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Automotive De-Evolution: 5 Ways Today’s Cars Aren’t Equal To Yesterday’s

Posted in auto industry, Car Buying, Car Tech, Design, Electronics, FAIL, General, History, Lists, Materials, Science, trends by Kurt Ernst | May 19th, 2010 | 17 Responses |

The author, with his first ride.

As an automotive writer, I get to drive a lot of different cars. Some are innovative, well built and deserving of praise; others, not so much. Over the past ten years there seems to be a trend of adding technology for technology’s sake, not because it improves the vehicle or enhances the driving experience. Sometimes, we have to take a step back and admit that what we thought was progress (Flooze, HD DVD, Sony Betamax), really turned out to be a step backwards.

When it comes to cars, here are my top five examples of how cars are de-evolving. If something works, stick with it, because change isn’t always for the better:

The death of cloth seats.

It's not faux leather - IT'S FRIGGING PLASTIC!!

Maybe I’m nuts, but I much prefer cloth seats over leather, and just a few years back nearly every manufacturer had decent cloth seats as an option. Leather is hot in the summer, cold in the winter (until the seat heaters warm up), a pain in the ass to properly maintain and uncomfortable on bare skin. Pleather, or any other name for vinyl, is even worse. In fact, it was the leather-or-vinyl option that kept me from buying a second VW Passat back in 2006. If you can make cloth seats for your EU customers, why not include them on US models? If the cloth is nice enough, I’d even pay a premium for it over the cowskin-from-a-test-tube shit currently offered.

CVT transmissions.

The only good CVT is a dead CVT...

Want to make the world a better place? Gather every CVT transmission that’s ever been built, put ‘em on a boat, tow it to the middle of the Atlantic and then sink the boat. Yes, I know about all of the theoretical advantages that a CVT offers, but in ten years I’ve yet to drive a single example that felt like it was working properly. Every single CVT I’ve ever driven feels like a slipping automatic transmission or a manual transmission with a burned-out clutch. They don’t make smooth, linear power, they don’t maintain the motor at peak torque and they aren’t more pleasant to drive. In fact, I probably use more gas with a CVT since I have to rev the living snot out of them to make anything that approximates forward motion. I’ll make this pledge right now: I’ll take the bus before I’ll ever consider buying a vehicle with a CVT.

Hybrid nav / entertainment / information systems.

Give me back my radio, dammit!

Maybe I’m a dinosaur, but I like a radio with control knobs and buttons. I don’t want to access a touch screen to change a radio station, I want to press a button. Likewise, I don’t want to scroll through 37 screens to kick up the bass a bit. And nav systems built into cars? That’s so 2000: these days, everyone has a GPS-enabled smart phone with an intuitive nav system that actually has current and useful maps. Why am I going to spend ten minutes programming a GPS system for an address I can drive to in five? Kill these systems and give me back a place to put my iPhone.

The death of the manual transmission.

This is NOT how you shift a transmission.

Manual transmission offerings are declining faster than BP’s popularity at an EarthFirst! convention. I don’t care home much faster a computer can execute a gear change; when it comes to sports cars, I want to row the gears myself. I’ve spent a lot of time learning to rev-match on a downshift, and I enjoy the feel of the shifter going smoothly from gate to gate. I’m not fond of executing a shift via computer, because there’s no sense of accomplishment and no way to take pride in your driving ability. Of course the damn computer is going to get the shift right – where’s the fun in that? And manufacturers, if you’re going to turn us all into mouth-breathing, slushbox-driving-lemmings, at least standardize how paddle shifters and shiftable automatics work. I”m tired of having to learn a new system every time I get behind the wheel.

Water based paints.

Cheese rind, far more durable than today's auto paints.

Yes, I know they’re better for the environment and I know they reduce harmful VOCs. They also suck monkey ass when you compare them to old fashioned lacquers and enamels. Take my Acura TSX, for example: it’s a great (but soul-less) car except when it comes to sheet metal and paint. If you sneeze around the car, you’ll dent the door or the hood, and the paint has the durability of hardened cheese rind. The TSX is the only car I’ve ever owned that can get stone chips in the driveway. I don’t mean to single out Acura, since they build fine automobiles, but there has to be a way for manufacturers to provide quality paintwork without punching a hole in the ozone layer or killing off spotted owls. If you can figure out how to simulate leather out of a test tube, then I’m pretty sure you can give me better quality paint.

I could rant on about other things (like throttle by wire and event data recorders), but I’ll cut myself off before I sound like Andy Rooney from 60 Minutes. Let’s hear it, RideLust readers – am I on to something here or do you disagree? What are your top five examples of automotive de-evolution?

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17 Responses

  1. Nephilim says:

    Absolutely spot on. I couldn’t agree more with every point you made.

  2. dodahman says:

    Leather is waaaaay nicer than cloth. Have you ever tried to get curdled milk baby puke out of cloth seats? Or melted chocolate? I’ll keep my leather, thank you. Just don’t put those tiny little holes in it. (milk puke won’t come out of those either)

  3. PColalos says:

    Ditto on bringing back cloth that doesn’t look like mouse fur.

  4. realcrown says:

    You have a good point about cloth seats
    Leather and pleather bring alot more problems

  5. inthebuff says:

    I’ve got leather in two. Cloth in one. The cloth is more comfortable. Maybe the cloth is less durable and subject to spills. So when I got the car I got a bunch of scotch guard and treated the seats.

    Neither of the other cars have heated or AC’d seats. So, literally it can be a pain in the a$$.

    I also agree on the manual transmission. I so wanted the T-bird to have one, but it didn’t.

    I hate the brake assist system. I’ve driven in all kids of conditions and I think this another devolving thing.

    Hard drives in cars is the lastest techno advance and it comes at a time when people are so distracted with their cellphones, nav systems, radio/DVDs, mascara applying, coffee drinking, etc. etc. We need one more thing to distract us, don’t we? Why not put a wet bar in the glove boxes, couple that with a couple of big fatties and/or a bag of goodies and let Darwinism take over.

  6. Linerd says:

    I’m right there with ya on the radio. Please just give me a radio that is the old standard size that I can replace with whatever I want without tearing out the whole center stack.

    I say we outlaw automatic transmissions and power steering. That ought to get folks to put down their phones.

  7. Kurt says:

    Linerd, that’s brilliant. Run for office and you’ve got my vote!

  8. Trystan says:

    My 2000 Honda Civic Hx has a CVT and it accelerates great and it gets wonderful gas milage. I agree with the statement about manual transmissions but CVTs work great if programed properly from the manufacturer.

  9. Kurt says:

    Trystan, no disrespect meant, but is the Honda your first car? If a CVT is what you’re used to, I’m sure they feel fine. The Lexus HS 250h I just reviewed had the best CVT I’ve ever experienced, but it was still pretty bad from a driving enthusiast’s perspective. The worst, hands down, was the unit Ford used in the old Freestyle; it was monumentally bad.

    I’ll admit that I’ve never driven a 2000 Honda HX with the CVT, so you may be right. Based on my experience across a range of manufacturers and vehicles, I’ve never driven a CVT that I would buy.

  10. Greg (nephew) says:

    I need to keep that in mind. The next car I buy will not have a CVT, I trust your judgment there.
    I think all the ‘semi-manuals’ of today are really just automatics that try to make you feel like you have a bit more control. Honestly though, if you’re in fifth gear flyin down the highway (in manual mode) and come to a sudden stop, the car is going to downshift for you. I agree this feature is pretty neat but they need to standardize. The Acura TSX goes about it a good way, just follow their lead.
    Lastly, leather seats. After having them in my 2005 Ford Mustang (before I sold it) I thought they were pretty neat; albeit warm in summer. But I didn’t realize some manufacturers/models stopped even offering cloth as an option. I drive a 1996 Civic now, and the cloth is lovely.

  11. Kev says:

    I think that when my ’93 Accord dies (manual transmission, original clutch, cloth interior, 262K miles, aftermarket perfectly-tuned and many-times tweaked sound system, great mileage, no non-normal maintenance repairs needed EVER) , I will just shoot myself, because unfortunately I agree with the whole article. Devolution indeed.

  12. peter b says:

    Where’s the ashtray? Cigarette lighter?
    Right on about touch screen audio systems. Give me buttons and simple controls….I’m supposed to be driving. Right?
    A DVD PLAYER? Stay home or get outa my ride if I’m boring you.

  13. terry coughlin says:

    Let me buy a car with a “tech” or “touring” or “drivers” package without a sun/moonroof. Seems like if I want something like an upgraded sound system, I always have to get a sunroof too.

    I hate sunroofs – never open them, they all eventually become a source of vibration and/or wind noise, and being 6’3″, they rob me of a couple inches of much needed headroom.

    But I always end up getting one despite my hatred as I cannot option out a package I do want without having one of these damned roof holes included.

  14. Kurt says:

    Terry, agreed. I feel the same way about “rain sensing wipers”, which rarely work as well as the occasional flip of the wiper switch.

    Also, I fail to see why buyers would pay better than $2k for most nav systems when you can buy a fist class portable nav system for under $300.

  15. Big Russ says:

    this is why i love my ram…. all the controls are big chunky buttons or knobs that make me feel like im a kid when i push them because they are designed for “man sized” hands…. cloth seats that are amazing (driven it cross country 3 times this year)… and yes its an automatic but damn how many full sized trucks that are brand new on the lot even offer a manual transmission anymore?

  16. Lee says:

    I think Mitsubishi still offers nice cloth seats although I hate it when recaro seats are part of a car package as they are just not something I would want to live with. It is not like I am racing my car everyday. I love the basic cloth seats in my Landcruiser fj60 and Crown vic

  17. Kurt says:

    Lee, over-bolstered seats are the reason I didn’t buy a VW R32. I loved everything else about the car, and the seats would have been great for track days. They would have been hell to live with on a daily basis.