One of the traps it’s easy to fall into is to assume that all current
automotive technology is wonderful - and that it is more advanced that the
technologies that have come before.
There are plenty of reasons to take this stance: every new car model is
released in such an extravaganza of hyperbole from the car company and the media
it’s often hard to see through the hype and look at the reality. Also, the sheer
number of models released causes an almost instinctive ratcheting-up of
appreciation – it’s difficult to step back and evaluate cars in terms of actual
advances. And finally, most people have forgotten – or never experienced - what
old cars are like.
So what’s good and what’s bad about today’s cars?
Criterion 1 – Vision
Current cars are near universally appalling in occupant vision. Hugely thick,
heavily inclined A-pillars are far thicker than the distance between a driver’s
eyes – meaning that you will always have a blind spot unless you physically move
your head laterally. The pictured Peugeot 407 is absolutely terrible in this
respect but it is certainly not alone. Car companies will say that thick pillars
are needed for roof strength, but that is simply rubbish. Even roll-cages in
race cars use tube diameters far smaller than many A-pillars. Another response
will be that the pillars need to be big to contain airbags. Well, either get rid
of these airbags (more likely that you’ll have a crash because you can’t see
approaching cars!) or re-engineer them to be slimmer.
It’s the fashion to have higher and higher waistlines. Look at the rake angle
that the window line makes in many sedans – it heads upwards as you move towards
the rear of the car. Great for styling (maybe), but hopeless for rear occupant
vision. People in the back are being increasingly trapped in a bleak world –
they can’t see forward because of the very tall front seats; can’t see sideways
because of the high window line. Get into the back of a typical 1960s car and
you’ll be just stunned as to how light, airy and simply nice it
And then there are the C-pillars. Some cars – a good example is the Astra
Coupe – have pillars so thick that rear three-quarter vision isn’t just lacking...
its damn-near non-existent. And all done just for styling....
Current Car Rating: 2/10
Criterion 2 - Performance
If you like driving a fast-accelerating car, you’ve never had it so good.
Pick up an old magazine – or drive an old car – and you’ll be amazed at how slow
old cars are. In 1969 a 5 litre V8 Holden wagon, regarded as a real speed machine,
did 0-60 mph (0-96 km/h) in 10.3 seconds. Also in 1969 a Datsun 260C (the
equivalent of a current Maxima) did 0-100 km/h in 14.9 seconds. Even cars
thought of at the time as fastish – Datsun 1600, BMW 2002 – are today nothing
special at all.
Select almost any era and any cars – today’s are without a doubt better
performing in acceleration, top speed and braking than ever before. (Whether
that’s actually hugely advantageous, I’ll come back to later.)
Current Car Rating: 10/10
Criterion 3 – Real Road Ride
With very few exceptions, current cars ride miserably. They pitch, they
bounce and they have lateral jerks. There’s been an incremental firming-up of
suspensions over the last three or four decades, a move that’s accelerated in
the last ten years.
But it’s not just been a stiffening of springs and dampers which has
occurred: car engineers have forgotten the fundamentals of good ride. Things
like the relationship between front and rear spring natural frequencies;
minimising pitch changes (humans dislike the sensation of pitching more than
vertical movement); keeping independent suspensions actually independent by
restrained use of anti-roll bars; and selecting a tyre profile that’s in keeping
with real world roads.
The mega-dollar luxury Audi A8 that we tested had a bloody awful ride – it
fell into holes and jerked sideways when a one-wheel depression was met. And
that’s a car with three-mode adaptive air suspension... Peugeots once had a
superbly long travel, well-damped ride but the 407 has lost most of that poise.
And this loss of ride quality has occurred despite cars now being much heavier
– and it’s easier to get a good ride with a heavy car than with a light
Current Car Rating: 3/10
Criterion 4 – Real Road Handling
Ah, but you’re saying. Sure, the ride’s gone downhill but what about the
handling? Well, what about it?
For starters, let’s get off the racetrack and onto the road. Roads haven’t
got hugely wider over the last few decades – but cars have. Even if you’re in a
current car with electronic stability control, independent multi-link rear
suspension and 19 inch wheels with wide and low profile tyres – even with all
that, you still have to stay in your lane! And doing that at speed is a
much bigger ask when you’re in a wide, long and heavy car.
This was brought home to me the other day. I was driving a VE Holden
Commodore SSV on a tight, winding, narrow back road of bitumen that plunges
through the hills of rural South Australia. The Commodore is car with those huge
tyres, big wheels, multi-link, etc, etc. The Commodore was quick – and felt it.
But just the week before I’d been driving the much smaller (pictured) Mitsubishi Ralliart
Colt – a car with less power and less outright grip. And the Colt was
nonchalantly doing the same speeds...
In fact, I’m pretty sure a 1960s Mini Cooper S would have been faster than
So when you’re thinking about handling, think about real roads you know,
roads where you can’t cut across the equivalent of three lanes the way that
magazine writers do when track testing road cars, where you need brakes and
precision and room.
But what about cars like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo and the Impreza WRX? Yes,
these cars – which combine relatively compact dimensions (especially in early
versions) with lots of power and lots of grip, really are an advance. But it’s
progress that gets whittled away each successive model as the cars grow and grow
Current Car Rating: 6/10. Honourable exceptions: Mitsubishi Lancer Evo and
Criterion 5 – Mass
Of all the criteria, this is the one where current cars score worst. Compared
with any cars that have come before, the models now available on the showroom
floor are mind-bogglingly heavy. Remember the Datsun 260C mentioned above? With
its iron-blocked engine, heavy air-con compressor, and Borg-Warner 3-speed auto,
hardly what you’d think of as a light weight car, is it? Well, it had a mass of
1400kg. The current Maxima weighs 1580kg.
A family Holden of 1963 – the pictured EH model – weighed 1154kg. Yep,
1154kg. The current Commodore weighs about 1800kg – over 50 per cent more. Sure,
the VE Commodore is a much bigger car – I call it huge – but the fact remains
that the car that was being sold as a family car (and in very large numbers,
too) weighed just 1150kg. Even an HQ Holden weighed only 1450kg.
And in those intervening years we’ve had weight-saving technology
improvements like the widespread use of aluminium, plastic and magnesium;
tailor-welded blanks (where metal thickness is optimised before panel stamping);
high strength boron steels; CAD design; composite materials – the list goes on
Car engineers will argue the weight is needed for structural safety – but
race and rally cars (surely, far safer in a crash) are lighter than the
road-going models they’re based on. Car engineers will also argue it’s the added
features – but airbags weigh little and, guys, you’re the ones who choose to put
in the stuff that weighs a lot and adds little to the package (like electric
Current Car Rating – 1/10
Criterion 6 – Fuel Consumption
Pick up an old magazine – or drive an old car – and you’ll be amazed at how
thirsty old cars were. That 1969 5 litre V8 Holden wagon had fuel consumption on
test of 16.5 litres/100km. The Datsun 260C used 20 litres/100km! Even a small
car like a Mazda 1200 still drank 7.6 litres/100km.
But then again, look at some current cars and you, too, can be amazed at how
thirsty they are. The SSV Commodore across that challenging piece of black-top
had a read-out of 21 litres/100km! Of course it will do much better than this
when being gently driven, but we can’t see how it could ever beat 12
litres/100km in any normal use. The Astra Turbo we recently drove was sitting
around 13.5 litres/100km when being confined to city use in hot weather with the
air-con running continuously.
But without a doubt, many of today’s diesels, petrol-electric hybrids and
well engineered small petrol engine cars deliver stunning fuel economy. The
Honda Civic gets 7 litres/100km, the Prius 5.5 litres/100km and small economy
cars somewhere in between. The large, seven seater diesel Hyundai Santa Fe can
easily get 8 litres/100 in normal driving – and far less on a long highway
So what rating to give current cars? It depends on the new car you select –
and that’s a good thing. So....
Current Car Rating – 8/10
Criterion 6 – Safety
In both primary and secondary safety, current cars are far better than those
that have come before. That said, you need only visit a wrecking yard to see
that touted panaceas like airbags are of little use if the car collides with an
unmoving object at 100 km/h – in some cars, the steering wheel ends up past the
B-pillar... But in their ability to avoid accidents and their competency in
protecting the occupants, cars of even a decade ago are demonstrably inferior to
today’s cars. Cars of 30 or 40 years ago are simply vastly less safe.
Current Car Rating – 10/10
Current cars are far safer, are typically more frugal on fuel and have better
performance. (And they also have much less harmful exhaust and evaporative
emissions.) Whether they handle better on real roads depends on their size, but
on a direct comparison basis (eg same size cars) current cars are clearly
But they’re also heavier, have poorer vision and ride worse than old cars.
I know that this is primarily a performance car publication, but I think that
the development focus on performance and handling is weird when the vast
majority of car buyers use little of both. (Put a typical new car buyer into a
car and take them for a ride on real roads, using all the braking, handling and
performance a current car has to offer. You’ll find they want to get out in a
bloody hurry!) In fact, think of this: to even attempt to use all the power,
handling and brakes of a current car will result in police attention – you would
be said to be driving dangerously.
So everyone’s paying for it when few people want it and even fewer people use
Of course, for the enthusiast drivers who want as much handling, power and
brakes as possible – fine. But to build a humble family sedan with an
engineering focus to out-handle, out-brake and out-perform the sports car of
yesterday seems to me strange. How many typical car buyers list handling or
resistance to brake fade as priorities? On the other hand, put a family into the
airy, open and spacious car of the 1960s and then into the high waistline, dark
and dingy car of today and see which one they prefer!
Here in Australia, a country that has manufacturing plants for GM Holden,
Ford, Mitsubishi and Toyota, to me the evidence is in. All four companies are
manufacturing large, heavy, powerful, good handling, well braked family cars.
All but one model uses either six or eight cylinder petrol engines; all have
what can only be described as huge power outputs. (The exception is Toyota who
also makes the four cylinder Camry.)
Last year, Australian sales of this type of large new car fell considerably.
Now those local manufacturers are seeking increased government funding to help
retain their manufacturing plants in this country.
If you examine these cars – the Commodore, Aurion, Falcon and 380 – in
isolation, they are brilliant cars. In fact, it’s true to suggest that in terms
of sheet metal and kilowatts, they are incredible bargains. But if you examine
them with the criteria outlined in this story, they are mediocre.
And obviously I am not alone in that belief...