Filed Under:

The 'Not Too Crazy' Pulls Ahead In Car Race

Play associated audio

Once upon a time when a car company introduced a new car, it was a new new car.

But at this year's L.A. Auto Show, you won't see any revolutionary new rides — at least not on the outside. You'll find the same sameness in your grocery store parking lot. A lot of cars look alike. Why is that?

"What they're relying on to distinguish these cars from one another is not so much the mechanical pieces of them or the design," says Brian Moody of Autotrader.com. "They're selling sort of a lifestyle or an experience or a philosophy."

Derrick Jenkins, head of design for Mazda, will reluctantly admit that there's been kind of a convergence in the way cars look.

"If you really line the silhouettes up and really check the dimensions and the width — yeah, there's a lot of similarities," he says, "because the basic architecture has been on a constant evolutionary path, and that's where the sweet spot exits."

Jenkins says his job at Mazda is to hit that sweet spot and design cars that sell, so that's why you won't see cars with bubbles or giant fins.

"If you're talking about a midsize sedan that you want to park in your driveway, if you really want some jet-looking fins on the back of it, probably most people I don't believe do," he says. "I don't."

But that doesn't really explain why cars look so much alike. What does explain the similarities, says Aaron Bragman with IHS Automotive, is aerodynamics.

"There are certain shapes that work better for lower aerodynamics," he says. "Lower aerodynamics means better fuel efficiency."

The race to make cars more fuel efficient means automakers spend a lot more time in wind tunnels to get that nearly universal sleek look.

And Bragman says that as the auto industry gets more competitive, companies are a lot less likely to be all wild and crazy.

"The common denominator usually does sell best. This is why you'll see a Toyota Corolla, a Toyota Camry as best-selling vehicles. They're not stylistically wowing anybody, but they're decent, they're attractive, and they're not too crazy," he says. "Not too crazy actually sells."

Not too crazy means car shows aren't as fun — and neither is car shopping.

But here's the thing: Rebecca Lindland with IHS Automotive says midsize cars may look the same — like the Camry, the Accord or the Fusion — but there are not as many lemons.

"And it's really hard to tell the difference on the one hand, but also to know who's offering what in terms of how the car is to drive, because so many of the cars are just, they're so good," she says.

Moody says we won't be wowed going to car shows looking at the outside of cars; the fun stuff is on the inside.

"The '50s version of the future was spaceships and gray jumpsuits and blinking lights — that doesn't exist; there's no flying saucers. But there is Onstar and there is inTune and there is Pandora in your car, and there is an iPhone that plugs into it, and there is Bluetooth that lets me talk on the phone to my wife by just pressing a button and saying 'call home,' " he says. "That's pretty awesome."

Moody says the future is here, and there's a good chance you're driving in it, right now.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

On Television, More Transgender Characters Come Into Focus

Now that it's more common to see gay characters on TV, is the medium turning to transgender people for fresh stories? NPR's Neda Ulaby looks at TV's crop of transgender and "gender fluid" characters.
NPR

Slowly And Sweetly, Vietnam's Chocolate Industry Grows

French colonists planted cacao in Vietnam in the 1800s, but the crop was outpaced by coffee and cashews. Now French expats are helping the country become a respected producer of high-end chocolate.
NPR

Pennsylvania Congresswoman Goes All In For Obamacare

Does Rep. Allyson Schwartz's pro-Affordable Care Act television ad signal a new thinking among Democrats running in statewide races?
NPR

New Browser Plug-in Would Literally Annihilate This Headline

Mike Lazer-Walker created a free browser plug-in called Literally, which replaces the word "literally" with "figuratively" in all online text. As the website explains, that's literally all it does.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.