Time to revise size prejudice

By Phil Hanson

The Ford Falcon Ecoboost's turbo lets a four cylinder haul a car previously only able to be powered by a six. Photo / Supplied
The Ford Falcon Ecoboost's turbo lets a four cylinder haul a car previously only able to be powered by a six. Photo / Supplied

Big car or smaller car, there's a debate bound to bring out the preconceptions and jump-start the cliches.

Few people actually need a large car. Want, yes, but need, no. Even families with hordes of kids don't need a large car. They need a van or people-mover with additional room in the passenger cube, and the versatility to re-arrange seating and cargo.

Often, even taxi drivers don't need large cars; neither do the cops.

So why do people still buy large cars in reasonable numbers despite fuel pricesand it now being cool to own a smaller car?

Some just like large cars. Others like what they think a lot of rolling sheetmetal says about them, although they may be out of date with current public opinion. Another group enjoys wide, open cabin spaces. Large-framed people may find a big car is the only one than can comfortably fit them.

Performance enthusiasts are wooed by the value for money offered by cars like "hot" Holden Commodores and Ford Falcons.

Executives may be swayed by the notion a large car equates to business success.

Others buy large cars for their safety: the "I'd sooner be in one of these than a flimsy small car in an accident" argument. Results from Australasian and European crash testing show this isn't necessarily so. Small cars routinely score the maximum five stars for occupant protection.

"Manufacturers have significantly improved the level of protection their vehicles provide to occupants in a crash, and car buyers can now choose from a wide variety of vehicles with state of the art safety features, including a number of small cars," Land Transport NZ says of the results.

Contributing to small cars' better protection is the widespread use of side and knee airbags.

Some claims made against large cars may not hold up to close inspection. It's the popular perception that does the damage. For example, not all large cars are "gas guzzlers".

Electronic engine management, variable valve timing and other technologies have helped tame the large vehicle's thirst and many achieve mileage once typical of mid-sizers. However, large cars don't have exclusivity on the technology and similar improvements being made in all sizes, so the fuel consumption gap remains relative.

The resources consumed to build a large car may be only marginally more than for a medium car; neither are large cars the sloppy-handling tanks they were once portrayed to be.

But although it's unlikely many drivers will abandon their Falcons for Nissan Micras, industry statistics clearly show large-car buyers moving to mid-size or compact motoring.

So there's a touch of irony that mid-size and compact cars have, over the years, grown in size. Some of today's larger mid-sizers have become dimensionally close to large cars, blurring the distinction.

Compacts usually grow a few centimetres larger and often a few kilogrammes heavier when they appear as new models although, as in mid-sizers, fuel economy and safety are almost always better.

Shoppers are often impressed by how much usable cabin space smaller cars offer through clever packaging and newfound larger dimensions. A disadvantage is often their rear-seat legroom. Smaller cars will probably have less boot space, but this may be offset by the added versatility of a hatchback version.

While today's large cars handle well, a smaller one may feel more nimble and "sporting" because of its dimensions, but may not have the comfortable, assured ride typical of long-wheelbase, wide-track cars.

- NZ Herald

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