No product planner ever asked for tighter passenger accommodations or a smaller trunk; no designer wants less sheet metal to serve as a canvas for his art; no engineer wants to take stuff out of a car -- he wants to add more.
Nobody ever questions this movement toward automotive giganticism because it is like the existence of gravity: an incontestable law of nature.
For evidence, I offer the jury the Honda Accord, made by the company whose motto is "Maximum man, minimum machine." The first Accord to reach these shores in 1976 was classified as a compact and stretched out to all of 162 inches.
In time, the Accord went on to become the best-selling car in America. But that didn't stop Honda from making it larger and larger. The 2011 Accord is now classified as full-size. It is 194 inches from stem to stern -- nearly three feet longer than its prehistoric ancestor.
So why this gnashing of teeth over the 2011 MINI Cooper Countryman, which has grown two more doors and a mere 15 inches from the original MINI Cooper?
The Countryman is still immediately identifiable as a MINI, with its flat roof, friendly face, and extroverted paint job. There is nothing else like it on the road.
Although the Countryman has some crossover characteristics like a rear hatch and all-wheel-drive, the ground clearance is minimal, and the cargo space is laughable -- all traditional MINI traits.
And the Countryman still squelches bigger cars in stoplight drag races, and it corners like a motorized skateboard the way the original MINI did. It is a four-door sports car. The Countryman is a lot closer to an MX-5 Miata than it is a Ford Explorer. Throw in the turbocharged 1.6 liter 181-horsepower engine from the S version and you've got a pocket rocket capable of reaching 60 miles an hour in under eight seconds with a manual transmission.
That kind of heavy-footed driving doesn't do much for fuel economy, of course. The Countryman is rated at 25 miles per gallon city/31 highway, well below the new 40 mpg bogey for similarly-sized cars. Over a couple of hundred miles of mostly highway driving, I could only manage 28 mpg.
MINI fun comes at a price. My supercharged Light White test car carried an MSRP of $26,950. Throw in the garish red and black seat coverings, the sport package with in-your-face 18-inch alloy wheels the color of anthracite, and a few other geegaws and gimcracks, and you've run up the tab to $31,150.
I will like MINI a lot better once it updates its cheesy instrument panel and eccentric ergonomics. The plastic is of the same gauge and quality used in cookie-box dividers. The switches come in great variety, and what they boast in originality, they lack in functionality.
And I'd be remiss in not pointing out MINI's dismal record of reliability. In keeping with the fine tradition of British engineering and manufacturing, the MINI ranks at the very bottom of J.D. Power's three-year dependability rankings. It trails even that other paragon of English motoring, Land Rover, and represents a blemish on the reputation of its owner and operator BMW.
If Kate and Will are looking for a cause once they get back from their honeymoon, they could take on an upgrade of those few automobile brands that are still assembled within the confines of their kingdom -- lest MINI defect to Germany.
The Cinderella story at the new General Motors continues to be Buick -- and this fairy tale has more glass slippers than simply a supply of new models. Repositioned as the luxury brand partner of Cadillac in the U.S. and smartly leveraging its status as a technology leader in China, Buick is piling triumph upon triumph.
Last week's opening of the Shanghai auto show provided the latest data point as Buick MOREApr 27, 2011 12:54 PM ET
Cars and trucks -- not just Detroit's but the imports' too -- are afflicted by a case of giantism. It is as if they are all juicing with growth hormones like a baseball player with 26-inch biceps.
For evidence, consider the Chrysler minivan. The 2011 version is more than two feet longer, nine inches wider, and three quarters of a ton heavier than the original that was introduced 28 years ago
All MOREApr 19, 2011 12:42 PM ET
Audi's A4 and A6 exemplify the automaker's best qualities: sophisticated design, excellent craftsmanship, and superb road manners. But the company has some catching up to do if it wants to win more American customers.
A pair of Audis showed up on my test drive schedule as winter morphed into spring in the Northeast. They weren't the newest models in the line -- the 2011 A6 is being replaced by MOREApr 8, 2011 2:07 PM ET
When gasoline prices start to rise, the thoughts of economy-minded buyers reliably turn to the Toyota Prius, the mileage champ. Edmunds.com reports consideration of the 50-miles-per-gallon Toyota Prius among its online shoppers is up more than 30% since the beginning of the year -- triple the increase for all hybrids and small cars in general.
Some shoppers, however, may feel diffident about the Prius. More than two million have been sold MOREMar 31, 2011 12:23 PM ET
Sometimes you get lucky. In writing about cars for Fortune, I find myself competing with dozens of other journalists for first crack at the latest in automotive metal. What with the complications of scheduling and the near-constant stream of product launches, I am sometimes left with sun-loving convertibles in January and snow-chewing SUVs in July. Not that I expect any sympathy -- they are all fresh from the factory, after MOREMar 25, 2011 6:00 AM ET
Crossovers are the hottest body styles to come along since pillarless hard-top convertibles. Station wagons, by contrast, are as dead as tailfins and wrap-around windshields. For more, see my epitath.
So what are they doing in the same review? Well, they are both utility vehicles of a sort, designed to haul more stuff than a conventional coupe or sedan; both are aimed at moderately affluent buyers; and both are made by MOREMar 18, 2011 1:57 PM ET
Without doubt, the minivan has the least-malleable image of any product segment.
Lowly sub-compacts sparkle when recast as adorable playthings -- the Mini Cooper -- or hot hatches -- the MazdaSpeed3. Workaday pickup trucks can be easily linked to weekend recreation or made surrogates for Craftsman series racers.
But minivans remain forever tied to the iconic soccer mom and her world of child safety seats, juice box holders, and car pools. It MOREMar 4, 2011 6:00 AM ET
One of the foundation principles of journalism is to comfort the afflicted -- and afflict the comfortable.
Ford Motor is feeling pretty comfortable these days. Its cars are selling, its debt is shrinking, and its executives are treated with the kind of reverence and adulation usually reserved for the likes of Mark Zuckerberg or Justin Bieber.
So if Ford is comfortable, how should it be afflicted? Did I hear somebody say Lincoln?
With MOREFeb 18, 2011 6:00 AM ET
It's the Rodney Dangerfield of passenger cars.
That's right, Toyota's Avalon gets no respect. Ever since it was introduced in 1994, it has been derided as a "Japanese Buick" -- and that was long before Buicks became fashionable.
Many auto writers, perhaps subconsciously recalling their pre-teen years as Go-Kart racers, joked about the obvious efforts made to appeal to mature buyers, like simplified, oversized controls and a suspension more tuned for comfort MOREFeb 14, 2011 12:27 PM ET
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