Are Fun Cars Doomed?

Enthusiasts worry regulations and changing consumer tastes will bury sporty cars.

Drew Winter, Contributing Editor

January 27, 2011

12 Min Read
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“No diesel, steam, or gasoline

Let's take a ride in an electric car

Happiness resides in an electric car”

From “Electric Car” by They Might be Giants, a song especially popular with children.

In 2007, BMW AG half-buried four new Mini Clubman cars nose-first near the main hall of the Frankfurt Auto Show, where the model was to make its debut.

The stunt was a kitschy salute to the iconic Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, TX. Constructed in 1974 by a group of avant-garde artists, the “ranch” consists of 10 vintage Cadillacs buried nose-first in the ground at an angle corresponding to the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

Ranging from the ’49 to ’63 model years, the strange sight of these half-buried autos in Texas traces the evolution of that uniquely American design feature, the tailfin, and shows how it mirrors the country’s mood during two starkly different decades, from giddy flamboyance to stark austerity.

Four years ago, BMW’s “Other Ranch” was just a bit of irreverent fun that attracted media attention to the new addition to the Mini family.

But when the images are viewed today, as environmental legislation grows more strident and the world’s youth seems more interested in playing with iPhones than driving pleasure, the idea of fun, affordable cars taking a dirt nap is a bit disturbing. Will “fun” be the tailfin of this decade?

Will Mini Coopers that average 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) soon be viewed as decadent, gas-guzzling relics from a silly bygone era, like the old cars at the Cadillac Ranch? Are we all doomed to hum “Happiness resides in an electric car?”

Mimicking “Cadillac Ranch” with Mini Clubman cars was publicity stunt in 2007, but image is bit worrisome.

No one is in panic mode yet, but some performance enthusiasts and product planners are nervous.

Here’s why:

  • ”New U.S. corporate average fuel economy standards already are pegged at 35.5 mpg (6.6 L/100 km) by 2016. The U.S. government says hitting that target will cost auto makers about $1,000 per car, but some independent estimates put the price tag much higher, from $4,000 to $7,000 per vehicle. That could put even modestly priced “fun” cars such as Mustangs and Mini Coopers out of reach for many consumers.

  • sThe Environmental Protection Agency, National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. and California legislators are all talking about a 62 mpg (3.8 L/100 km) fleet target for 2025. Meanwhile safety proponents are insisting on a growing array of design changes, from stronger roofs to improved pedestrian protection that can add weight, hurt performance and hinder stylish designs.

  • Emissions and fuel-economy legislation is forcing the electricification of vehicles, which critics say could lead to bland, appliance-like vehicles.

  • dTastes and habits are changing, especially among younger people. Generation Y, the vast new demographic of baby boomer children who are supposed to take the place of the parents in buying all sorts of new products, is not interested in buying new cars. This trend already is documented in Japan and considered a factor in the country’s weak vehicle sales.

  • fConsumers of all ages, but especially young children, are being inundated by anti-automotive, anti internal-combustion engine messages from many sources. “Of course kids are less interested in cars. They’re teaching them in school to hate them, because they are bad for the environment,” says one product planner at a major auto maker in an unguarded moment.

BMW Vision Efficient Dynamics debunks idea electric cars and hybrids can’t be fun, performance-oriented cars. <link rel=

Enlarge Graphic


Despite these worries, most automotive product planners, designers and performance gurus interviewed by Ward’ssay there is no reason to worry about fun, affordable vehicles disappearing.

However, they note that tomorrow’s sporty vehicles may not fit the traditional Baby Boomer definition, which frequently includes a big displacement engine, lots of cylinders and smoking tires.

Instead, tomorrow’s fun cars might be something Boomers don’t “get,” such as a performance hybrid.

You might expect John Coletti, an engineer famous for turning Ford cars and trucks into fire-breathing beasts, such as the Shelby Cobra Mustang and SVT F-150 Lightning pickup truck during the 1990s and 2000s as the head of its Special Vehicle Team performance operation, to decry the threat of coming fuel-economy and emissions legislation.

Instead, he flatly says fuel economy and performance are not mutually exclusive and never have been. “I’m not personally a tree-hugger, but once you accept there is no dichotomy between performance and fuel economy, (you achieve both) with technology,” he says.

18-ft.-tall Bumblebee Autobot movie character from “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” based on ’10 Chevy Camaro at 2009 Chicago Auto Show.

Now president of the startup company EcoMotors International, Colletti says he is having fun squeezing big horsepower and torque numbers from a uniquely designed, small-displacement diesel engine.

“(Driving pleasure) may no longer be about the number of cylinders, or cylinders at all, perhaps. But rather how what’s under the hood performs and how it provides a seamless driving experience filled with delight and joy,” says Jim O’Donnell, president-BMW of North America LLC, at last year’s Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, MI.

BMW will continue to emphasize performance and technology, but these characteristics may be manifested in new ways. Technology is becoming increasingly democratized, he says, so auto makers must find more innovative ways to apply it, refine it and integrate it into a vehicle.

“Not everyone can and will be able to do this,” he says.

“Regardless of the configuration, BMW will continue to be about performance and dynamics. And we will create and develop more solutions than ever before to ensure sustainable efficiency. Environmental responsibility will become brand strengths equal to superb dynamics. All will still support the feel of the ultimate driving machine.”

As an example, O’Donnell points to a concept car called Vision EfficientDynamics. It features a 3-cyl., diesel-hybrid powertrain that has the performance of an M3 and reaches 0-60 mph (100 km/h) in 4.8 seconds but achieves roughly 62 mpg (3.8 L/100 km) and emits just 99 g/km of carbon dioxide.

BMW M’s Kay Segler: “You have to offer something to the consumer that is thrilling. If you don’t offer it, the customer will not develop that emotion.”

However, at the North American International Auto Show, Kay Segler, president-BMW M GmbH, says electric motors and hybrid powertrains are not in the pipeline yet for BMW’s performance M-Series vehicles.

M vehicles, arguably BMW’s most fun automobiles, are defined as cars that can be raced on the Nurburgring in Germany, (widely considered the most demanding purpose-built racing circuit in the world), Segler says. So far, electric vehicles and hybrid-electric vehicles are too heavy and too limited in range to pass such a test.

Segler says BMW M is responding to increasing government legislation and the changing performance marketplace by offering more affordable products that are accessible to younger buyers, such as the just-revealed 1-Series M Coupe. Priced at $47,000, it is a bargain compared with most M offerings.

Sales of M cars are up strongly from last year, and Segler does not see any immediate threat. “Some of the emotions people have cannot be killed by legislation,” he says. “It’s only a question of how you can fulfill these dreams.”

Tomorrow’s sports cars definitely will be lighter weight and have smaller displacement engines, but Segler does not see fuel economy and increasing limits on carbon-dioxide emissions forcing auto makers into an era of lower-performance vehicles.

EcoMotors’ John Coletti: I’m not personally a tree-hugger, but once you accept there is no dichotomy between performance and fuel economy, (you achieve both) with technology.”

“I feel it is unfair of the elder generation to tell the younger-generation that they should be non-emotional,” in their car choices, Segler says.

BMW M is reaching out to younger consumers through their parents and activities with the many clubs that revolve around vehicle ownership. That includes father-and-son driver-training activities aimed at togetherness and, of course, introducing a new generation to the joy of driving high-performance vehicles.

Finding a way to connect with younger drivers and create vehicles they aspire to promises to be a greater challenge than meeting coming legislative and technological issues. That’s because the automobile used to be the basis of how young people formed social networks. Now they can do it with a smartphone or computer.

“We’re noticing globally, the youth as we might define them – in this case I’ll define them as 35 and younger – is less inclined to purchase a car,” says Jack Hollis, Scion vice president-Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

“At 16 and 17, I wanted my license; I wanted to buy a car so I could drive around with my buddies and have my communication and my fun and have my social life with my friends. Or I wanted to go across town and be able to pick up my girlfriend and take her on a date, or whatever,” Hollis says.

“At that time, it was a need for me. Today (because of smartphones, computers and social networks) there’s not a need to (have a car to) be social and have communication and fun and social life.”

The Scion tC, targeted at performance-minded buyers, and the small new iQ, designed to be fun transportation for young urban dwellers, are aimed at getting youthful buyers focused back on vehicles. Beyond that, Scion will be introducing more serious performance cars down the road, Hollis says.

While many auto makers are worrying the lack of interest in buying cars by young Japanese consumers could become a global trend, Ed Welburn, vice president-Global Design, General Motors Co., says young people in other major auto markets are fascinated with personal mobility.

He points to China’s soaring vehicle sales and adds that he still sees plenty of passion about cars among young people in the U.S.

He says young people just get involved with vehicles differently than their parents. Now they may fall in love with a new vehicle by “driving” it in a video game when they are pre-teenagers, or by seeing one in a movie.

GM’s Ed Welburn at Savannah College of Art and Design: “There is a lot more we will do to connect with young people at an earlier age.”

The popular “Transformers” movie series has made international stars out of cars such as GM’s Camaro, especially among children and young adults, Welburn says.

“There is a lot more we will do in that industry (movies and video games) to connect with young people at an earlier age. I just think some of the cars that they like will be different,” Welburn says.

To this end, he spends lots of his spare time attending special events where he can connect with young people.

Last March, Welburn discussed the design inspiration behind the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray concept vehicle and hosted a group of about 30 students from Georgia's Savannah College of Art and Design at an automotive design seminar held during the 2010 Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance.

The design seminar was attended by hundreds of automotive enthusiasts and students from several Jacksonville and Fernandina Beach, FL, area high schools, as well as mechanical-engineering students from Jacksonville's University of North Florida.

After the seminar, Welburn invited the design students to lunch, followed by an opportunity to test drive several new Chevy vehicles, including the Corvette Grand Sport, Equinox, Camaro and Malibu.

For his presentation, Welburn brought clips from the latest “Transformer” movie, and he says the students literally screamed when the real Stingray concept was rolled out.

Scion’s Hollis hoping to win over young buyers with tC, iQ and more serious performance cars down the road.

While high-powered sports cars such as the Corvette and Camaro will never lose their appeal to some consumers of all ages, Vicki Poponi, assistant vice president-product planning for American Honda Motor Co. Inc., argues that environmentalism is having a profound impact on younger car buyers.

She has a young daughter who likes to sing the “Electric Car” song by They Might Be Giants.

“It’s the sweetest melody; it makes me happy to listen to it, but they’re preparing (children) to accept different types of vehicles,” Poponi says.

The relationship Baby Boomers and younger generations have with environmentalism is very different, Poponi says, and that is one of the reasons Boomers don’t “get” Honda’s new CR-Z sporty hybrid.

“It’s for the next generation because it’s responsibly indulgent,” she says.

“I think they’re (Gen Y) different than the boomers. I’m a boomer; we grew up with muscle cars: the Trans Am, the Camaro, these big V-8 things. So we look fondly back to that time, when we’re young and carefree and running around.

“But Gen Y is a really different generation. These are kids – and they’re not really even kids anymore – a third of them are already parents and they range from 17 to 34. These people were born after the inception of recycle/reuse; they were born after the inception of Earth Day. Growing up, environmentalism has been just programmed into them,” Poponi says.

Even so, most in the auto industry today say that environmentalism, fuel-economy rules and changing consumer tastes do not have to spell the end of fun cars.

“I’m convinced you can shape the future,” says BMW M’s Segler. “But you have to offer something to the consumer that is thrilling. If you don’t offer it, the customer will not develop that emotion,”

– with Christie Schweinsberg

[email protected]

About the Author(s)

Drew Winter

Contributing Editor, WardsAuto

Drew Winter is a former longtime editor and analyst for Wards. He writes about a wide range of topics including emerging cockpit technology, new materials and supply chain business strategies. He also serves as a judge in both the Wards 10 Best Engines and Propulsion Systems awards and the Wards 10 Best Interiors & UX awards and as a juror for the North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year awards.

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