01-11-10 - Transport and Consequences

One of the things that struck me in Thailand was the way transportation culture can so strongly affect all aspects of life.

In the US we're completely defined by car culture. As much as people love to talk about walkability and urban reclamation and so on, our cities are built around cars, our lifestyles are designed around cars; if you can manage to function without a car in the US, you're still living in car culture. What that means is everything is very spread apart, the streets are wide for our huge cars, there aren't lots of little markets and shops everywhere that provide for your basic needs near your home - you might have to commute miles to get to a big box to just buy something like a broom. Any place where lots of people come together has to have tons of parking, which takes up lots of space and creates separation.

Thailand is very much in "scooter culture". That means the roads can be narrow and windy, scooters integrate better with bikes and pedestrians, and perhaps most importantly - you don't need a ton of parking. This struck me powerfully when we in Trang with this crazy hotel room that was all glass and stuck out right over the night market : here were hundreds of people shopping in a super dense market, and there's no parking lot. Just a row of scooters along the street. In the US, the closest equivalent is a shopping mall, which requires a huge parking lot and is thus isolated and separated from the heart of the city.

On a related note, I have a rental car now since my car was totalled and I haven't bought a new one yet. I got a Nissan Versa :


It's pretty fucking great. I've never driven one of these new style hatches before that are like a big bubble construction. It feels like the car is 99% interior empty space with just a tiny shell around it. It's incredibly roomy inside - it has more room inside than a BMW 3 series for example. I also love the feeling that there's basically no hood sticking out and even no door thickness around me, it means I can swerve it around and through tiny holes and have a really good intuition for where the car is (the wheels are way out at the edges of the body and the wheelbase is quite short).

It also feels pretty peppy, presumably because it's nice and light (much better than the Toyota Avalon I had before for example). In fact the only thing that really bugs me about it is the automatic transmission, which seems to always be upshifting right when I want power. (automatic transmissions are just balls; I know the new fancy 7 & 8 speed dual-clutch automatics in german cars are not bad, but even then I can feel them cause weird blips in power response at unexpected moments which I fucking despise; down with all automatic systems!).

The thing that really strikes me about the Versa (and all these similar light bubbles, like the Honda Fit) is just how awesome they could be if our roads weren't full of giant trucks and SUVs and such. If all our cars had top speeds of like 80 mph and all were small light cars like this, they could have a lot less crash protection, be lighter, maybe even be made of carbon fiber. The result would be a very roomy, tiny car that weighed maybe 1500 pounds, had a 1L or smaller engine, and got 50+ mpg and cost under $10k, and yet were roomy and peppy and fun to drive. (I guess in Europe you have things like the Renault Twingo that are pretty close to this).

It raises the question : why would you buy anything else? (other than a little bubble car). So far as I can tell the only reason is vanity (or, you know, if you enjoy cars and it's an indulgence). If you are a straight man in america who drives a little hatch, you will mocked by little girls and laughed at by your momma. Some people are in denial : "There's just something cool about driving a fast hatchback" . No, no, there's nothing cool about a fast hatchback. Unless you're female, gay, asian, or a chav, you can't drive a hatchback without shame.

Say for example you're comparing a Honda Civic vs. a Honda Fit. The Fit has much more interior room, and yet is smaller and lighter. The big draw of the Civic over the Fit is just that your friends won't laugh at you when you pull up in it (yeah and it's a bit more powerful).

This rental car is also only $150/week which is amazingly low. That's only $7800 a year. That seems like a lot for a car for a year, but it includes all registration, maintenance, repairs, and also time cost of having to deal with buying and servicing a car that you own.

There's a weird thing that happens with a car as cheap as the Versa. If you get a Versa for $10k or even $15k , depreciation cost is only about $1-$2k a year. That's way less than the cost to run it (insurance, gas, service, etc.). I love the autos.yahoo "total price" feature; if you look at the Versa total price , depreciation is only about 25% of cost , while for luxury cars like the BMW 5 series it's more like 40%


Sly said...

""" It feels like the car is 99% interior empty space with just a tiny shell around it. [...] I guess in Europe you have things like the Renault Twingo that are pretty close to this"""

Yes Twingo is a much smaller and early version of that ; it could actually be the first car like this.
Now many subcompact (Clio, 207, Yaris, Golf...) and compact (M├ęgane, 307, Yaris sedan) cars share this concept: as big interior as possible given the small outside.

The other thing I like about my mother's Twingo: looking outside is incredibly easy and comprehensive all around the car. In my A4 it's quite hard to look behind, given the relatively small windows and the big seats.

Good thing also in the Twingo: there's no rev counter. That's "good" because that way, no-one is afraid of pushing hard in the engine: 1) it's required given how underpowered it is (and it's actually quite funny to do), and 2) the engine will gladly support it for short periods, given the prehistorical & simple technology.

cbloom said...

"looking outside is incredibly easy and comprehensive all around the car"

Oh yeah, that's a good point. The vast majority of cars seem to be moving comically towards terrible visibility on purpose. BMW and Mercedes do these swept up curving side panels which seem to serve no purpose other than to block visibility. Lots of people have laughably tiny rear windows now - so bad they feel compelled to give you rear cameras (Audi S5 for example). And some are just impossible to see out of all around (370Z).

Opposite from all that, these new small bubble cars are like a world of glass. It feels great.

I think most car designers have lost the way. Functionally, the ideal car is four wheels with a big glass bubble that is 100% passenger space and goes just barely past the wheels. Any deviation from that should be as small as possible and only as necessary for function.

Tom Forsyth said...

In Europe, the Golf is not a small car. VW have not one but TWO cars smaller than it - the Polo and the Lupo/Fox.

Sly said...

True, Golf is the same size as the Meg and 307. My bad.
And the Golf SW and Jetta are even longer :)

Aaron said...

I've been kinda pining for a Fit to replace my 01 Civic (in my dream-land where I actually have the dough to buy a car (even a fit, which is pretty pricey). There are two things that drive me away from a Fit though, one real and one psychological. The real: the suspension is supposedly ridiculous harsh. Ok I said real but I've never been in one, but I read it's harsher than a civic, and the civic is fucking INSANE. I have to go like 2mph over speed bumps, or I gotta go to the dentist to get it fixed. For anything other than city commuting, the civic is bollocks and I'm afraid the Fit would be worse. The psychological. While the Fit looks totally great and practical from behind the wheel of a civic, from behind the wheel of the Odyssey, it looks like a deathtrap. And the Odyssey is pretty mild in ride height and center of mass compared to all these SUV fuckwits out there and people driving suburbans to work. Somehow a civic doesn't look as bad. It might be just wheel-size or something, I dunno. But something about the Fit (and the like) from the seat of the Odyssey screams (omg omg you're gonna DIE in that thing). On paper the Fit is probably just as safe as my Civic though, so like I said a psychological problem. The Fit sport model would probably be the perfect car for me, since we have the Odyssey for any long trips (that thing is worth ever red cent on the highway oh my fricking god, it's the difference between coach and first class. It's a damn rocket-bus), and I'm used to arriving at work all jangled by the bumps in the road and pissed off at all the other people driving bigs vehicles.

Aaron said...

The 2010 (and maybe 09 too?) Fits actually improved visually quite a bit. With Honda's there really is a sweet spot in every model run where they get the visuals right, and for Fit's it is RIGHT NOW. They made the headlight and tail-light plastic bigger or something, and somehow made it look more squat and sturdy.

NeARAZ said...

I've a Honda Jazz (same as Fit in US) and it's awesome from all practical points. Car itself is very small, but there's ton of room inside. Yes, it's not a sports car, but I don't need a sports car. I'm not sure if I get ridiculed for having a Jazz, but I guess in Europe people are not that crazy for large cars anyway.

old rants