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.

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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.

One of the things that Reynolds touches on is that the Blazer featured in the comparison is the RS trim, Chevrolet's sporty option for their economy cars these days. The RS gets a 300-odd horsepower 3.6L V6 that gives fuel economy that's not worth mentioning, and is coupled with a nine-speed automatic (According to Chevrolet's webpage on the Blazer). For a midsize car, that makes it quite quick, and according to Reynolds, it offers a reasonably dynamic driving experience that, unlike so many midsize crossovers, doesn't get bogged down in its own weight.

But the Blazer RS starts at $40,000. A 3.6L V6 Dodge Challenger that makes 300hp starts at $27,000, and a Charger with the same engine starts at $29,000. Both will almost certainly accelerate faster than a Blazer RS, corner tighter, and brake harder too.

So what indeed has happened to the days of performance on a budget? The V6 Challenger verges into "premium economy"-segment money, and gives you a comfortable, sizeable, and reasonably practical sports car for that. But not everybody wants a two-ton chassis with six cylinders. What happened to the econo-sport models from the 1990s and 2000s we loved?

I pointed out to some friends the other days that American car manufacturers have effectively abandoned the econo-sport segment. You know the type: compact sedan or coupe with a punchy engine, manual transmission, and just enough exhaust noise to annoy CR-V drivers. Econo-sport cars gave us solid handling and driving fun at a bargain price, and opened up enthusiast driving to those who couldn't afford a steeper-priced muscle car or sports car. With modern suspension design techniques (advanced in part to compensate for America's deteriorating roads, I'm sure), compact sedans handle better than ever these days, and the torsion beam is no longer an instant death knell for handling. Sporty economy compacts should be easier to get than ever now, right?

I personally have a soft spot for Chevrolet's Cavalier Z24 and Cobalt SS: If I buy a project car, it might well be a Cavalier or Cobalt. The Cruze RS didn't get a new engine, but still likely handled better than its predecessors, featuring an interesting secondary Watt's linkage helping to keep the rear torsion beam straight. But the Cruze RS doesn't get its own engine, nor a manual gearbox (side note: Chevy, please stop making your manual shift controls a rocker switch on the shifter.) Simply put, there are no real econo-sport options from GM for MY2019. If you absolutely need to buy GM and want an affordable and fun daily driver, look into the diesel Cruze, or a manual Sonic. Other than those, however, GM is rapidly settling into a crossover-centric model.

What about FCA? For simplicity's sake, I neglect Alfa Romeo and Fiat in the United States, as both have limited market penetration, and apart from the 500 Abarth, neither really intersects with Econo-sport. If you need to buy FCA and you need lots of power in a compact package, the aforementioned Abarth is your only option. If you want an American-branded badge, then good luck. Dodge has no answer to the question of "what will replace the SRT4 Neon, SRT4 Caliber, and GT Dart?". The only four cylinder Dodge you can get is the Journey, though that might change if the next iteration of the Charger and Challenger gets a turbo four cylinder as its base engine, a la Ecoboost Mustang. Otherwise, the smallest, most daily-able car you can get from FCA's domestic brands would be the Jeep Renegade or Compass. Both feature FCA's 2.4L Tigershark, whose 184 horsepower likely makes the Renegade lively, but again: these are compact SUVs. There is no Neon successor to be found here. Dodge doesn't do small, cheap, and fun anymore.

Then Ford? How about Ford? They have a great legacy with the Escort ZX2, Fiesta ST, and Focus ST & RS. But we all know that they controversially decided to stop making cars for the US market, focusing on their compact crossovers as the future of Ford's family vehicle lineup. Before we saw what the new Escape would look like, this made little sense, but the new Escape is a compact crossover that blurs the line between hatchback and full-fledged CUV. The Ford Edge ST can of course pull with a smaller car, and corner with a smaller car, and might well be able to outperform the Focus ST, but again: the money required to make a crossover perform that well gives it a steep price tag indeed. The Edge ST will simply not be available to consumers who want performance on a budget, and the highly-anticipated Focus Active will not be available because of the Trump Administration's new economic policies. Perhaps a hot Escape could move Ford back into the econo-sport segment...

So why? Why is the econo-sport being abandoned by American automakers? As always, money. Smaller cars have, for the last few decades, not been extremely profitable like crossovers and SUVs are. Consumers expect small cars to have appropriately small price tags, so the net profit from a compact sedan is likely limited, if even profitable at all. Putting more performance into a chassis that already sells nearly at a loss is not a profitable move for companies that try to price their compacts low enough to sell competitively. Chevrolet could not make a hot Cruze cheap yet capable enough to sell well, while still being expensive enough to turn a profit. FCA regarded the Dart as a terrible financial venture, in no small part because of its troubled early years, but also simply because the per-unit profit was limited. Car companies rely on consumers picking options and selecting more expensive models to make a profit. Selling cheap cars that still have lots of power is a risky endeavour, at least for American automakers.

Additionally, with the new default family car becoming compact and midsize crossovers, the average daily driver is getting taller and heavier. These cars take more engineering work, more materials, and more money to make actually sporty: look again at how expensive the new Blazer will be. Crossovers are great business for automakers, because consumers expect SUVs to come at a premium anyways. The sporty family car of tomorrow will be either a hugely expensive model from a premium brand like Acura, Lexus, or BMW/Mercedes/Audi, a less expensive, but poor performance-for-the-dollar model from a domestic manufacturer, or a sedan or hatchback from one of the few companies that still seriously markets sedans, like Toyota, Honda, and Mazda.

Toyota, Honda, and Mazda may well be the future of the econo-sport car, as they are so engaged in the global market that abandoning models like the Corolla, Civic, and Mazda3 would be a bad move, but they're moving away from the barebones tuner crowd regardless. The landscape of the econo-sport segment of the future will have fewer brands in it, and will be more inclusive of automatic transmissions and CVTs as it gets harder and harder to just get a manual. This sounds like a hellish future indeed, but remember that the state of the art of suspension technology improves with every year, automatics are getting smarter, and CVTs are getting more durable. Budget-limited driving enthusiasts will still have options in the years to come. Their world isn't coming to an end, it's just changing, like the world at large. As humans always have in the face of a changing world, we have to help each other: collective action, community building, and interdependency. That means that the car enthusiast community needs to become more inclusive of economy cars, of automatic transmissions, and of stock, unmodified cars. We will survive the death of the American econo-sport car.