Another Car Rant: Rear Visibility
I don't know if my audience is tired of my various car rants, but this New York Times review of the new Cadillac station wagon made me go, "Ugh... car designers are still that stupid, eh?"
Incidentally, for previous rant examples, see this, this, or this.
First, the article goes into the logic of station wagons--I know that they are a fine idea as a practical cargo-carrying passenger vehicle, after almost 15 years of driving a 1992 Subaru Legacy wagon.
For most of us, the classic American station wagon — with its acres of fake woodgrain siding, sticky vinyl bench seats and lazy-revving V-8 engine — is a fixture of our collective automotive consciousness. It is also extinct. The gas crises of the ’70s hobbled it, the minivans of the ’80s dealt a knockout blow and the S.U.V.’s that followed stomped on its grave.
On the Continent [Europe], station wagons never were the wallowing land arks we knew, so today’s European car buyers aren’t scarred by that memory. And with Europe’s sky-high gas prices and narrow streets, S.U.V.’s make even less sense there than they do here, so Europeans who are engaged in all those much-talked-about “active lifestyle” pursuits — or who just need to carry a lot of stuff — often drive station wagons.
But the portion that actually set me off was this triumph of style and design over usefulness and safety:
“There’s a stigma of what a wagon is and I think what we were trying to do is something that was not a traditionally defined wagon,” said Clay Dean, Cadillac’s chief designer, who is also executive director for G.M. global advanced design. “The D-pillar is thicker than you would normally do; normally you’d thin that thing up as much as you can for visibility, but it was a conscious choice — we were trying to convey a sense of dynamics and sportiness and masculinity.”
From the driver’s seat, the low priority given to visibility is painfully evident, as the chunky pillars have a tendency to make cars in the adjacent lane disappear. Before changing lanes, precise adjustments of the side mirrors are advised, along with over-the-shoulder glances.
Terminology: D-pillar = pillar between rear window and rearmost side window. Pillars are lettered from front to rear: A-pillar is the one between your front windscreen and driver/passenger window.
F'ing morons. This is analogous to an interesting point brought up in Malcolm Gladwell's 2004 New Yorker article on how SUVs became what they are. He interviews G. Clotaire Rapaille, a French-born cultural anthropologist whose speciality is getting beyond the rational—what he calls "cortex"—impressions of consumers and tapping into their deeper, "reptilian" responses. He notes:
During the design of Chrysler's PT Cruiser, one of the things Rapaille learned was that car buyers felt unsafe when they thought that an outsider could easily see inside their vehicles. So Chrysler made the back window of the PT Cruiser smaller. Of course, making windows smaller—and thereby reducing visibility—-makes driving more dangerous, not less so. But that's the puzzle of what has happened to the automobile world: feeling safe has become more important than actually being safe.
Grr. Once again, f'ing morons. I am extremely happy with the "glass house" effect I have with my Subaru wagon--loads of visibility in all directions. I suppose I care about people looking into my car, say, when I need to sleep in it overnight. But that has happened all of one time.
As a final note, another entertaining auto-industry related snippet, from AP newswires, about the 2011 Buick Regal, which will be built in an Oshawa, Ontario plant:
The Regal, based on the Opel Insignia, is a key product for the brand, which has an average buyer age of 70 and is trying to attract buyers in their 40s and 50s.
Oh god... average age of 70? That's absolutely terrifying... and a clear sign that your brand is about to die out. What--free box of Depends(tm) with your Buick purchase?