The Psychology of Small Cars

From Dan Neil, the wittiest writer in the newspaper business:

Desire, the Buddha informs us, is the root of all suffering -- also, a leading cause of alimony, but let's move on.

The craving for comfort, luxury, prestige and me-first acceleration drives us to buy more car than we absolutely need to go from point A to point B. And do these cars -- the Maserati Quattroportes, the Porsche Caymans, the Range Rover Sports -- make us happy? Well, yes. Yes, they do.

But at what cost, karmically speaking? And for how long? I would point people to a common experience: Call it "rental car phenomenology." You go on vacation, rent a chintzy, buzzy little economy car with crank windows, cloth seats and all-but-crystal-set radio, and by the second day you discover, lo, you can get along quite fine with your miserable little scrap of a car. We adjust quickly to our automotive surroundings.

Conversely, the satisfactions of a magnificent Mercedes S-class often seem to decline in direct proportion to the distance from the dealership. After a few months, auto-ennui settles in, and you may ask yourself: Why did I blow all that cash on this boat?

In a material culture running out of ways to besot consumers, I propose a different kind of pleasure: buying less car than you can afford. Maybe a lot less. Cars are, after all, an awful waste of money. For most of their existence all they do is sit there -- in the driveway, the parking deck, on the street -- in a cloud of dissipating residual value. Why not, just for one round in the auto-buying cycle of life, opt out, break the bewitchment of automotive status and indulgence.

I would make one additional point. The virtue of having a bare-boned automobile - as opposed to one of those luxury cars stuffed with multiple computers and useless gizmos - is that there's less stuff to break. After you've adapted to your Mercedes, you cease to take genuine pleasure in its smooth handling or soft leather seats. Yet you are still able to get upset when the "Check Engine" light malfunctions, or the CD changer breaks, or you find yourself continually filling up that hulking V-8 up at the gas station. So even though the car has ceased to make you happy, it can still piss you off. The better psychological move is to pick a reliable, cheap, small car. Might I recommend the Mazda 3?

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Might I recommend the Mazda 3?

I could probably get by with a 1.5.

By Mustafa Mond, FCD (not verified) on 03 Jan 2007 #permalink

I drive 1986 Toyota long bed truck. > 300,000 miles and still running strong. I get >> 30MPG, easy to work on and parts are usually inexpensive. Even if you don't do your own repair work there just isn't much to go wrong. I believe I will keep it running many more years.

By Eric Juve (not verified) on 03 Jan 2007 #permalink

My 2001 VW Golf tdi is a nice, relatively cheap small car. And every time I check my fuel mileage (usually 48-50), any desire to trade it for something bigger, faster, more luxurious and more expensive seems to evaporate.

A few years ago, Mini Cooper ran a print ad campaign that I loved:

"Mini Coop. Makes everything else seem just a little too big."

Not certain I can agree with the idea that everyone has this "rental car phenomenology" he speaks of, where there's a less opulent but superior joy to be found in driving a tiny rental. Every time I've been forced to give up the generous room of my F-150 and try to cram my 6'3" frame into a Pontiac Vibe or a Toyota Camry on vacations, I yearn for the comfort of the vehicle I chose rather than the one business imposed on me.

Smaller cars can't always offer the metaphysical competence everyone needs.

Lish, try a VW Golf. I'm just over 6 feet and I can adjust the seat so far back that I can't operate the pedals. On the other hand, stay away from a Honda CRV, because even my significantly shorter wife can't get the seat back far enough for comfort.

If you live in one of the lucky locations served by Zipcar (www.zipcar.com) and commute by mass trasit, you don't even need a car! Plus zip car has XM Satellite Radio and dedicated parking spaces so no more bad parking karma.

Car sharing rules!