Hatchtopia Feature: Gadget Bloat

My employer has a Ford Escape Hybrid available to drive for various errands and trips that those in my office occasionally make.  It’s a nice enough vehicle, fairly comfortable, but cheaply made and strangely noisy.   Now, fair warning, I’m a Ford fanboy and shareholder and have been a Ford guy pretty much as long as I’ve been in to cars.  My dad had a series of Ford trucks when I was young and an annoying kid in the neighborhood was a Chevy honk, so it was only natural.

That said, I really want to like the Escape, but I just can’t.  It’s cheap on the inside and the CVT transmission of the Hybrid model makes the engine drone like a constipated buffalo.  If I were a betting man, I’d say that Ford designed the Escape  to meet a certain price point – and it shows.  The interior plastics are of a lower grade than many children’s toys (I was going to say Lego, but that would be grave insult to the building blocks), the aforementioned engine drone grates on the nerves and the overall feeling is one of tinny cheapness.

But, it’s got so many gadgets!  Neat stuff like power windows, locks, seats, automatic climate control, cruise control, power mirrors, power, power, POWER!

It's green, get it?

Meh.

I will admit that I enjoyed hypermiling the Escape around town during a 20-mile urban trek to the tune of 43 miles per gallon.  But here’s the thing: with certain efficiency modifications, a non-hybrid version should be able to achieve the same.  You may remember my recent post about hybrids – my contention being that hybrids represent a significant step backwards in terms of efficiency.  See, the hybrid drivetrain requires not only a gas engine, but electric motor(s) and massive battery packs.  It is those packs and overall complexity that leads to massive curb weights – weight of course being the enemy of overall efficiency.

Worst of all, I think that the manufacturers of said hybrids are guilty of greenwashing – making it seem like they’ve solved the fuel economy issue with complex engineering fixes and new technological advances.

Technology is great, don’t get me wrong, but to me, research and development costs would be better spent finding ways to lighten cars in order to increase efficiency.  Lightweight materials are one step, a second step being decontenting – eliminating superflous gadgets.  Technological advances should be limited to making the internal combustion engine more efficient – including new systems to allow for shut off at stop lights and other fuel saving options.

Which brings us back to the Escape Hybrid.  One of the gadgets that I mentioned above is the automatic climate control.  You set the temperature that you’d like to be at and the car does the rest.  To warm up on a cold day, set it for 80 degrees and bask in the warmth.  In theory.  In real life, the way it works is you get a blast of 90 degree heat followed by a 60 degree draft while the car tries to figure out what the perfect mix is.  How exactly is this better than a simple slider that reads from blue to red?  That’s what my first car had and that’s what people used for decades to “manually” control their climate.  Fact is, the “automatic” version required as much, if not more adjustment to make the air temperature inside the Escape meet my expectations.

thetruthaboutcars.com review (click photo for link): controls "arranged with meaningless uniformity and mind-numbing symmetry."

That’s one level of complexity that could easily be eliminated – weight reduced, price reduced, reliability increased.

To further follow up on that complexity issue – whatever happened to rods and cables?  You know, the mechanical connectors that used to operate many of the functions on cars?  They’ve been replaced by electric motors.  More complexity, weight and cost.  Are they more reliable?  I can’t say for sure, but I can say with certainty that I myself could replace or fix many more mechanical components than electrical ones.

It used to be that you’d switch the manual climate control from the floor level outlets to the dash outlets with a lever controlling a rod.  The switch between the two was achieved with a satisfying clunk.  Is this clunk too much for today’s consumer?  Is it really that annoying to hear a sound not unlike dropping your Chuck Taylor onto a carpeted floor from a foot up?  Americans have become so obsessed with technology and inobtrusiveness in all actions that this is no longer acceptable from an automobile.

So we’ve now reached a point where we demand mutually exclusive traits from our vehicles: high efficiency and complete isolation from the outside environment.  We want automatic climate control and 50 mpg.  We want it cheap.  And we want it safe.

And most of all:

Just look at a magazine rack sometime to find out how obsessed Americans are with appearances.  Not just physical beauty, mind you, but the outward appearance of their gadgets.  In the long run, people would rather be seen in a hybrid than a tiny economy car or an old beater that’s significantly “greener.”  No one wants to be seen in a cheap car.

No doubt that cars have often been a reflection upon the driver.  What better way to show what type of person you are than by what you use to transport yourself and your family around town?

But again, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner with regards to efficient cars.  Small cars are cheap.  Old beaters are cheap.  Base model cars are cheap.   But all of these can be signficiantly more efficient than a hybrid.  What say you?  If you’re looking to save money on gas, what do you get?  A heavy hybrid or a lightweight econobox?

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7 responses to “Hatchtopia Feature: Gadget Bloat”

  1. Lou says :

    I don’t mind the shape of the Escape, but not a fan of hybrid in general

  2. needthatcar says :

    To be fair, much of the weight gain of vehicles these days can be attributed to the NTSB. The crash safety standards just keep getting higher. There is no way a Geo Metro would be legal to sell as a new car these days. The Metro weighed about 1600 lbs. The Mazda 2 is the lightest car available in the US today at nearly 2300 lbs. That’s 600 lbs. of safety and 100 lbs of power gadgets (I’m estimating here.)

    Additionally, I will say that there are a few options that I, a fat American consumer, no longer consider optional. A/C, power locks (and keyless entry), power windows, cruise, power brakes and steering, and a decent stereo. If it doesn’t have those, it better be 25+ years old.

    • Hatchtopia says :

      I can understand the “want” (not “need”) for the power gadgets you mention, and I have them all on my car and love that they’re available for long trips. But the fact is, on my morning and afternoon slog through 15 miles of traffic in each direction, I could easily live without all but A/C and power brakes/steering. I’m on the fence about the “decent” stereo issue – I do love me some music, but as long as I can hear it okay, I think i’d probably be fine with one speaker instead of the 10 that my car has.

      In the long run though, I don’t have a problem so much with the stuff that you listed – yeah, they’re honestly luxuries, but I’ve become used to them. The issue that I mainly have is that they’ve replaced simple, reliable and easily-fixable things with complex, unknown and not-easily-fixable things. The climate control system and the operation of vents being the two primary ones that I’ve noticed. I’m sure there’s others.

      Thanks for responding – I’m hoping I can get more of this sort of discussion going on here in the future.

  3. Real Al to your Bizarro Ray says :

    Also, I think it should be noted that the vast majority of emissions related with a vehicle is in operation, not in manufacturing. Hybrids do cost more energy to build than a comparable car with a traditional IC powertrain, but I’d be interested to see how the carbon adds up when you look at a ten-year lifespan.

    Finally, a new Dodge Charge SRT hemi getting 18mpg will run significantly cleaner than a 1993 Geo Metro at 45mpg.

    But you hit the nail on the head about needless complexity. Pay for the handling and pay for the engine. Anything else is superfluous in my book.

    • Hatchtopia says :

      Very true – I’d be interested to see some hard numbers on manufacture of vehicles. I’d like to also know what the percentage of these battery packs is being recycled and I’ve also heard rumblings about the environmental damage being caused in the mining of the material for the batteries.

      Cleaner, yes. And looking at today’s inversion, that’s important. But it’s still using almost 3 times as much gas. And in my opinion, the conservation of fossil fuels is probably more important (right now).

      Thanks for the response! Love that I’m getting a little back-and-forth going here!

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