June 30, 2014

Confession #49: New cars are just like old cars

The Honda CR-V offers just about anything anyone could ask from a car, as long as you're not someone who particularly likes cars. And even if you do, you can respect it. Really, that's a rare thing.

I've had a theory for a while now that the CR-V is the modern day Volvo 240. Last produced 21 years ago, Volvo never replaced the 240 wagon with anything as utilitarian, so that sent people who cared far more about practicality and longevity than badge snobbery. It's a car people only get rid of when the smells inside of it become too difficult to live with.

But a couple weeks ago, The Car Connection proposed that the real successor to the 240 is, in fact, the Subaru Forester. And if you live in former Volvo strongholds like the Northeast, the comparison is pretty easy to see.

2014 Subaru Forester (Photo: Subaru)
As all Volvos were up until the last 15 years or so, the 240 series was a pretty shapeless thing that you could respect because it was so functional. On that basis, the Forester manages to try even less than the CR-V at being stylish. There is absolutely no design for design's sake – it's just a box, and it's proud of it.

And both are driven by people who aim to drive them into the ground. Scratches and dents only enhance their charm, and it's expected the cargo area will be covered in animal hair.

So let's say the Subaru Forester is the Volvo 240 of today. What are the new car equivalents of old cars?

BMW M235i (Photo: BMW)
Easy ones out of the way first: the BMW 2-series is the new BMW 3-series. You could argue the entire BMW lineup has moved up at least one size in the least 20 years or so, but it's generally agreed that the 2 is most aligned with an E30 and E36 3-series from the '90s. And obviously, you don't have to be obsessed with cars to see the Audi A3 is what the B5-era A4 from the late '90s was before it grew up with the rest of the class (it's the same size, after all).

Here's just a general rule: the new "small" luxury cars are really just the current compact luxury cars before they gained all the weight and bulk they have now.

1992-96 Toyota Camry (Photo: Toyota)
But what's the new Toyota Camry? It isn't the current Camry, which has really become something like the new Chevy Lumina or something as ubiquitous and unremarkable, which makes no concessions to styling so as to be as conservative as possible.

The Camry didn't always used to be this way. Even after some Americanizing to make it more appealing than its very Japanese first and second generations, Toyota's midsize sedan oozed refinement in ways no other car in its class did at the time. And it had just enough style to stop it from being totally anonymous, unlike plenty of nameplates that have been forgotten in the last couple of decades.

2015 Hyundai Sonata Sport 2.0T (Photo: Hyundai)
I have a feeling the 2015 Hyundai Sonata has become the new Camry. I knew it in April when I saw it at the New York Auto Show. So it came as no surprise that someone else, like Automobile Magazine, called the new Sonata the new Camry after they drove it.

Even launching it in a color called Urban Sunset (read: orange) does nothing to hide the fact this Sonata is very inoffensive. People say it's blander than the last one, and that's probably true. But plenty of people thought the old one looked cartoonish, with all of its curves and swooshes. This car looks detailed, finished and not accidental. It looks refined.

2015 Toyota Camry XSE (Photo: Toyota)
Compare it to what Toyota's done with the 2015 Camry and you see where the plot has been lost. In making the car bigger and more universally appealing to people who valued buying American sedans for their space and value, Toyota dropped the refinement ball. And instead, they've decided their mainstream car needs more add-on trim pieces as if they're appealing to the stick-on vents crowd.

Toyota doesn't really make a Camry as we knew it anymore. But then Volvo doesn't make a 240 anymore. For fans of those older cars, they can take comfort in a Hyundai and Subaru showroom, respectively. At least for BMW E36 and Audi B5 devotees, they can still show up at the same dealership.

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