The New York International Auto Show is happening this week, and one thing struck me as I was wandering around the Jacob Javits Center looking at alll the models (The CAR models, not the "models" models.) Cars are getting bigger by the minute. Who do we have to thank for that? Well, it's partly the EPA.
I listened to every single press conference during the week, and at about 11 out of 19, some corporate drone said exactly the same things: "2014 was our best year ever," and "For 2016, the all-new Bladdersling Zazzafritz WTF is longer and wider."
Of course, we're all getting longer and wider, too, so auto manufacturers seem to be taking the complete opposite tack from airline seat manufacturers, who seem to want to cram us into a space previously reserved for children and waif models. Cars, trucks and SUVs are all widening and lenghtening to allow more generous interior proportions. As cars get bigger, shoulder room increases, and so does rear legroom.
But as designers and engineers add room inside, it means that vehicles get larger on the outside, too. The 2016 Kia Optima stretched its wheelbase a half an inch, while the overall width grew by an inch. That doesn't seem like much, but in the last 10 years, the Kia Optima has grown 2.5 inches in wheelbase, almost two inches in width and almost four inches in overall length.
Still relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but take a look at a car like the Toyota RAV4. Toyota showed the all-new hybrid version at this year's New York Auto Show, which is a great thing for fuel economy. Its overall size isn't, though. When the Toyota RAV4 five-door arrived here in 1994, it had a 94.9-inch wheelbase, was 163.4 inches long, was 66.7 inches wide and weighed 2,601 pounds. There weren't any specs yet for the RAV4 Hybrid that Toyota showed in New York, but the non-hybrid RAV4 has added 10 inches to its wheelbase, 16.5 inches to its overall length, 5.9 inches in width and 949 pounds.
According to the press release, the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid will offer "Small SUV Utility Plus Hybrid MPG."
There's nothing small about the RAV4. It's two inches wider than the 1994 Ford Explorer, and only about four and a half inches shorter.
Toyota mentioned fuel economy a few times in the press release, but didn't put any hard numbers with it. If you use the similarly sized Lexus NX 300h as a guide, though, the estimated fuel economy comes in at 30 mpg on the highway. The 1996 Toyota RAV4 got 24 miles per gallon on the highway. Seems like that fuel economy number might have gone up a bit had the NX 300h not tipped the scales at more than 4,000 pounds.
"Compact" SUVs have gotten so enormous that a whole new class of vehicles have come in to take the place of those vehicles' original dimensions. Ultra-compact SUVs like the Jeep Renegade, the Honda HRV and the Mazda CX-3 have arrived with dimensions that are nearly identical to those of the Toyota RAV4 and the Honda CR-V when they first arrived here.
Two all-new American luxury cars made debuts in New York, too. The Lincoln Continental is just a concept for now, but its dimensions look as big as anything Lincoln produced in the early 1970s. The Cadillac CT6 full-size luxury car debuted, too. It rides on a wheelbase 10 inches longer than the Cadillac XTS it replaces. It's two inches longer, and almost two inches wider, too.
The good news? It weighs less. A lot less. The CT6 will have a curb weight "less than 3700 pounds," which is about the weight of a current Cadillac CTS. The outgoing XTS weighed in around 300 pounds more.
More good news comes in fuel economy numbers, which are generally on the rise. The Nissan Maxima, for example, is (sensing a theme here?) longer and wider, but also gets a 15 percent increase in fuel economy.
So the question is, if manufacturers need to hit a 54.5 mile per gallon corporate average fuel economy by 2025, why wouldn't cars be shrinking instead of getting bigger in 2016?
The answer is in how the government measures those cars, and how it impacts the fuel economy target. In order to keep small car manufacturers and large car manufacturers on something of an equal footing, the EPA measures the car's overall footprint in square feet and slides the scale for bigger cars. Footprint is measured by multiplying wheelbase by tread width. Cars with more wheelbase and more tread width have a lower fuel economy threshold.