21 Mar 2013

Supersize me? No thanks - Sharon Endacotte Column

If you've been missing Sharon then worry no more - she's back!  Here she talks abut cars growing smaller, then bigger, then smaller again and, finally, bigger.

In the old days, cars were generally not very big. Of course, there were always exceptions, like my grandfather’s Rolls-Royce, but the majority were little Fords and Triumphs and Austins, and dinky little things like the Mini and the Fiat 500.

For a couple of decades, it looked like the trend was for cars to get bigger and bigger. The family saloon was king, and little cars you’d known for years grew up to be big and strong. But then the trend shifted; the reign of the saloon ended, the hatchback became king and demand for smaller cars started to grow – and with it, a desire to look back fondly at the cars our parents drove.

It started in 1997 with the New Beetle. Volkswagen sold it on a wave of corporate Woodstock nostalgia and surfer chic while conveniently forgetting that the Beetle’s origins were about as far removed from peace and free love as it’s possible to get. Then again, the New Beetle may have drawn upon counterculture for its marketing, but it wasn’t exactly the product of a hippy commune in Saxony. Behind the hype and the dashboard-mounted flower vase, the New Beetle had as much to do with Woodstock as I do to international waterskiing, brutalist architecture or bodybuilding. And the engine, I need not remind you, was at the wrong end.

The new MINI appeared in 2001. A relatively small car by modern standards, it had the looks of its predecessor with the space and toys demanded by 21st century drivers. It was a bit less cynically marketed than its VW predecessor, though it did bank on its British swinging sixties image rather heavily despite now being German. However, my mate’s dad was pretty instrumental in developing the original Mini Cooper (despite being rather too modest to talk about it – yes, Ginger Devlin, I mean you), so there’s something quite nice about the name living on. And like the New Beetle, the new MINI had modern German engineering under the retro body, adding a perception of reliability that was missing from the British Leyland days.

And then a few years down the line, Fiat joined in. Having seen the success of the New Beetle and the MINI, it was really only a matter of time before the 500 was dusted off again. Fiat were quite canny really, because although they did draw on the car’s heritage for advertising, they never put too much emphasis on the fact that the original version was a tiny, cheap, simple car with spares you could find in any Italian hardware store and easily fit at home. Instead, they sold their Panda-in-a-Party-Frock off the back of Italy’s reputation for stylishness and made the car as much a must-have accessory as a Prada handbag or a pair of Gucci loafers. And for those who prefer their cars with a bit more passione, there were soon Abarth versions too.

The thing that all these cars had in common, in addition to their retro styling, is that they weren’t actually that small. The Fiat 500 and the MINI particularly look enormous next to their earlier counterparts, but in modern terms, these are nevertheless compact city runabouts.

It would be fine if it stopped there, but then, frankly, someone at MINI went a bit mental.

There’s nothing wrong with the Clubman as such, if you like that kind of thing. It was an update of an older car and made sense in the MINI lineup. But then came the Countryman, a car that has a couple more letters in its name than it really deserves.

I remember the first time I saw a Countryman in the wild. I’d just come out of the pub after quite a few pints of beer, and I thought I was considerably more pissed than I was. However, my eyes did not deceive me, and there was an enormous, bloated thing parked outside the pub that looked like MINI but was not very mini at all. Horrid, unnecessary and little more than a misguided fashion statement, the Countryman is inexplicably popular. Better cars are available in its sector. Prettier cars are available in its sector. And yet people seem to want to coo “aww, look at the ickle MINI,” despite the fact that it raises the same point about things being small versus things being far away that Father Ted once patiently tried to explain to Father Dougal. “That MINI is small… but that MINI is far away…”

Ridiculous. Buy one and you’ll definitely look like a proper Countryman.

And now Fiat have jumped onto the supersizing bandwagon with the 500L. Promoted by dealers as “Cute – like the 500 but bigger,” I don’t yet know how good, bad or indifferent it is, but I know I don’t want one. And I don’t think it is cute, to be honest. I think it looks like a bit of a mutant.

Compare these gigantism-afflicted new additions with their historical originals and something looks terribly wrong. Even next to the modern incarnations, they look peculiar, and I think I know why.

A baby, for example, is cute, but a baby’s proportions are very different from an adult’s. Imagine a six foot tall newborn lumbering around the place like some bizarre, pink, wrinkled Stay-Puft marshmallow man. A six foot baby is not cute, or cuddly, or adorable. A six foot baby is bloody terrifying. You’d drown in its tears, be deafened by its screaming and let’s not even think about the nappy changes. If a six foot baby appeared outside your house, you’d hide in the cupboard under the stairs until it went away again, quaking in terror and praying for deliverance to whatever deity might be out there. I’ve nothing against big cars in general, just like I’ve nothing against big people; I just don’t want them to be horrible pastiches of small ones.

Still, it could be worse. So far, VW have resisted the temptation to create a Giant Beetle. But surely it’s just a matter of time…

I think it’s time to end the madness. Fast food chains are being discouraged from promoting supersized meals, or asking if you want to ‘go large’. Perhaps it’s time the car industry did the same