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The end of cool small cars
The Taliban has fresher trucks than us. The Honda Fit is dead. U can’t find a sauced-out 2-door to save your life. How did we get here??
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— Jonah & Erin
A couple weeks back, a highly intriguing headline crossed my feed:
“Kansas man upset he can’t buy mini Toyotas ‘like the Taliban and ISIS.’”
The Kansas man was Wichita Eagle Opinions Editor Dion Lefler, who wrote a column (linked down below) lamenting the dearth of mini-pickup options in the USA. Its basic argument is familiar and correct: trucks have gotten increasingly gargantuan, they kill mad people and are bad for roads & the planet, that is wack, and yet the market has systematically eradicated virtually all of the smaller-style pickups of the type you used to see commonly in America.
To explain this disappearance, he points to 1) carmakers’ overwhelming financial incentives to make vehicles bigger and bigger, because the profit margins are much higher, and 2) a protectionist LBJ-era 25% tariff on imported “light trucks” known as the Chicken Tax, which, some loopholes notwithstanding, is still in place today.
Lefler’s master-stroke, though, is the brilliant framing device he uses to set all this up. Lamenting the fact that Americans can’t cop dope small pickups anymore is mad meritorious in its own right. But going on to point out that no less retrograde and repressive a regime than the Taliban has a superior whip game in this exact regard?? Huge props.
Also huge props to Lefler for finding a new angle into the topic of “Taliban swag,” which tends to focus on the much-memed-about high-top sneakers that Taliban fighters rock, the Pakistan-made Servis Cheetahs, pictured above. These are eye-catching and unlikely as paramilitary apparel goes, but real talk, these sneakers are not actually cool. Whereas the pickups are very tight and vibey!
Our boy in Wichita is not alone. I’ve long thought that one of the coolest things Kristen Stewart has ever done besides Panic Room is drive a boxy, humble old blue Toyota pickup circa 2013 — a year after the final Twilight movie came out, when she was firmly in the superstar stratosphere, suggesting she had immense reservoirs of unpretentious sauce when it came to car choice (which a corny big-dollar “luxury” vehicle would not have communicated). In a similar spirit, apparently Christian Bale still pushes a non-enormous ‘03 Tacoma.
I’m bringing all this up, however, because America is undergoing a sustained car-swag crisis that Lefler’s pickup-focused column only hints at:
The market is eradicating not just small pickups but ALL swagged-out small vehicles, period!!
Case in point: The beautiful & blessed Honda Fit is dead in America. Discontinued as of the 2022 model. R.I.P.
Apparently Honda makes more money here selling the Fit’s larger, inferior sibling, a “light utility” joint called the HR-V, which does not look nearly as good and whose name sounds like an asymptomatic sexually transmitted disease. D*mn!!
Unlike the swagless Toyota “Yaris” (ew); the near-swag-free Nissan Versa and Ford Fiesta; or the appealingly tiny but sadly also low-swag Chevy Spark*, the Fit was a true subcompact slapper. Unlike new Fiats and Mini Coopers, which have a certain jaunty European esprit, and Smartcars, and post-2003-redesign VW Beetles, the Fit carried zero “novelty” energy.
It was simply a handsome, non-b*tchmade, compact whip.
*No offense if you drive one of these other cars. You can still be cool even if your car isn’t, and regardless, you’re entitled to love it for all kinds of non-swag-related reasons.
Yes, the Fit’s cargo capacity was surprisingly expansive, and it was punchy and highly maneuverable and ran forever with minimal maintenance, but those are utilitarian concerns that, while important, are secondary to the car’s humble but ample aesthetic achievement, which is what we’re celebrating. Its lines converge on an imaginary vanishing point just beyond its grill with a carved purposefulness … it has too much dignity to engage in a pantomime of “cuteness” and “friendliness” like some small cars do … To the contrary, its contours are sharp bordering on 😤 mean 😤, but in a lightly worn rather than over-compensatory, aggro way. If you put a roof rack on a Honda Fit?? The effect is effortlessly gorped-up and hardbody.
At this point, the Volkswagen Golf and GTI seem like the only other options for driving a small new car with sauce in the U.S.A.?? If we’re missing one, please let us know — and save your breath with, like, “unexpectedly tight” Prius Cs and Mazda 3 hatchbacks or something, nobody’s trying to drive that bulls**t!! 😜
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A month or two ago I posted a story to IG about Honda killing the car, and received more DMs (commiserating) and emojis (crying) than I’ve gotten in response to any other story I’ve posted. This s**t hit a lot of people hard, not just because of the Fit’s individual virtues but because, as with gargantuan pickups, it’s one of several contemporary wack automotive macro-trends.
One closely connected trend is that it’s impossible to find dope new two-door non-coupe / non-sportscar whips these days. You might be lucky enough to spot a fire vintage BMW 700 or 320i out in the wild — you might even happen across an ‘80s-era Corolla Tercel that f**ks. But not only do they not make ‘em like that anymore (have you seen how punitively lame contemporary Corollas are??) basically no one makes new 2-doors period.
Another closely connected trend is that carmakers are killing small electric vehicles, like the BMW I3 and the Chevy Bolt, the latter of which people really loved and honestly looked a lot like the Fit except it had a Chevy logo on it. [UPDATE: Apparently Chevy has responded to the outcry and un-killed the Bolt .] There’s a tight-looking new small electric Honda called the e (below right) but while you can cop this baby in other regions of the world, they’re not even trying to roll it out stateside…
This drift away from small electric cars is in part because of consumer demand for extended range capacity, which necessitates bigger cars to hold bigger batteries (threatening to cancel out the “carbon footprint” savings of going electric in the first place). And it’s in part because a profit-hungry auto industry seems to be doing everything it can — including ramping down the production of lower-margin “lower trim” offerings — to ensure that Americans want jumbo whips and, even if they don’t, that there’s little else on the market… (Relatedly: Malcolm Harris has argued that “The reason EVs are leading the whole practical green investment transition conversation is because cars are profitable, not because they’re a reasoned solution to the challenge of mobility in light of the climate crisis.”)
This is not some simple red / blue s**t, by the way. Yes, the “rural”-coded smash-hit Ford F-Series and other Super Duty trucks are grotesque, but count the big a** SUVs parked in affluent lib zones, where simple sedans would more than suit their drivers’ needs. You can’t even get a small car from Subaru, the putative “reasonable” crunchy-whips GOAT. These fools made the Forester — once small and boxy — blander and larger, too, mamma mia.
And don’t get me started (again) on what Toyota did to the RAV4, which entered the world in the mid-’90s as a strange, pimped-out, two-door miracle but soon became an overgrown, indistinct abomination. At least Suzuki has kept the Jimny small, but those aren’t for sale in the U.S. 😞.
When you zoom out and survey the car market from a bird’s eye view, you can see a DARK PSY-OP SLEIGHT-OF-HAND-type maneuver tucked into the intense focus on enormous pickups, which is that it serves to move the goalpoasts of the debate way, way out, to the obscene degree that the proliferation of SUVs — themselves planet-hurting behemoths that statistically speaking no one who drives them needs, which is why the cool eco-terrorists in How To Blow Up a Pipeline vandalize them — starts to look “normal” and “sane” by comparison !!
Right now you might be saying, “Blackbird Spyplane, this is a dope and profound essay as usual. But aren’t you a pro-sizing-up sletter? Don’t you believe that, on a binary scale, roomy is cool and form-fitting is uncool? Why doesn’t that apply to cars?”
On a binary scale, yes, we do believe that. (Read our essay on Pants Dysmorphia, which happens to contain a pickup-truck metaphor.) And yes, there are large cars that have charm and look fresh — though most of them, e.g. ‘90s Land Cruisers, are vintage.
But much more to the point is that “small cars” of the kind we’re saluting are small mostly by the grotesque standards of big-a** American cars. In Europe and Japan the “median whip size” or whatever has gotta be substantially smaller than it is here. Also, you go to Europe and you see, like, two-door Alfa Romeos and ill zippy little BMW and Mercedes 2-door hatchbacks, whereas here you can’t find “high-end” makes in that size at all.
I think this is because, in the cursed and coercive American vehicular semiotics, a small car tends to signify that you’re “broke,” “struggling” or, at best, “mid” economically. That is to say, on a “lower rung” of the ladder than you’d like to be. This is some lugheaded and perverse thinking, connected to other torched — and, ironically, déclassé ! — McMansion-style pathologies about the relationship between one’s status and the size of one’s possessions. In that context, a subcompact Mercedes in the U.S. would register as a contradictory (and, again, less profitable for Mercedes) non-starter.
American pathologies are, ultimately, at the heart of this entire topic. These pathologies beget their own internally coherent rationales: contemporary life is marked by a sense of ceaseless zero-sum competition, so why wouldn’t you want your car to be “bigger than the next guy’s” — not only because you think you’ll look more pimp & baller than him but also because if you’re in a small car and he’s in a big car you literally can’t see as much of the road as he can, you’ll be more likely to die in a collision with him, etc.
Cars entered modern American mythmaking as supposed “personal freedom machines,” because private industry and its lackeys in POLITRICKS love nothing so much as wrapping up anti-social bulls**t in bogus myths of personal freedom. We can of course sense that, whereas road trips do rock, when it comes to daily commutes, etc., cars are prison cells masquerading as tickets to freedom. Whereas if we had ill public transportation we’d be much happier ‘cause trains rip and, all things being equal, driving and dealing with traffic and other drivers sucks. The consumer desire for ever-larger cars (to the extent that this desire hasn’t been orchestrated by the people selling the cars) might reflect a delusion that if we can just make our prison cells big enough they won’t be prison cells anymore.
Am I in “degrowth” territory here? I’m not really up on that discourse but it would be tight on swag grounds alone if we could “de-grow” these enormous whips. For me & Erin, 95% of the time, a Fit is not “small” in the sense that it is comfortably bigger than we need. It would hold a family of 4. And OK, there’s something to be said for “needing more space in my car for all the humans & pets & s**t I’ve got to lug around daily.”
But A) I don’t buy that that justifies the leap everyone’s making from Fit-sized vehicles to the increasingly common choice of SUVs and crossovers as a standard “family car.” And B) our need to “haul s**t around” could itself stand some societal-level interrogation, since families in other countries — often countries with less mercenary cultures, stronger social safety nets, and public spending on programs for childcare, etc. ?? — manage just fine without.
Let’s close things out with the (flawed but fun & squarely in our wheelhouse) “cars as clothes” metaphor. Pushing a car ~5x bigger than you need is not like wearing a swaggily roomy suit of the kind we f**k with heavy here at BBSP. O no! It’s like a child playing dress-up in a XXXL trench coat, sleeves dragging on the floor, while wearing clown shoes. It makes you look small and bozo-like as you take up too much space in a world that you navigate with zero grace. Two people in a 2-seat Smart Car might read as the equivalent of one person wearing skintight jeans, sure. But 2 people of average build and height pushing a d*mn Fit? Enjoying the ample headroom, with a decadently unoccupied backseat, not pinched by the car but in fact thoughtfully tailored within its assured, compact curves? That’s the equivalent of stepping out in some fire oversize Japanese-designed slapper and letting these onlookers savor the vehicular drape!
P🪡E🪡A🪡C🪡E until next time
— J & E
We don’t take money from anyone but our readers, so we keep some of our best material behind the Recon Curtain. Join our Classified Tier today if you haven’t yet — Jonah & Erin
The Wichita Eagle op-ed about small pickups is here.
The Global Intel Travel Chat Room is here, featuring earth-spanning GOAT-locale recommendations.
Peep our list of the world’s 35 slappiest shops, where Spyfriends have added a ton of gems in the comments.
Our Profound Essays, Mindsets and “Unbeatably Spicy Takes” are all here.