Payne: The auto is dead, long live the auto
I’ve been knee-deep in Camaro-mania this month. On May 16, I drove a 2015 Z28 — the marque’s most capable cyborg ever — to Belle Isle to join 1,000 pony car owners from 38 states and Canada in baptizing Chevy’s latest blockbuster: The sixth-generation Camaro. The faithful crushing the stage around me roared when GM vice president Mark Reuss took the wraps off, calling it “wicked fast.” They gasped at its plush interior. Heck, if Reuss had auctioned the owner’s manual it would have fetched a king’s ransom.
This passion transcends Camaro. From the Dodge Challenger Hellcat to the Ford Focus ST to the Corvette Z06, Americans have never enjoyed so much auto performance. Forget the ’60s, Dodge CEO and Chief Motorhead Tim Kuniskis calls today “the Golden Era of the Muscle Car.”
How then, to square this rapture with the current media narrative that — to quote the New York Times’ Elizabeth Rosenthal — “America’s love affair with its vehicles seems to be cooling”?
From media to liberal academia to conservative P.J. O’Rourke, a consensus has hardened that we have reached “peak auto.” According to a pickup bed-load of statistics, the long trend of Americans driving more miles each year has stalled since 2007. We are telecommuting, sick of traffic, fearful of global warming, preoccupied with iPhones.
We are soooo over the automobile. Nonsense, I say.
But first, let’s give the statistics their due. Adjusted for U.S. population growth, the number of miles driven peaked in 2005 and has declined by 9 percent since, according to a study by investment research firm Advisor Perspectives. A recession-driven hiccup? University of Michigan professor Michael Sivak thinks not, citing demographic trends indicating a drop in driver licenses sought by 16-to-39-year-olds.
“Rates of car ownership per household ... started to come down two to three years before the downturn,” Sivak told the Times. “I think that means something more fundamental is going on.”
Sivak’s research dovetails with sociologists’ observations of our brave, new digital world — and millennials in particular. You know the bullet points:
■ The Internet has enabled telecommuting.
■ Millennials would rather chat with friends online than cruise to Woodward and hang out.
■ Walkable inner cities are hip.
■ Smartphones are the new status symbol. Who needs cool wheels when an iPhone 6 says so much about you?
But these statistics are gnats on the windshield of America’s big, honking car culture.
In the 1900s, we were liberated by Henry Ford’s Model T. Historian Daniel J. Boorstin called the automobile the “great equalizer” of the 20th century because it enabled the poor man to travel where only rich men could go before. Post-WWII Detroit fed the imagination of an exploding middle class with affordable sports cars and chrome-caked sedans. The century’s end opened the floodgates to a world of cars from Hondas to BMWs to Volvos to Hyundais. Last year, Americans bought a near-record 16.94 million vehicles, the most since a recession so deep it bankrupted GM and Chrysler.
Americans have more choices of models — more than 130 — and many more nameplates. In the last four years, Fiats and Alfa Romeos have appeared in corner showrooms while America has birthed its first successful auto startup — Tesla — in decades.
Is the love affair over? The car permeates every corner of American culture affecting every age group.
Clubs for enthusiasts — Camaro, Dodge, Porsche, BMW, Viper and more — are nationwide. The Woodward Dream Cruise, just two decades old, attracts more than 1 million visitors a year. Car programs dominate cable TV. The Barrett-Jackson auction is practically its own channel.
Only football and baseball are more popular than NASCAR racing, according to Harris polling.
America is experiencing a racetrack building boom as love-struck Americans even want to spend weekends with their four-wheeled pets. Virginia International Raceway, Monticello in New York, Autobahn outside Chicago, Spring Mountain in Vegas and more have sprouted since the century’s turn.
Sure, the Dream Cruise is mostly populated by boomers trying to recapture their youth, but younger generations are also consuming all things auto. “Fast and Furious 7” — a car flick marketed to youth — just surpassed “Avatar” as the fastest movie to make $1 billion at the box office.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” — a two-hour orgasm of road thrills — has trumped box office receipts of the expected summer blockbuster, “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” since its May 15 release. The Pixar kid-friendly “Cars” franchise has grossed nearly a half billion. My 20-something children share YouTube episodes of motorhead phenomenon “Top Gear,” the Guinness Book world record-holder for most-watched factual program.
The oracles of “peak auto” largely hail from the ivory towers of academia or coastal media journals where traffic is dreadful (see Los “Car-mageddon” Angeles) and Big Government elites have ulterior motives for the car’s demise.
Writing for TPM.com, Nona Willis Aronowitz embraces “peak auto” as just desserts for automakers who have sold America a sexist, climate-destroying “ball and chain.” The current rebound in sales, she says, is Detroit’s last gasp as “car companies are squeezing out what’s left of masculine paradigms, banking on our need to tap into a less complicated past.”
Reporting on the decline in miles traveled, Times reporter Rosenthal cheers that “it will have beneficial implications for carbon emissions and the environment.”
Such sentiments are echoed in Washington, D.C., which in 2009 mandated doubling fuel economy — a regulatory assault unseen since 1974 mpg laws that slowed ’60s-era muscle cars and affected a drop-off in miles driven.
That was too much for Libertarian author O’Rourke. “We’ve lost our love for cars,” he wrote in 2009. “Meanwhile, the pointy-headed busybodies have been exacting their revenge.”
Don’t look now, P.J., but automakers’ — and their customers’ — response to Washington’s diktat are perhaps the best evidence of America’s unsinkable auto love affair.
Today’s offerings are the most powerful, the most athletic, the most innovative products. Ever. Take Tesla’s Model S 85D. The tree-huggers’ favorite electric vehicle is also the envy of motorheads everywhere — it will out-drag a Corvette C7.
Or the brawny Mustang. It is now sold to women and men in equal measure — car lovers all.
And then there is the connected car. A KPMG study released last year found young drivers don’t believe “texting is getting in the way of their driving,” they believe “driving is getting in the way of their texting.” With features like 4G making, say, an entry-level Chevy Trax a rolling smartphone, cars have never been more youth-friendly.
The love affair rolls on.