Why Are American Cars so Big?

It’s no secret that many Americans love big cars. When you drive on streets or highways in the United States, you’ll likely find a collection of beefy pickup trucks and massive SUVs. But why are American cars so big compared to other countries around the world? Let’s take a closer look and explore the various reasons. 

Many things are bigger in America compared to other counties, including cars

Front angle view of Ford F-150 Raptor, highlighting reasons why American cars are so big compared to other countries
2022 Ford F-150 Raptor pickup truck | Ford

The hugeness factor in the U.S. isn’t only cars. Many things are bigger in America compared to other countries. This includes portion sizes of food, houses, and supermarkets and superstores. For international visitors to the U.S., a common reaction is surprise and shock upon seeing the enormous size of many things. In America, it’s “go big or go home.”

Trucks and SUVs dominated the list of best-selling cars in the U.S. in 2021. Also, the three best-selling vehicles were full-size pickup trucks: the Ford F-Series, Ram Pickup, and the Chevy Silverado. 

Large American cars date back to the end of World War II

With the proliferation of large trucks and SUVs, many people might think that big American cars are a recent phenomenon. However, the large size of vehicles in the U.S. dates back to the end of World War II, after America and its allies declared victory. 

Boston.com discussed this issue with George Kennedy, the managing editor for BoldRide. He said, “Following World War II, there was this feeling of American [pride], and our cars got very large. While that’s more or less gone away from sedans, there’s still a gung-ho mentality with truck buyers.”

Speaking of WWII, it’s interesting to note that some American cars are now almost as big as the tanks that helped win the war. The above GIF shows a comparison between a Ford Ranger and a WWII-era Sherman tank. The Ranger is only a midsize truck, and it’s nearly as large as the Sherman. While large tanks like the Sherman from WWII are mostly wider and taller, for the length, full-size trucks and SUVs are quite similar to these tanks. And in some cases, they’re even longer.

Streets and highways in the US are bigger compared to other countries

SUV driving on a New York highway, highlighting why cars are bigger in U.S. compared to other countries
SUV on a highway | Pranay Pareek via Unsplash

Another reason why American cars are bigger is that streets and highways in the U.S. are larger than in other countries. Many of the historic cities of the world were built before the age of cars. The streets in them are narrower and were not originally designed to support vehicle traffic.

However, in contrast, the U.S, with its relatively shorter existence compared to many other countries, grew up in the age of cars and the extensive interstate system across the country. 

“In Europe and other areas, there are very old infrastructure and small streets in five- to seven-hundred-year-old cities. It’s difficult for larger vehicles to get around. But America’s interstate is large and extensive and lends itself to larger vehicles,” said Kennedy.

Psychological and cultural reasons for America’s love of big cars

White Ford SUV on a desert highway, highlighting reasons why American cars are so big compared to other countries
SUV on a highway | Tim D via Unsplash

There are also psychological and cultural reasons for America’s love of big cars. Think of the days of the wild frontier, with wide open spaces. The sense of spaciousness with the open land influenced people’s psychological perception of space. As a result, people desired more space in many aspects of their lives, including the distance between homes and other people.

The desire for more space was culturally passed down from generation to generation — and eventually spread to cars. Many Americans simply want big cars because they offer more space.

Another cultural and psychological factor is individualism. This is a strongly-held value in American culture. One of the psychological impacts of individualism is a desire for more control of one’s surroundings. This desire for more control, or a sense of security, is the brain’s efforts to protect the individual from possible threats, whether real or imagined, from outsiders. With this in mind, for some, large cars give people the “illusion of control” or the “illusion of security.”

Gas-guzzling large vehicles are more acceptable in the US, especially compared to Europe

An additional reason why cars are so big in America is gas-guzzling large vehicles are more acceptable to many in the U.S., especially compared to countries in Europe. Much of this is due to the fact there is a greater emphasis on protecting the environment in Europe and other countries. 

Large vehicles, especially full-size trucks and SUVs, tend to have low fuel economy and release more carbon emissions. This has negative environmental implications, such as air pollution and climate change. While that might change in the future with the switch to zero-emission EVs (which are also more popular in Europe), most large vehicles of today are gas-powered.

In the U.S., the protection of the environment, including requiring cars to have higher fuel economy and lower vehicle emissions, is often a hotly debated political issue. However, in much of the world, it’s just a simple matter of caring about the environment and doing your part to protect it, without the politics. 

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As evidence of this, until January 2021, the U.S was one of the last countries to join the Paris Climate Accords — after previously leaving it in 2017. When the U.S left the Paris Climate Accord in 2017, it also earned the dubious distinction of being the only country to officially reject it (as directed by an orange-haired fellow who also likes things “huge”).

Much of this goes back to the individualism in the U.S. In general, when weighing the “greater good for society” vs. individual rights and freedoms, the U.S. skews considerably more toward the latter compared to Europe and most other countries. As a result, people in other countries are less resistant to regulations limiting big, gas-guzzling cars, whereas, in the U.S, there’s more resistance. 

Gas prices in the U.S are lower compared to other countries, making it more affordable to drive big cars

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Plus, while the price of gas is very high these days in America — in Europe and many other countries, it’s even higher. Therefore, driving an inefficient large car is more expensive for people outside of the U.S. However, we’ll have to see if continued high gas prices will result in more people buying smaller, more efficient cars. 

As you can see, there are many reasons why cars in America are so big. This includes a general preference for big things, a sense of American pride following WWII, larger streets and highways, psychological and cultural reasons, a more general acceptance of large, gas-guzzling vehicles, and lower gas prices compared to other countries. 

So the big cars keep rolling on in the “good ol’ U.S. of A.”

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