On average, cars are heavier than they used to be. That’s just a fact. To some people, it’s nothing more than a fact, just like many other facts. Boston received 108.6 inches of snow this winter. The Seahawks did not win the Super Bowl this last year. I’m heavier than I was 25 years ago. Cars in 2015 are heavier than they were 25 years ago. It’s no big deal. That’s just the way things are.
To car enthusiasts, though, the fact that cars are heavier than they were 25 years ago is as terrible and horrible as Seahawks fans thought Russell Wilson’s final pass in the Super Bowl was. Whenever the weight of a new car, especially a performance car, is released, comments sections are filled with complaints that the “idiots” who designed the car “ruined everything” by failing to keep the vehicle’s weight close enough to what it was “supposed” to weigh. It’s time for those people to stop complaining.
On one hand, the people complaining about how much cars weigh have a point. All other things being equal, heavier cars don’t accelerate as quickly, don’t change directions as well, don’t stop as easily, and get worse gas mileage. In an ideal world, if cars were all magically half as heavy as they are right now, every single one of those performance factors would be improved. There might be some unintended consequences for cars like the Smart ForTwo getting blown over in heavy wind, but for the most part, cars would drive better if they were lighter.
Magic doesn’t exist, but there is a car currently in production that appears to satisfy enthusiasts’ weight-savings desires: the Alfa Romeo 4C. This two-door Italian sports car weighs in at just about 2,200 pounds. Despite being down nearly 100 horsepower, it drives well enough to keep up with a Porsche Cayman S on a track, and while its turbocharged, four-cylinder, 237-horsepower engine makes less power than the V6 in a Toyota Camry, its zero to 60 time is right in like with the 435-horsepower Ford Mustang GT. Because the engine is so small and the car is so light, the Alfa Romeo 4C also gets 34 miles per gallon on the highway.
On paper, that makes the Alfa Romeo 4C the perfect car. It’s incredibly light, it performs better than a lot of heavier cars, and it gets great gas mileage. In theory, demand in the U.S. should be so high for the 4C that Alfa Romeo has to increase how many cars it sends to North America. Customers should be offering dealers far more than MSRP for the opportunity to own one because the 4C is just so perfect and desirable that it’s worth it.
Despite how perfect the 4C is for people who love to nitpick on weight, however, American Alfa Romeo dealers only sold 38 units in April, and sales for 2015 are a whopping 255 units. Since the 4C went on sale in the U.S., only 346 units have been sold, and almost every single one is listing at or below MSRP. While yearly production is somewhat limited, you’d think that more than 350 people in a nation of more than 300 million would be buying Alfa Romeo’s lightweight wonder.
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that keeping the weight so low required Alfa Romeo to remove the vast majority of creature comforts. The 4C is also built using a carbon fiber tub to add lightness, but carbon fiber also adds cost. The Launch Edition has a base price of $68,400, and you still need to add the $1,800 Convenience Package to get cruise control. For a car that’s not exactly comfortable and that only offers limited features, that’s a whole lot of money.
When people are behind their computers, it’s easy to complain about how heavy cars have gotten, but when it comes time to put their money down, they want a new car to offer the kind of comfort, convenience, safety, technology, and features that you just can’t get in a 2,000-pound car. On the comfort and convenience side of things, power everything adds weight. Air conditioning adds weight. Power-adjustable seats are heavy. Power-adjustable steering wheels are heavy. Sound deadening is heavy. Making cars longer and wider adds weight.
Perhaps more importantly, though, making cars safer requires them to be heavier. A 2015 Ford Mustang might weigh significantly more than a 1990 Mustang, but which one would you rather be driving in the event of a crash? Anyone who chooses the 1990 version has a death wish, because the 2015 version is so much safer to drive, it isn’t worth considering.
For an even better comparison, watch this video the International Institute for Highway Safety released to mark its 50th anniversary in 2009. The 2009 Chevrolet Malibu might not be the most exciting passenger car ever produced, but you better bet that’s the one I’d rather be driving in the event of an accident. The 1959 Bel Air is a beautiful car, but it’s clearly unsafe at speeds as low as 40 miles per hour.
As the cost of aluminum and carbon fiber construction comes down, it will be more cost effective to build lighter cars, and the need to improve fuel economy will probably make that happen more quickly than you would think. By 2030, you’ll probably be able to buy an affordable 2,500-pound sports car with all the comfort and amenities you desire. Until that happens, though, it’s time to either spend $70,000 to buy an Alfa Romeo 4C or stop complaining about how things like “safety,” “comfort,” and “practicality” are turning modern cars into bloated whales.
To borrow a line from the president of the IIHS, they don’t build cars like they used to. They build them better.