The Virtues of Small Cars

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m wondering how much longer it will be before small cars became chic again. They were popular in the 1970s but only because gas cost so much. The current high cost of gasoline is now making many reconsider their love affair with their SUVs and consider the merits of smaller cars and hybrids. Perhaps in the process Americans will discover that small can be beautiful.

Why do I love small cars? I should first qualify what I mean by a small car. To me any compact or subcompact qualifies as a small car. I currently own a Honda Civic Hybrid, which would be considered a compact car. It’s a lovely car, and not just because it is friendlier to the environment than most cars. It is also a pleasure to drive. I buy new cars so rarely that every time I purchase one I realize what quantum leaps car technologies are being realized in just five to ten years. My Honda Civic may be a compact car but it is a pleasure to drive. It is amazingly quiet. When the engine is idling you have to listen carefully to hear it. Even at full throttle it is a hum, not a roar. This quietness comes despite an engine placed very close to the driver. It accelerates very briskly even though it has only four cylinders. (I assume this is because of the assist it gets from the battery.) It handles very well. I have yet to feel unconfident or not in control when I drive it, even when I need to come to a sudden stop. It lacks the hatchback feature of its non-hybrid cousin but otherwise it is as roomy as any compact car I’ve driven and roomier than most. In short it feels about as close to perfected engineering as a small car is likely to get.

Of course being a compact car it is not meant to haul much of anything. It’s really a commuter car. And that’s fine. That’s exactly what I need. I don’t know what your driving is like but I suspect you spend more time in traffic doing stop and go than cruising at high speeds on the freeway. Compact cars make excellent commuter cars and mine excels at it. There are times when I feel like I need a big car to haul something. But then I think again about it. Do I really need some huge honking SUV for the couple times a year I might want to move something large like a sofa? Is it really worth $15,000 more in price and hundreds of dollars a year more in gasoline for something that I need a couple times a year? To me it isn’t. That’s why I pay $30 or so to get the item delivered. And I’ve noticed stores like Loews and Home Depot offer trucks for rent by the hour. When I need a truck I can rent one very conveniently and inexpensively.

It is true that an SUV can probably get through snow better than my small car. I don’t have four-wheel drive, but I do have front wheel drive. It is pretty unusual to have any snowstorm in Northern Virginia that requires a four-wheel drive car. So I just don’t think this feature is something worth paying for. And if I did perhaps I would consider a compact Suburu wagon.

I personally like the way a small car hugs the pavement. Unlike the SUV owner, I don’t spend much time worrying about whether my car will rollover in an accident. For some people it might be a bit awkward to get into the car that is low to the ground. But I don’t find it an issue. I slide in smoothly.

Unlike many of my bigger car brethren, my car slips through the atmosphere. I don’t create much drag because there is not much surface area for it to be much of a problem. I don’t usually hear or feel the wind.

Parking is never a problem with a small car. I watch SUV drivers creep into parking spaces, always careful not to be scraping the car next to them. Even if the SUV next to me in the parking lot is encroaching on my space, it’s still not a problem. I can get in and out with relative ease.

A smaller car is easier to access and maintain. I don’t require a stepladder to get the snow off my roof. Pity the fool with a Ford Expedition after a snowstorm. Since my compact car has less surface area it is easier and faster to wash and wax. Vacuuming it is quick. With four cylinders instead of eight, maintenance is markedly less expensive. A complete tune up can be done for a few hundred bucks. That everything is smaller usually means parts are less costly to replace. I bet the muffler on my car is at least $40 less than the muffler on an SUV.

I clearly don’t get the allure of an SUV. To me big is not better. Big is more hassle. They cost more money to buy and more money to maintain. You can buy two of my tires for the price of one of their behemoth’s. Me: I like quick. I like stealthy. I like being ubiquitous on the road. You can have none of these in an SUV.

And call me a militant environmental, but I like leaving a small footprint on this planet. My life is finite. I don’t feel I own anything. Instead, I feel like I need to be a steward of the planet so that those who come after me will be able to enjoy its natural wonders too. I suspect that despite my best efforts, and due to the many others who don’t seem to care about the consequences of their lifestyle choices that we will leave a pretty toxic environment for our children. But I’d like to be able to at least hold my head up high and said I did my part. I would hope that others would notice. Perhaps with gas prices so high large car owners will finally see the virtues in driving small again. Most will do so grudgingly for purely economic reasons. But perhaps in time they will discover the joys of small cars too.