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The ‘Not Too Crazy’ Pulls Ahead In Car Race

Toyota unveils its new RAV4 crossover SUV to the media Wednesday before the L.A. Auto Show opens to the public.

Audio

Aired 11/29/12

Once upon a time when a car company introduced a new car, it was a new new car.

But at this year's L.A. Auto Show, you won't see any revolutionary new rides -- at least not on the outside. You'll find the same sameness in your grocery store parking lot. A lot of cars look alike -- why is that?

"What they're relying on to distinguish these cars from one another is not so much the mechanical pieces of them or the design," says Brian Moody of Autotrader.com. "They're selling sort of a lifestyle or an experience or a philosophy."

Derrick Jenkins, head of design for Mazda, will reluctantly admit that there's been kind of a convergence in the way cars look.

"If you really line the silhouettes up and really check the dimensions and the width -- yeah, there's a lot of similarities," he says, "because the basic architecture has been on a constant evolutionary path and that's where the sweet spot exits."

Jenkins says his job at Mazda is to hit that sweet spot and design cars that sell, so that's why you won't see cars with bubbles or giant fins.

"If you're talking about a midsize sedan that you want to park in your driveway, if you really want some jet-looking fins on the back of it, probably most people I don't believe do," he says. "I don't."

But that doesn't really explain why cars look so much alike. What does explain the similarities, says Aaron Bragman with IHS Automotive, is aerodynamics.

"There are certain shapes that work better for lower aerodynamics," he says. "Lower aerodynamics means better fuel efficiency."

The race to make cars more fuel efficient means automakers spend a lot more time in wind tunnels to get that nearly universal sleek look.

And Bragman says as the auto industry gets more competitive, companies are a lot less likely to be all wild and crazy.

"The common denominator usually does sell best. This is why you'll see a Toyota Corolla, a Toyota Camry as best-selling vehicles. They're not stylistically wowing anybody, but they're decent, they're attractive, and they're not too crazy," he says. "Not-too-crazy actually sells."

Not too crazy means car shows aren't as fun -- and neither is car shopping.

But here's the thing: Rebecca Lindland with IHS Automotive says midsize cars may look the same -- like the Camry the Accord or the Fusion -- but they are not as many lemons.

"And it's really hard to tell the difference on the one hand, but also to know who's offering what in terms of how the car is to drive because so many of the cars are just, they're so good," she says.

Moody says we won't be wowed going to car shows looking at the outside of cars; the fun stuff is on the inside.

"The '50s version of the future was spaceships and gray jumpsuits and blinking lights -- that doesn't exist; there's no flying saucers. But there is Onstar and there is inTune and there is Pandora in your car, and there is an iPhone that plugs into it and there is Bluetooth that lets me talk on the phone to my wife by just pressing a button and saying 'call home,' " he says. "That's pretty awesome."

Moody says the future is here, and there's a good chance you're driving in it, right now.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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