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Opinion

Opinion: today's cars are way too big and way too heavy, and it's a problem

Will we reach the point a car is deemed just too much? Horrell shares his thoughts

Published: 20 Nov 2023

A new and bigger generation of Mini hatch arrives, impelling me to vent my periodic rant about the harm being done by the endless physical growth of cars. It’s not just the Mini. And it’s not just me. I’ve got actual backup from Which? and the British Parking Association. Yeah, you came here for laughs, didn’t you.

Which? has noted that very many cars are too long for a standard parking bay. Which is 4.8m. For context, a Focus is 4.4m, a BMW 3 Series 4.7, so you’ve not much literal room to manoeuvre if they’re end to end meter spaces. If the spaces are side to side, as in a car park, a whole lot of cars are so wide you might not be able to open the doors far enough to squeeze out. And big cars are heavy. The British Parking Association is reporting that Sixties and Seventies multistoreys need structural checks. Without reinforcement some, if full of modern SUVs and EVs, are “in danger of collapse”.

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Right then: cars are getting too big and too heavy to park. But Top Gear isn’t about the parking. We’re about the driving. A narrowish B-road gets all the joy sucked out if the car is too wide – you might meet another of you coming the other way. In tight urban streets, a wide car is the cork in a bottleneck. It’s why motorbikes get there quickly. Daft really that ‘town cars’ like the original Smart or Toyota iQ were short not narrow. A motorbike-length car couldn’t wriggle through a jam, but a car-length motorbike could.

Bigness makes things heavier too, and we’ve been labouring under that trend for just ever. Any new car will be the same size as the next model up from 25 years ago. A Polo now is the same size as a Golf then, an X3 now the same as an X5 then. A new C-Class matches a turn of the century E-Class. Blame the power spiral too. Extra power asks for more cooling and a bigger fuel tank and stouter transmission parts and brakes. The weight of which partially cancels out the extra power. Higher weight kills nimble cornering. So to claw back some agility, car makers add active anti-roll bars and torque vectoring diffs and 4WS. All of which (have a wild guess where this is going...) add weight.

How often do people really need big car roominess? The rest of the time they’re knocking off their door mirrors, kerbing their wheels, taking the long way round to avoid width restrictors, wasting time looking for extra big parking spaces and buying more fuel. And hoping not too many other people have also bought too big cars, or the multistorey might collapse.

Makes me nostalgic for the MkI Toyota Aygo I once had. It weighed under 800kg and width restrictors were a sport: you tried not to lift. In a new car you have to stop beforehand while you jab at the touchscreen to activate the surround cameras. Meanwhile today’s big powerful electrified SUVs have maximum GVWs knocking on 3,500kg. I suspect they’re engineered for more, but a GVW beyond 3,500kg makes it illegal for a normal licence holder to drive at all.

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