Top Gear Philippines

I've always wondered about car sizes. I mean, cars just seem to be forever getting bigger--specifically in terms of dimensions and engine displacement. Take the case of Honda's Civic and Accord. We all know the Civic is classified as a compact car, while the Accord is a midsize sedan. This obviously means the Civic ought to be smaller than the Accord in every way, including (and most especially in terms of) exterior size and engine power. But let's look at the numbers through the decades.

When the very first Civic came out in 1972, it was only 3.5 meters long and 1.5 meters wide. It also had a paltry 1.2-liter, 50hp in-line-four engine. By 1984, for its third-generation version, the Civic was already 3.8 meters long and 1.6 meters wide, with an engine-displacement choice of 1.3 or 1.5 liters. Another 12 years later, in 1996, the sixth-gen Civic was an impressive 4.2 meters long and 1.7 meters wide, boasting a 1.6-liter powerplant that was 115 horses strong.

Today? The current Civic--the eighth generation, first introduced in 2006--is 4.5 meters long and almost 1.8 meters wide, with a "base" 1.8-liter, 140hp straight-four engine (a 2.0-liter, 155hp engine is available if you're still not satisfied).

The Civic of today is so big and powerful (by its class standards) that it easily dwarfs and outmuscles the first-generation Accord sedan launched in 1979 (the Accord was initially a hatchback, introduced in 1976), which was "only" 4.1 meters long with a 1.6-liter, 72hp engine under the hood. It goes without saying that the Accord likewise had to grow in order to stay one class higher than the Civic. As a result, Honda's popular midsize sedan is now 4.9 meters long and has an option of either a 2.4-liter, 180hp in-line-four engine or a 3.5-liter, 280hp V6.

Wow. When does it stop? Where is the ceiling? At the rate things are going, I won't be surprised if the Civic someday becomes a limousine running on V8 propulsion and the Accord transforms into a supercar. But thanks to burning issues involving the economy, energy and the environment, this scenario is now least likely to happen.

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I just came from a deep-dive program organized by Ford Motor Company, and learned several welcome developments relating to the current global shift to small cars. As I have just mentioned, three factors are responsible for this.

First is the economy. Because people all over the world have less money and thus weaker buying power, car buyers are staying away from large vehicles like SUVs and full-size sedans, which of course cost more to purchase and maintain. And more inches mean bigger thirst at the fuel pump, further burdening the owner financially.

Second is energy. Fossil fuel isn't going to last forever. Oil is being consumed at an alarming rate. If carmakers don't do their share in curbing our profligacy, we're all doomed. The easiest way to address this is to produce fuel-efficient cars. And the easiest way to do that is to go small.

Third is the environment. Our planet is dying. Killer typhoons, earthquakes and erratic weather patterns tell us so. We can no longer afford to ignore the dreary tree-huggers. Everyone needs to reduce his carbon footprint now. Not next week, not next month, certainly not next year. Now, cars play a leading role in all of this. If we can only lessen the harmful emissions, we'll be on the right track. Again, the no-brainer route is through designing and building small cars. Hulking sport-utilities and lumbering vans ultimately have to go.

In fact, Ford market analysts predict that small cars will increase from 23 million units in 2002 to 38 million units in 2012. That's an incredible 65-percent jump in just a decade. In the United States, Ford reveals that small-car sales consisting of the B (Fit/Jazz, Yaris) and C (Focus, Civic) segments have grown from just 14 percent of the total car market in 2004 to more than 21 percent in 2009. What's more, Ford projects that in the next five years, the C segment alone will account for 25 percent, or one-fourth, of the total market. Compact cars are even more popular in Europe, where one of every three cars sold belongs to the C segment, with a lot more belonging to the A (Alto, i10, Picanto) and B segments.

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Which is why Ford--like a ship captain spotting a massive iceberg up ahead--has pressed the panic button and is changing its course. In 2004, 70 percent of the carmaker's product offerings in the US consisted of SUVs and trucks, and only 30 percent were cars. In 2009, cars already made up 60 percent of Ford's vehicle lineup, with SUVs and trucks having been minimized to just 40 percent. And now the market is reacting positively to the move, increasing Ford's US market share by a full percentage point from 14 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2009.

The star in Ford's stable today is no longer the F-150 pickup, although it continues to sell well. The moneymakers are no longer the Expedition and the Explorer, both gas-guzzlers by anyone's standard. No, the buzz being created around Ford is generated by small sedans and hatchbacks. The company has just launched the Fiesta, and it is coming to the Philippine market this year. In the ongoing North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the spotlight falls not on the new Mustang but on the all-new Focus, which could reach our shores as early as next year.

As for engine displacement, Ford is doing something about it, too. It has recently made available the groundbreaking EcoBoost technology, which combines direct injection and turbocharging to enable the downsizing of engines without compromising on power. The idea is to make engines so efficient that straight-fours can already replace V6 units, and V6 engines in turn can already take the place of their V8 counterparts.

It's easy to understand why the car industry got caught up in an "ours-is-bigger-than-yours" contest in the past. In order to sell cars, automakers needed to show ever-increasing numbers. Numbers that were almost always the best in class. If you browsed a car brochure before, among the most common highlights was how the car was more spacious or how its engine was more powerful compared to the model it was replacing. That was understandable. Why would they launch a new car that wasn't an improvement of its predecessor, right?

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But all of that upsizing is over. The times call for a change. We can't go on driving big cars that are big on fuel consumption. Small is the way to go. Thankfully, carmakers like Ford are helping to make that prospect just as exciting. My drinking buddies will be happy to know that small isn't always a bad thing.

Vernon B. Sarne
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