cool carMy wife’s car is 13 years old now, and (thanks to her long commute) beginning to fall apart; so she has begun that old American pastime, the search for a new car.  And as I watch her process (and remember the processes I went through so many times), I’m reminded of how little the auto industry has actually progressed in the past decades… not to mention, how little American auto buyers have learned.

Let’s start by going back to the 1970s, when Americans experienced their first gas crunch since the world was at war.  At the time, mostly-Asian car companies were coming to America for the first time, to push their high-mileage cars.  But while Japan tried to sell us on thriftiness, Detroit had decided that it would be better to sell Americans on faux-luxury to obscure the fact that their vehicles got lousy gas mileage.  They invented the SUV, basically low-mileage-low-value trucks with leather seats and fake wood trim, and Americans—being the shrewd people they are—gobbled them up.

My family, showing a bit more common sense than that, bought a Datsun 200SX, a Japanese car that got a shade over 40mpg highway, and above-35 city.  I repeat: This was in the seventies.  At the same time, the government was encouraging automakers to experiment with new car designs, including electric powered vehicles.  A number of electric prototypes, by everything from mom-and-pop shops to Detroit’s biggest companies, could be seen on display, and even test-driven, at environmentally-themed events like Earth Day; and I specifically remember thinking that, if they have these prototypes out now, at the end of the seventies… by 2000, there will be electric cars everywhere for me to buy.

Years later my Mother, deciding she was ready to buy a new car, sold the Datsun to me so I’d have something other than a motorcycle to get around in.  The Datsun lasted until 2000, when it was finally starting to shed more pieces than I could afford to bolt back on; at which point, it was time for me to find another car.

I’d remembered the fact that I’d expected electric cars to be everywhere by 2000, and sadly reflected on how wrong that notion had turned out to be.  In fact, at the time there was exactly one hybrid vehicle, on the market, the Honda Insight, and the Prius was still a gleam in Toyota’s eyes.  The Insight was so tiny and anemic, with a ridiculous price tag for what you got, that I couldn’t see buying it for any good reason.

Hyundai Tiburon
Hyundai Tiburon

But it got worse.  I decided on the Hyundai Tiburon, a pretty little number with Mach 5 curves and sexy spot lights, from a company offering the first in the business 10-year-100,000 mile warranty, and at a good price.  Where I turned out to be disappointed was in the gas mileage: About 34 city, 38 highway.

Wait.  I was trading in an over-20-year-old car that got better mileage than that when it was sold.  In the seventiesWhat in Odin’s snow-white beard had the world’s automakers been doing over the past 25 years, picking their noses?

Well, I bought the Tiburon.  And I managed to keep the mileage down on it by the simple expedient of not driving it to work.  That kept the car happily on the road for 14 years, until a thoroughly asinine teenager with more phone-savvy than sense hit the car on the highway, and put it on the rapid road to replace-something-else-every-month-obsolescence.  It was time for another vehicle.

By 2012 (wonder of wonders) there were two electric vehicles now available for regular consumers.  I reiterate: almost 40 years after I’d seen almost a dozen prototype electric vehicles on display, I now had a grand total of two to choose from.  Well, one came from General Motors, the company that brought us such wonderfully environmentally-conscious vehicles as the Hummer and the Suburban… in fact, I considered GM the leader and flag-bearer of the SUV craze, so I’d’ve rather slit my wrists, starting at the ankles, than buy a vehicle of theirs.

(Imagine my sheer joy, then, when in 2001 my wife decided to buy a Chevy.  Well, she had a GM card that basically got her the car at an almost $6,000 discount.  So I bit my lip and tried not to cry too much.  But anyway.)

Toyota Prius C
Toyota Prius C

The other two, made by Mitsubishi and Nissan, were possible but pricey, and electric stations aren’t exactly dotting the countryside yet, leading me to decide that a hybrid was a better choice.  Fortunately, in 2012 the Prius had expanded into a 4-car line, and other makers had hybrid vehicles out.  I bought the smallest Prius, the Model C, which gets over 50mpg highway and 45 city.  Okay, no champagne corks popping, but not bad.

So, now it’s 2014.  My wife, still saddled with a killer commute, is looking at cars.  She likes sporty cars.  But when I look at the sporty cars she’s picking, I’m seeing mileage figures in the 30s.  The mid-30s.

I’m sorry, but there’s not that much snot in the entire mammalian world’s noses to pick for 40 years.  There has been absolutely no effort to make cars more gas-efficient, and that fact has been hidden behind the smokescreen created by accessory-mania… a smokescreen Americans see as that cool cinematic fog that dramatic stuff rolls out of.

It seems like I’m the only one in this country to even notice the incredible, mind-boggling, sanity-crushing FAIL perpetrated by the auto industry these past 40 years.  It would be one thing if cars had developed some other notable capability to compensate for almost a half-century of NO gas mileage improvement (and even mileage backsliding).  But there has been nothing.  Nothing the modern car can do that it wasn’t doing 40 years ago.

And nobody cares!  They are so enamored with cars that parallel park better than they do, or that play Sponge Bob DVDs for the kids in the back seat, that they fail to see that they’re still fighting through traffic, getting oil changes and replacing mufflers, changing radio stations, and paying for the same gas their grandfathers bought for their cars.  We’ve bought into the bread and circuses.  We have allowed the American automakers to fail, and to bring down an entire city with it; Detroit’s collapse is directly the fault of shortsighted, greedy planning on the part of GM, Ford and Chrysler, coupled with the American people’s refusal to demand more of them than burled walnut and USB ports.

All of this goes through my mind, every time my wife mentions her car search (needless to say, I’m not always much of a help to her in this particular task).  I’m so frustrated by memories of what we should have to choose from in 2014, compared to what we actually have, that it’s painful.  And depressing.

No: Despairing.  A country in a 40-year-long technological malaise, symbolized not by America’s failure to return to the Moon, but by its failure to continue innovating in its largest national industry.  The American auto industry represents all of America’s FAILURE to move past the era of Archie Bunker… to leave the 20th century behind and lead the world into the 21st.  The definitive end of the chapter in American history that opened upon Henry Ford’s first factory.

I actually don’t have an ending for this post… because I have no idea how it’s going to end.  Will she buy a car for its Corinthian leather?  Will she buy a car with tons of features but lousy mileage?  Will she buy a thrifty box?  Will she buy a Miata?  Will she buy an Explorer?  I don’t know; and frankly, I’m a little afraid to find out.