By Keith Leonard, Esquire
The British author, Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels, among other writings), was quoted as having said, “Vanity is a mark of humility rather than of pride.” In a recent consumer survey, the most important factors that people consider in choosing a new vehicle are quality, safety, price, value, fuel economy, and performance. A vehicle’s appearance did not make that list. Does that mean that a consumer will not allow vanity to determine the choice of a vehicle? Will he or she pick a vehicle that satisfies one or more of the preceding factors but that is plain, not or that is even downright ugly?
While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, I think that most people would not say stylish when describing the Volkswagen Beetle. And it is likely that even fewer people would describe the Beetle with the same affection for its appearance that they would use in describing the appearance of a Porsche 911. Yes, they are in two distinctively different classes of cars, but remember that performance is one of the key factors that consumers consider when buying a car. The Beetle was sold in the United States from after World War II through 1979, before being resurrected in 1998. From 2002 to 2010 over 308,000 Beetles were sold in the United States. Thus, it has been a popular car despite its “looks”.
I have previously examined the popularity of certain cars in the United States since World War II. From 1948 through 1978 the best selling car in America almost every year was the Chevrolet Bel Air/ Impala/ Caprice. In the 1980s, the Ford Escort and Ford Taurus and the Chevrolet Cavalier and Chevrolet Celebrity were best sellers. I am fairly certain that few buyers of those vehicles purchased those cars because the cars were stylish.
On the other hand, does an attractive car (for its time period) mean that it will be a good vehicle overall; satisfying more than one of a car buyer’s considerations for selecting a vehicle? Sports cars are often viewed as the hottest looking vehicles, and are thought to be high performance as well. Unfortunately, quite a few sports cars are on lists of the worst cars ever built.
In the 1950s, fiberglass was used to lighten the weight of a vehicle. The most classic example of the use of fiberglass is in the Chevrolet Corvette. However, the 1958 Lotus Elite is not such a shining example of the use of fiberglass. While the car only weighed about 1,100 pounds, the unreinforced fiberglass could not handle the structural strain, resulting in the suspension mounts punching through the body. The 1970 Triumph Stag is another vehicle with great style and it had a Triumph V-8 engine. Unfortunately, that engine was found to be a total failure with timing chains that often broke and aluminum heads that commonly warped. Another stylish but mechanically deficient car of the 1970s was the 1976 Aston Martin Lagonda.
In the 1980s, the Pontiac Fiero was introduced and then discontinued after General Motors had spent a lot of money fixing its many mechanical problems. The 1984 Fiero was subject to 403 service bulletins, and recalls for engine fires; items that will not particularly endear a person to the car. It was not so much mechanical problems but rather emissions standards that turned the 1980 Chevrolet Corvette sold in California from the epitome of the machismo car into a hot looking Smart Car. The emissions requirements in California required the Corvette to be fitted with a 305 V-8 which put out 180 horsepower. Similarly, the base engine for the 1982 Chevrolet Camaro (and Pontiac Firebird) was a 2.5 liter, four-cylinder engine producing 90 horsepower. Not exactly the type of performance that would make the Camaro the (Ford) Mustang-fighter that it was originally conceived to be in the 1960s.
Chrysler and Maserati got together to produce the Chrysler TC by Maserati in 1989 to 1991. Unfortunately, what seemed like a good idea to produce an attractive vehicle resulted in an expensive Maserati LeBaron. The vehicle only produced 141 horsepower in a V-6 engine and suffered from many mechanical problems, necessitating the issuance of 53 service bulletins and multiple recalls. In 1997 Chrysler tried again and came out with the Prowler, which looked like a hotrod. However, the standard engine for the car was a 3.5-liter V-6 producing 250 horsepower. And the car did not even have a manual transmission to ramp up the hotrod feel of the car.
So-called luxury cars are not exempt from the look-good bad-ride syndrome either. In 2001 Jaguar wanted to have a luxury model to compete against the BMW 3-series and the Mercedes Benz C-class cars. The Jaguar X-Type produced that year turned out to be an English version of the Cadillac Cimarron and a financial loser for the company.
The 2002 BMW 7-series, another attractive car, came with ” iDrive”, a rotary dial and joystick controller situated on the center console. Unfortunately, the iDrive was very hard for drivers to use to control systems such as the heat and air conditioning in the car, and BMW was slow to respond to driver complaints about the system.
At its most recent awards program, eCityofStyle picked the following five cars as the most stylish and gave each of them an Auto Style Award: (1) the 2012 Hyundai Veloster; (2) the BMW 6-series; (3) the Fiat 500; (4) the Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG; and (5) the Range Rover Evoque. Though it is certainly no guarantee of the predicted reliability of any of those vehicles, earlier this year Consumer Reports ranked Mercedes-Benz and BMW among the least reliable automakers while Hyundai was ranked sixth among the thirteen automakers listed in the grading report.
Since cars were first introduced to the roads, inventors have come up with ideas that they thought would enhance the appeal of the vehicle. One very early example is the 1899 Horsey Horseless, which featured the wooden head of a horse on the front of the car. The inventor claimed that such a head would fool real horses on the road and make them less afraid of the car. Not a lot of horse sense in that idea.
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Remember that laws are constantly changing and are often not uniform throughout the United States. Do not place unqualified reliance on the information in this article. Always contact legal counsel for detailed advice.
If you have a particular issue, law or problem you would like to see addressed in a future column, please contact me at KLeonard@LeonardSciolla.com, or Leonard, Sciolla, Hutchison, Leonard & Tinari, LLP, 215-567-1530.
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