A pothole more the size of a cauldron appeared from beneath the bumper of the Ford van I was following several car lengths behind onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
The driver ahead slammed on his brakes and swerved to avoid it. He failed—and so did I.
But where the van’s beefy tires shrugged off the impact, the low-profile rubber on the 18-inch wheel of the Audi A5 I was driving just buckled.
When the right front rim violently struck bottom, it felt and sounded like a shotgun blast. A bag on the seat next to me leapt into the air and spewed its contents all over the passenger footwell. Still rolling forward, I found myself in the middle of fast-moving traffic on a busy New York City highway, a $180 front tire tugging at the steering wheel as it quickly deflated.
This ordeal—which I muddled through by limping home on a flat that miraculously stayed intact and on the rim—is the unfortunate result of what some car designers and engineers call progress.
And it’s only one of several unfortunate trends in automotive design that are making cars less practical, less comfortable and in some cases less safe.
Wheels have been getting increasingly larger and wider, and not just on sports cars—regular ones, too.
They look cool and make the car grip the road better, so it can take turns faster and stop shorter. But the tradeoff is a pricier tire with a smaller sidewall that is less resilient to bumps and potholes.
What’s worse is that many new cars, including budget-minded ones like the Hyundai Elantra, are sold without a spare tire and jack now, to save weight and cost. You can usually add them as an option, though.
Others, like the BMW 3 Series I drove a couple of years ago, have “run flat” tires with beefed up sidewalls. In theory, they, allow you to keep driving when the tire is punctured.
I wasn’t a fan of them until hitting a huge pothole in that BMW, this time on the Grand Central Parkway. The reaction was as violent as in the Audi—a coffee tumbler got launched into the air on this occasion—but the tire stayed inflated.
When I got home, I found a two-inch gash right above the edge of the rim, much like on the Audi A5’s tire, only it didn’t go all the way through the rigid sidewall. You could see the tough woven fibers had kept it intact.
But there’s a downside to run-flats too: They create a more jarring ride. And on that 3 Series, which was already tightly sprung to begin with, the teeth-rattling discomfort started to overshadow the car’s otherwise stellar driving dynamics by the end of my week with it.
It wasn’t until driving an Infiniti G25 sedan recently that it struck me how truly stupid this trend toward larger wheels is. The G25 has 17-inch wheels with tires that have only half an inch more sidewall than the Audi A5’s.
What a difference that half inch makes.
Sure, the steering was sharper on the Audi, but the Infiniti’s slightly taller tires easily absorbed holes and bumps in the pavement that I would’ve had to dodge in the Audi. For the peace of mind taller tires bring, I will gladly give up the minor improvement in steering feel on a daily driver.
Large rims are overrated on cars used for everyday transport. In fact, to me, they’re a liability that costs more money and causes more stress than they’re worth.
Go for the 20-inchers if you’re getting a Corvette or Ferrari. Otherwise, I recommend avoiding all the pricey wheel and tire upgrades available on so many regular cars these day.
- » Full List: Car Design Disasters
- » The Best-Selling Cars
- » The Worst Cars On The Road
- » The 10 Fastest Cars Under $30,000
High Belt Lines
As wheels get larger, the proportions of cars must change to accommodate them. That is, the sides grow taller to fit the larger wheel wells.
But even cars with normal-sized wheels seem to be getting slab sides these days. Just look at the latest crop of small cars, like the Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent. All of them have huge swathes of metal above their wheel wells, disguised and gussied up with creases and curves.
The reason automotive designers are lifting belt lines on cars of all kinds is because they think it looks better. Mazda designer Derek Jenkins explained it to me this way: When considering the proportions of a car, the smaller the upper third is in relation to the lower two-thirds, the sportier it looks. That’s why sports cars have such low roofs and small windows.
But designers can’t squash a hatchback like the Kia Rio5 down to the size of a sports car. So instead, they raise the belt line to create the visual effect of minimizing the ungainly proportions of economy cars. Unfortunately, this often results in windows so small they almost seem like gun ports on a World War II bunker.
It’s one thing to live with compromised visibility in a Lamborghini, because it is so special and usually not driven often. Even the more common Chevrolet Camaro can be forgiven its claustrophobic interior, because style is such an important aspect of a muscle car.
But now crossovers and sedans are getting the same treatment and forcing the average motorist to make unnecessary compromises just for the sake of style. The Acura ZDX, Buick LaCrosse, Chrysler 300 and Toyota Matrix are afflicted with problematic proportions. All of them have belt lines so high that kids in car seats would be lucky to get a glimpse of the world outside.
Heck, even adults will have trouble seeing out of some of these vehicles because of their enormous blind spots. This is one reason rear parking sensors and back-up cameras are becoming so popular.
The Acura ZDX crossover is particularly bad with regard to blind spots, because it sits higher than most cars. Pulling into traffic from a side road or cross street can be a nightmare in this car.
Keep your expensive blind-spot warning and lane-departure avoidance systems. Just give us bigger windows.
Plunging Roof Lines
Low-slung roofs are another trick designers use to make cars look more appealing. And boy do they love dropping them as far as they can to create a fast-looking silhouette.
I’ve asked several designers in the past year whether that trend will ease up, and none of them thought it would. So we’ll only be seeing more squat-roofed cars like the Cadillac CTS, Hyundai Sonata and Jaguar XF.
If you’re tall, too bad. Because even some of the largest sedans available force you to duck down when getting in and out—almost as much as in a Porsche. My twelve-year-old niece, who is short, recently hit her head on the forward roof pillar when getting out of a Honda Insight. But the swoopy roof on that hybrid has a purpose beyond just looking good—its sleek shape helps save fuel by reducing aerodynamic drag. The same goes for the Chevrolet Volt, which also has a low roof.
Those hybrids might have an excuse for their steeply raked windshields. Buicks do not. My grandparents shouldn’t have to worry about smacking their skull on the roof pillar of their Buick LaCrosse. And yet every time they get in the front seat, it’s a concern.
The problem is especially annoying when considering that the LeSabre they traded in a few years ago was much easier to get in and out of. Even the larger Buick Lucerne has a low roofline. So does the Chevrolet Malibu, Jaguar XJ, Kia Optima, Lexus ES, Nissan Maxima, and so on.
These are all medium-to-large sedans, meaning that they should have ample space to create easy ingress and egress. They also shouldn’t force rear passengers to slouch, or else hit their heads on the low roof. And why does a big sedan–or even a crossover for that matter–with so much space to spare need a roof that comes so far forward into the windshield that it obstructs the view of stoplights above?
It all comes back to style. With cars getting so good across the board, looks are fast becoming the biggest differentiator.
The question is—What compromises are automakers willing to make in order to create a design that they think will stand out and sell more cars?
Based on the latest models coming to market, clearly they’re willing to compromise comfort, convenience and safety for the sake of style. The good news is that at some point the pendulum will start to swing back the other way, and the huge wheels, high belt lines and low roofs designers consider cool today won’t be in style anymore.
At least, I hope not.