Thursday, April 05, 2012

Bad Cars

I've watched a couple of episodes of the US version of Top Gear. One was on dangerous cars and the other was on "uncool" cars. I didn't actually care much for the show. The hosts are trash-talking jerks. Still the cars deserve a second look.

Their choices for most dangerous cars were the Ford Pinto, the Chevy Corvair, and the Suzuki Samurai. I have some experience with two of these. My parents owned a Corvair and I owned a Samurai.

Since I never even drove a Pinto there isn't much I can say except that the show exaggerated the danger. In a famous lawsuit it was alleged that a design flaw made it more likely that in a rear-end collision the fuel tank filler would break off, spilling fuel and making the car more likely to catch fire. A document was produced showing that Ford had calculated it would cost $11/car to fix and decided to save the money.

Much later a study found that only a couple of dozen people were killed in fires involving Pintos out of 2 million sold. This was typical for cars from that period. The memo on cost was a regulatory requirement and senior management had never seen it.

Ralph Nader built his reputation on the Corvair. His first book, Unsafe at Any Speed, devited a chapter to the car and soon after GM stopped selling it. Nader claimed that the car was difficult to control, especially at high speed.

In the 1960s when the Corvair was being made, most small cars had manual steering and an engine sitting on top of the front wheels. The Corvair had a rear-mounted motor. This made it easy to oversteer the car. This happened to all cars with rear motors. I remember my father commenting on it to my mother. He had previously owned a Karmann Ghia which was a sporty body on top of a VW Beetle frame. Both cars behaved the same.

The government tested the Corvair and found that it was one of the more stable cars with a rear motor. GM had always planned on dropping the car when it did because the profit margin was too low.

The Samurai got it's reputation from a Consumer Report review which claimed that it turned over during testing. My experience with it was that it was a poor car on the highway but great for off-road (which is what I used it for). I never had any problems with stability, even on gravel roads with sharp turns.

Suzuki sued Consumer Reports claiming that they anti-rollover equipment that they attached to the car changed the balance and that they were trying to help an employee win a battle with an insurance company. Eventually Consumer Reports apologized for their rating.

So, none of these cars were particularly dangerous. Regardless, Top Gear managed to spin the Corvair, roll the Suzuki, and even got a smoldering fire to start in the Pinto for no reason. All I can say is that stunt drivers can get cars to do a lot of things and the camera never showed what caused the spin or rollover.

On to the uncool cars - the Yugo, the Mustang II, and the Pontiac Aztek.

The big question is how they missed AMC's Gremlin and Pacer? Those were uncool when they were new and the Pacer tops most lists on worst car ever made.

Of the ones they did pick, the Yugo stands out as particularly bad. It's only selling point was that it was the cheapest car on the market. A product of Yugoslavia, the car was poorly engineered, poorly built, underpowered, and a generally bad car. The reviews said that the few hundred that you saved by buying one were not worth the money. If you were really strapped for cash you were better off buying a used car. It would be more reliable.

The Pontiac Aztek was supposed to be a crossover SUV. It ended up looking like someone had cut the top third off of a car and the bottom third from a second car then stacked them. This impression was helped by the body styling and double rows of headlights. It wasn't a bad car but no one liked the look.

The Mustang II was a product of its time and really should be judged as such. The Mustang started out as a small car with a big motor - one of the first muscle cars. Over the next few years it grew into a big car with a big motor.

Ford President Lee Iacocca wanted to return the car to its roots as a small car and the Mustang II was introduced. The car has a bad reputation now because the Mustang II could be ordered with a 4 cylinder motor which was pretty underpowered. Even the 8 cylinder motor was slower than the earlier models because of new air quality and safety standards.

I can't argue with the other two choices for uncool car but a Mustang II with a good motor was cool when it came out - something that could never be said for the Yugo or Aztek.

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