What was the last car you and a group of non-enthusiasts unanimously approved of? I’m not talking about the Altima you and the gang rented for your weekend at the beach; I’m talking about your Eleanors, your Batmobiles or the early days of Bond cars – moments of true mass vehicular appeal.
We’re not that far removed from Owen Wilson voicing a character in a children’s movie franchise where literally every character is a vehicle. Remember when the cars of “Fast & Furious” were the only characters in the series with any meaningful backstory? Let’s be honest, they’re still the only ones that make any sense.
You may not have to look back very far to identify a time when the car as we know it was critical to the zeitgeist, but you do have to look rearward. By and large, cars – even the ones we car people lust after – just don’t move us the way they used to.
I know this because I asked. I’ve asked Autoblog staffers. I’ve asked random people on the internet. I’ve asked friends. I’ve asked strangers. Yes, if a short, sandy-haired guy with a dubious grasp on department store fashion asked you what you think about cars in the spice aisle of a market in southeast Michigan, you unwittingly participated in my research. Thanks.
And from that research, I’ve arrived at the simultaneously groundbreaking and devastating conclusion that the coolest mainstream car on sale in the United States may well be none other than the Ford Bronco Sport.
This can mean only one thing. The auto industry has a crisis of cool.
Every few weeks, I see another Twitter thread about how nobody under the age of 40 gives a damn about the automobile, and every time, it comes down to the same thing: Millennials and Gen-Z (If you don’t know who those are, they’re probably who you think of when people say “Millennials”) would rather tweet their way through life than drive because they’re too broke, too introverted, too socialist and too urban to mess with cars.
Let’s approach this pragmatically for a moment. If you’re young and don’t need a car, why own one? After all, a smartphone is a cheaper and far more versatile tool. Sure, a car can drive you to work, but a phone is more useful for getting a job in the first place. The same is true for just about anything – from groceries to getting laid to going on a road trip, a phone is far more useful than anything with wheels.
This is the dilemma faced by modern automakers. Even here in the United States, where car ownership borders on universal (we have a nearly 1:1 population-to-vehicle ratio), personal transportation is increasingly viewed as an inconvenience or even a burden. Here’s the secret, though: That doesn’t matter so long as you’re selling something desirable. Apple knows that. So does Nike. And even if you’ve never bought something made by either brand, you know they sell cool things, even if they’re not your particular cup of tea.
That’s my gentle way of saying that you don’t have to believe in the automobile as the de facto mode of transportation to appreciate a cool car. Cool is cool. That’s kind of the point. One doesn’t have to get excited about the societal implications of the car in order to appreciate a car. But when was the last time one of them was so universally relevant that it could catch the eye of a non-believer? Especially now that we’ve exploited the near-limitless interconnectivity of the Internet to find louder – thus more validating – echo chambers?
This is where you may say, “Look at the Corvette! Look at the Bronco! The demand is there!” You know what was already pretty much unobtainable at sticker price for months even prior to the pandemic? A Kia Telluride. If it weren’t for a UAW strike and a pandemic, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. And here’s the thing with the Bronco: Ford ghosted the party early only to sneak back in after it picked up. I love the Bronco, and Ford deserves its moment in the sun, but there’s a bit of marketing Bondo in that heritage bodywork.
Automakers have spent a century figuring out how to sell cars. They’ve gotten very good at it, but they’ve also proven time and again that building cars with universal appeal is virtually impossible even under the best of circumstances. We look at cars through the narrow window of enthusiasm. When I look at the new Cadillac Blackwings, I see gadgets that can track my lap times, eliminate the need for throttle-blipping and control torque output so finely that I can mash the gas coming out of a corner and know that the car will do exactly what I want it to, exactly the same way, every time.
To me, that is exceedingly cool; my deposit is already in. But what GM has created amounts to a pair of tier-zero dorkmobiles with no mass-market business case whatsoever. Transcendental mainstream cars like the VW Type 1, the Mustang, the original Chevy Corvette and the Jeep we now know as Wrangler simply don’t come along every day, and even the remaining names on that list are at risk of losing their everyman appeal. Even Tesla, which has managed an end-around into pop culture consciousness, is less a car company than it is a vaguely defined lifestyle brand pushing a Kickstarter for a self-driving car.
And I’m not the first to suggest that cars for “car people” are pretty much universally uncool. This was a frequent theme of the Clarkson, Hammond and May years of UK’s “Top Gear.” The “Cool Wall” is the most obvious example, but the three often poked fun at any car with a trying-too-hard-for-the-street vibe to it, and that’s entirely fair. Self-awareness is something the enthusiast community could stand to indulge in more often.
A truly stripped-down, zero-frills enthusiast car can only exist with a nameplate like 911 GT3 RS attached to it because Porsche can get away with charging customers more than they would for the one next to it that actually has a nice interior. Try this on something cheaper, and it’s the Blackwing problem all over again: no matter how awesome we may think it is, if it only appeals to people who immediately understand every Blipshift reference, you’re screwed.
Tesla’s posturing and divisiveness aside, electrification could hold the key to making cars cool again. It frees the industry from engineering and design conventions that were inherent to the internal combustion engine and its associated greasy parts, but so far, all anybody has really done is add a couple thousand pounds to an existing formula to make sure it’s fast enough and goes far enough to be taken seriously – a race to conform to the existing notion of what automobiles can and should be.
I won’t claim to be the final word on what’s cool, but even I know conformity ain’t it.