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Originally posted January 6th 2012

Relevant to what Ranger M posted today: http://rangerm.wordpress.com/2014/07/14/slow-and-steady/

Consider the speedometers in my two VWs. In my Passat, a good highway cruising speed put the needle just shy of the 12 o’clock position on the dial, less than halfway around. I noticed in my Jetta that 72mph now falls significantly further along the dial’s face, closer to 2 o’clock position. I wonder if it is a deliberate design. They added in every 10 mph increment up to 80 and then reverted back to every 20 after that, so it’s not even a consistent design – something that traditionally, stereotypically, would have driven a German engineer a little batty – and so it smacks of marketing’s dark influence.

Have studies shown that drivers are happier when they feel they are getting more out of their car? Does having the needle sweep past the halfway mark on the speedo impact drivers subconsciously in some way? It took me a solid week to figure out why I felt I was driving faster on the highway, I didn’t notice until I drove the Passat recently. It’s such a subtle change. I’d be tempted to write it off as nothing more than a new speedo design if it weren’t for everything we know about how products are designed and marketed these days.

And that makes me wonder about the sustainability of our current car culture. When I bought my Passat in 2000 it was classified as a mid-sized car. It has a 1.8L 4-cylinder turbo charged engine that was officially rated at 150hp, though there were a lot of rumors that VW had quietly upped the horsepower to closer to180, slightly stepping on the toes of their stable mate’s Audi A4. In typical German fashion, VW’s engineers described the horsepower as “adequate”.

I can assure you the car has more than enough horsepower to rapidly put me over the speed limit even on the highway and still returned 32 mpg over its lifetime. It put those figures up as I averaged 72mph on the highway winter or summer. I suspect it would have been much closer to 40mpg had I been able to average 55mph without creating a risk to myself and others.

The 2012 Jetta Sportswagon I just purchased is considered a small car. I compared its measurements against the Passat when I was shopping, not being sure if I was comfortable with a small car. It turns out that they are nearly identical in size, with the Passat having a 5 in longer wheelbase and total overall length. In nearly all other interior and exterior measurements the Jetta is larger. So my 2012 “small” car is equivalent to its midsize cousin from 2000.

This suggests that the 2012 Passat must be larger and a quick review of the specs shows that it is. The wheelbase grew 4 inches and total length grew 6.5 inches from 2000. Most other interior or exterior dimensions either remained the same or grew. Horsepower is up, of course, being a key marketing factor even as many people now search for higher miles per gallon.

Today’s Passat has a 2.5L 5-cylinder engine rated at 170hp and is predicted to get exactly the same MPG as my 2000 Passat. What if they had just kept the same base engine and found ways to make it more efficient? Couldn’t that extra 20hp (again, assuming it’s underreported to spare Audi from cannibalized sales) have been sacrificed for better MPG? Our current model of building and selling cars is unsustainable. The models grow in all respects year to year, eating away at what could be significant leaps forward in MPG improvements, in order to sell the consumer on the new, improved, and bigger aspects.

Most of the family sedans today are packing more horsepower than the legitimate sports cars of my youth. Yet, there are no roadways where that horsepower can be safely applied. For example, my colleague’s G37 Infiniti sedan has 328hp. That car would probably be overpowered for most drivers at around 228hp, so those 100 extra horse just eat up extra gas. It’s good to see some companies pushing 40+MPG as their chief marketing aim, but we could have been there a decade ago.

As an aside, a special thanks to Jon for pointing out to me years and years ago that I was riding the clutch in my car. That 162,000 miles you see on the odometer are all on the original clutch.