in a field at a corn maze? Perhaps it's better to retain the user functionality of an SUV and just put a road car underneath. This transformation from blocky SUV-lite to rounded not-a-station-wagon isn't unique to the CR-V, as Toyota's popular RAV4, Ford's Escape, and the cacophony of model names that is Chevrolet's Blazer-TrailBlazer-Equinox-Blazer lineage all made that transition. At least Chevy is back to the Blazer now.

2013 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Word count: 3313 (~19 minutes), Last modified: Thu, 06 Jun 2019 18:30:54 GMT

Kinda cute, kinda classic, kinda confused.

What is it?

The words "hot hatch" crop up often in discussions of cars like the Golf GTI, and for good enough reason: the Mk1 Golf GTI was the hot hatch. The first one. The ur-hot hatch, if you will. This legacy is, for better or for worse, what defines the Golf GTI as it is today. The myth of the hot hatch, of the everyman's sports car, the underdog, the performance-on-a-budget black knight, is a legend in modern car culture, and is a reaction to, and potent antithesis to, increasinly ostentatious, expensive, and just plain large performance cars. In the days of the Mk1 Golf, those would be the formidable grand tourers from BMW or Mercedes or Aston Martin: in the States, performance in the early '80s was defined by the legacy of the muscle car era and the high-displacement personal luxury coupes that period left behind; in both cases, true performance and driving pleasure were inaccessible. The original Golf GTI is seen as a hero of the commons, a representative of the people who care about driving and care about having a sensible car, but can't afford a brand new BMW 2002. With the Mk1 Golf GTI, you got the best of both worlds: a compact and affordable family car that also packed a fun engine and good enough driving dynamics to justify the gas mileage. That's a hell of a legacy to grow up under.

Thoughts on how modern buildings, cars, and places create space for human interaction

Word count: 1416 (~8 minutes), Last modified: Thu, 23 May 2019 14:27:33 GMT

In the "Information Age" the language and techniques that we use to define our built environment have changed. This is driven partly by the socioeconomic ramifications of late-stage capitalism, but also by the changing nature of business, personal lives, and politics, brought about by the Internet and its associated technological fallout. This leads to a divide between the physical artifacts of the pre-Internet, pre-Y2K world, and those that came after. One major delimiter between architecture and design of the 20th and 21st centuries (these time periods serving as a stand-in for the pre-Internet and post-Internet world) is that in the 20th century, designers saw places and things as things that, by their own virtue, gave value and significance to the people they interacted with and the places they inhabited. This led to architectural styles like brutalism and international style, that seek to create edifices that, through their form, styling, and the spaces they create, send a message about the building and the people inside it. This is evidenced by such classic works of the 1900s like New York's Penn Station and Washington DC's Union Station, grand monuments to the ability of man to traverse the world under his terms; vast echoing halls are built not only to house people and ticket agents and commuter trains but also to be a palace of the people, where the working woman is a queen in her own right. Consider also the college campuses and civic buildings of the 1950s and 1960s, whose spare, efficient forms communicated both purpose and identity, not necessarily of the person, but of the building: consider the iconic Theme Building from the grounds of LAX, or the Dulles Airport terminal, one of Eero Saarinen's greatest works, or campuses like UMass Dartmouth of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County: through cohesion of style and design language, they create identities for themselves that people interact with. Going to work is a dialogue. Leaving on a business trip is a conversation with the building through which you depart; your travel experience is flavored by the buildings and spaces you pass through.

2018 Hyundai Elantra GT 2.0L

Word count: 2392 (~14 minutes), Last modified: Sun, 14 Apr 2019 03:07:41 GMT

Here's another Elantra. I won't get tired of them.

2017 Hyundai Elantra SE

Word count: 2420 (~14 minutes), Last modified: Thu, 04 Apr 2019 16:19:30 GMT

What is it?

The Elantra is hard to get a definite read on, and I found it quite difficult to find what this car's identity really was. The problem is that the Elantra, at face value, is an extremely neutral car. It features the short rear deck lid and low hood that the 2006 Civic popularized, a 2.0L Atkinson-cycle engine that makes respectable power, and gets decent gas mileage; it blends in to the modern economy car landscape flawlessly, but I think it was designed to. This is a car that exists to define itself not necessarily upon its own merits, but as a representative of the modern techniques and technologies that seem to unite all modern car designs. It ticks all the boxes for modern cars, and the result is...fine. It's a good car.

2017 Toyota Prius Prime

Word count: 1884 (~11 minutes), Last modified: Tue, 19 Mar 2019 15:56:59 GMT

This review is going to be a little short because I didn't spend too much time with the Prius Prime and didn't take any pictures.

2019 Subaru Outback 2.5L

Word count: 2746 (~16 minutes), Last modified: Sat, 16 Mar 2019 18:17:34 GMT

The Outback lives up to its name on dirt roads.

What is it?

It isn't weird. Subaru isn't weird any more. This is a car that is extremely safe for everyone involved, especially Subaru itself.

2016 (B9) Audi A4 Allroad

Word count: 3901 (~22 minutes), Last modified: Sat, 09 Mar 2019 04:44:34 GMT

What is it?

The A4 Allroad is an SUV. Sort of. It's complicated, though.

2006 Saab 9-3 Aero Wagon

Word count: 2185 (~13 minutes), Last modified: Thu, 28 Feb 2019 22:23:06 GMT

I miss Saab.

What is it?

The Saab 9-3 is a very, very strange car to try to analyze. Saab, as a Swedish brand (may they rest in peace), was readily lumped in with Volvo by US car buyers, and it was easy to see their products as sensible and stylish, if a bit odd, family cars. Merely sitting inside the 9-3 dispels any illusions that this might be the case. The problem then is that Saab always made cars that did look like sensible family drivers-they had recognizable, but understated styling, good-sized interiors and doors, and didn't make too much noise or show off too aggressively. Make no mistake, the Saab 9-3 is a car that's palatable for Americans, but doesn't give up one bit of its Scandinavian user experience.

More Charger thoughts

Word count: 815 (~5 minutes), Last modified: Tue, 26 Feb 2019 17:07:34 GMT

I realized after finishing my review of the 2019 Dodge Charger that there were a few ideas that I hadn't fully completed when writing that review. I think the Charger is a car that really relies on how it is perceived, not by car enthusiasts or experts, but by literally anybody. The significance of cars in American popular and material culture focuses itself towards the biggest car you can possibly get for your money. It took basically every American car manufacturer years to accept that Americans want large cars that give the illusion of being a citadel from which you can watch the world pass by. This explains the popularity of crossovers and SUVs.

2019 Dodge Charger SXT V6

Word count: 2750 (~16 minutes), Last modified: Mon, 25 Feb 2019 18:39:04 GMT

I am very grateful to the staff at Darcars Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram of Silver Spring for letting me test drive a brand new Charger. For the sake of privacy, I will not identify by name the representative that I drove with.

2004 Toyota Matrix FWD Automatic

Word count: 1368 (~8 minutes), Last modified: Sun, 24 Feb 2019 15:48:07 GMT

What is it?

It's better at being a Scion than any actual Scion models were. It's not that the Matrix came before Scion; the Matrix marque is just as old as the Scion brand, so it's truly beyond me why Toyota didn't just sell it as a Scion. The only rational conclusion I can draw is that it was meant as a strange sort of hot hatch, to complement, rather than compete with, the compact sports coupe tC. Like many small multipurpose wagon/crossover/hatchback vehicles (see the Ford C-Max, Mazda5, Toyota's own Scion xB, and others besides), the Matrix sort of has to serve two masters with regards to its customer base; there will be those who want a compact vehicle with good visibility, a lot of space, and good fuel economy, and there will be those who want to pretend they have a Fiesta ST and live out their hot hatch dreams while not sacrificing on sensible amenities like space and comfort. Many of these cars ultimately aim to serve one better than the other (certainly the C-Max is nowhere close to being a driver's car!), but I did not expect which way the Matrix leant.

2001 Mazda Tribute FWD V6

Word count: 1752 (~10 minutes), Last modified: Sun, 24 Feb 2019 15:26:15 GMT

Its lines are identical to the Escape; my confusion is understandable.

What is it?

When I first saw this Tribute I thought "the poor thing looks like a bootleg Ford Escape," and then ate my words as soon as I found that the Tribute and Escape are in fact exactly the same car. Every time I try to say Mazda Tribute, I almost say Ford Escape instead. Both the Tribute and Escape were the product of a collaboration between Ford and Mazda in the early 2000s, a marriage that also produced the Ford Probe, and resulted from a collective desire from both manufacturers to make a modern and relevant crossover compact SUV. Did it work? I don't know.

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In

Word count: 1916 (~11 minutes), Last modified: Sun, 24 Feb 2019 15:11:05 GMT

It kinda looks like a hatchback…but those are some big wheels.

What is it?

The Kia Niro is a hatchback for 21st century America, with all of the connotations that come with that. It's billed as a small, efficient, city driver crossover with all the bells and whistles expected of mid-market crossovers in the modern US market. The Niro is a mature, sophisticated car with none of the youthful energy of smaller, cheaper Kia models; it's very clearly a car that you graduate to rather than from.

2014 Volkswagen Passat S

Word count: 1914 (~11 minutes), Last modified: Sun, 24 Feb 2019 14:24:00 GMT

What is it?

The Volkswagen Passat is the sensible choice for anyone who likes cars, but not too much. This effectively means that anyone who doesn't care for cars won't appreciate what it offers, and someone who likes cars a lot will be disappointed that it doesn't offer them enough. The B7 Passat is a car that knows exactly what it wants, and there's a very good chance that that's also what you want. The Passat, unlike some of its competitors, already knows exactly what it wants to be.