When U.S. dealers first started selling the Honda Accord in 1976 it's unlikely they ever envisioned it competing with the likes of the Mercury Crown Victoria, but that's where it has ended up.
Compared with the original '76 model, the 2008 sedan's wheelbase is 16.5 in.(42 cm) longer, the width has increased 8.9 in. (23 cm) and the overall length has increased 31.3 in. (80 cm). And it now has an interior volume of 120 cu. ft. (3.4 cu. m) which puts in the same league as the Crown Vic, Buick Lucerne and Toyota Avalon.
Such bracket creep is not unusual. Cars and trucks, just like people, tend to gain weight as they age. From the practical to the sporty, most vehicles grow bigger and heavier over the course of their lifecycles so each succeeding generation can tout more of everything to prospective buyers: more features, more safety, more interior room.
Even cars that tout economy and small size as a virtue, such as Toyota Motor Corp.'s Scion brand and BMW's Mini Cooper have gotten bigger in their latest iterations.
Auto makers typically sidestep criticism by pointing out that in addition to offering their customers more interior room and horsepower, new models have engines that are cleaner burning than their predecessors and deliver better fuel economy.
That's true, but tough new government limits on fuel economy and CO2 emissions in the U.S. and Europe mandating 30% or 40% better fleet fuel economy in as little as 10 years may permanently end the “bigger is better” product development strategy.
Unless the toughest proposals are turned into law, few think there will be a brutal downsizing trend like there was in the 1970s, where Detroit was forced to turn its hulking rear-drive chariots into stubby, front-drive versions of their former selves that no one wanted.
But change definitely is in the wind.
Truck-heavy producers such as Chrysler LLC already are vowing to shift their product mix in favor of more fuel-efficient cars and vowing to curb the size of future land yachts.
“We are about at the zenith” of car mass says Ralph Gilles, vice-president for Jeep/truck and advance interior design at Chrysler LLC.
The biggest problem with uniformly downsizing all vehicles is that consumers are not getting smaller — or thinner.
From the dealer perspective, that means big vehicles still will be available, but manufactures also likely will offer more small cars such as the Honda Fit and Mercedes Smart car to offset their gas-guzzlers in corporate average fuel economy calculations.