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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

You get what you can be talked into paying for
June 22, 2008 - 6:28pm

The local newsrag has a car section which seems to get thicker and more vociferous every week. Discounts on this, rebates on that, free gas with the other thing. Of course, what they're pushing hardest is what nobody wants -- SUVs, full-sized pickups with big block engines, mini-vans with surprisingly mini-mileage. Hybrids? Sure. We'll put you on the waiting list for a very modest extra fee.

The last ad that caught my eye (I'm hardly in the market for a new car) was one with a big picture of a bad-ass-looking (that's a technical term) motorcycle. Low monthly payments. 1100 cc's. Over 40 mpg.

Also, limited seating. Minimal grocery-getting capacity. No weather protection. Poor bad-weather handling. God help you in a crash. Why should anyone give up all that to get a measly 40+ mpg?

The auto companies will tell you that it's a trade-off. They can't deliver a go-anywhere, do-anything, take-the-family vehicle which gets over 40 mpg. If you want that kind of mileage you've got to be willing to compromise.

Case in point, the Land Rover 2. Seats four (five in a pinch). Good on- and off-road capability. Five star safety rating. 3.2 litre V-6 (small by SUV standards). Moderately pricey (certainly, above my price range), but you get what you pay for. 5500 pounds, gross weight. Oh, and 22 miles per gallon, on the highway. Really, pretty good for a US-spec SUV. Trust me on that.

Except for the fact that the comparable UK-spec model gets 41.5 highway mpg with the automatic. Settle for a stick, and it's rated at 45.5 mpg. (By the way, the ads in the UK also list the grams of carbon per kilometer traveled. Try finding that kind of information in any US car ad.)

Why is it that UK-spec SUVs get mileage comparable to US-spec motorcycles? Because the UK market demands it. Land Rover ads across the pond lead with claims about capability and efficiency. Their website for US customers leads with information about paint colors and upholstery fabrics (and this is in the "Specifications" section!).

During the cold-war years, hard-nosed political commentators used to say that "a nation gets the government it deserves." In our post-modern post-historic era, that might be reworded to "a market gets the products it's willing to settle for." The US market (and we're hardly alone in this) has been willing to settle (read "pay good money") for more and more that's worth less and less, and lasts shorter and shorter. Manufacturers and advertising agencies should shoulder much of the blame, but the remainder of it lands squarely on you and me.

That's the bad news. The good news is that, in time and after a certain amount of discomfort, market suppliers will learn how to sell us what we demand in future. That means that the decision-making power is in our hands as consumers. Our hands, and the hands of the rising generation of new consumers. They need to know to demand more, and to expect their logical demands to be met. A good time for them to learn this would be as they're leaving the nest, striking out on their own, moving from the family abode into the outside world.

Hmmm ... I wonder what sort of institution could influence and inform them as consumers, at just such a critical time?


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