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SpiceLMF's avatar

Why do cars in America have such big engines?

Asked by SpiceLMF (62points) January 20th, 2010

I’m currently living in between New York & Ireland and I happened to be looking at cars. More like lusting over them but anyway. In particular I was looking at the Volkswagen Golf and I noticed that in the US it’s sold with a 2.5 liter engine. In Ireland it’s sold with a variety of engine options ranging from 1.2–1.6 liters.

Now my question is why in the hell is the American version double the size? I get that we love our big fuel guzzling cars and you get more power generally out of a bigger engine. Nowadays though I would think Americans are looking for more fuel efficient cars. I know I am and seriously if I’m buying a Golf I’m not looking for a muscle car. In Ireland, drivers are taxed based on the size of their engine so I get that there’s an incentive for a smaller engine but what’s the benefit to the American customer in only offering a larger engine? I’d totally trade some power for an extra 10 or so mpg.

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42 Answers

Shield_of_Achilles's avatar

American muscle. Learn to love it.

HTDC's avatar

The cars like to fit in with all the other oversized things in America, McDonald’s meals, shopping trolleys, people…

jeffgoldblumsprivatefacilities's avatar

In my case, it’s out of necessity. I do a lot of driving in the mountains, and driving in snow (for both work and pleasure). I really wouldn’t be able to get by with anything smaller than a 6 cylinder, 2.5 Liter engine. It’s not terrible in terms of fuel consumption, but it isn’t great. To make up for it though, I try to carpool as much as I can, and also try to ride my bike when it’s just around town.

Similarly, my dad works in construction, and has an 8 cylinder truck. He constantly has to haul around trailers loaded down with equipment and supplies, so anything smaller than that wouldn’t work for him. But, when he’s not working, we have a hybrid as our family car.

So, while it’s common that many Americans have cars that are unnecessarily large and big engines that they don’t really need, it’s not always just because we love our big fuel guzzlers.

Harp's avatar

For decades, cars have been subliminally marketed to Americans as expressions of power, freedom and sexuality. Gas/petrol is still a hell of a lot cheaper here than anywhere in Europe, and we don’t pay a fiscal penalty for that extra horsepower, so we haven’t quite reached the point at which we feel we can no longer indulge our fantasies.

JLeslie's avatar

Nice to have a lot of power and comfort when you are driving long distances. I’m guessing Ireland is two hours across? America is a much larger country with more hours of driving. I am not saying that is a good thing, just sayin’. Also, since Americans were trending towards buying and wanting larger cars with larger engines, it became almost scary to be a little weaker car on the road from a safety perspective. Hopefully some of that is changing.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

I personally like a vehicle with power.There is no way I will get behind the wheel of one of those tiny cars with a hamster wheel for an engine.I prefer to walk away from any car accident I am involved in ;)

jeffgoldblumsprivatefacilities's avatar

@lucillelucillelucille I agree, I’d be too afraid of dying if I had one of these cars. I’d rather just not drive than risk getting into an accident.

SpiceLMF's avatar

@jeffgoldblumsprivatefacilities Very true, wasn’t insinuating that all Americans want a fuel guzzler I know trucks etc can be a necessity in certain areas. I’m from Long Island which has pretty much no hills or rough terrain etc and yet is the land of the SUV. Now it makes somewhat sense to me that a truck or a muscle car would have a big engine, I just don’t see the need for a Golf to have one. I know some people drive VW’s as rally cars but surely that’s what the GTI is for. Plus, Ireland is very hilly, winding roads and in the country it’s all dirt roads. I could definitely see the need for a more powerful vehicle, more so than long island at least but nonetheless it’s a small car nation. The width of the roads probably contributes to that too as they’re very narrow in certain areas.

@JLeslie Ireland’s about 3 hours across and top to bottom about 8 hours I’d guess but I’ve never driven it straight. It’s extremely small, you’re right about that, but at the same time the traffic and roads are in such bad condition here that a somewhat small distance can take AGES to drive and can be uncomfortable. They are making improvements though. With that said, how often in the US would you drive the length of your state or even country. At home most people I know commute an hour or 2 tops and most people here it’s the same commute time. I’d say the big car thing is less about comfort and more about power, looking powerful etc lol.

kevbo's avatar

Part of it is probably geography and infrastructure. Where are you going to drive that fast in Ireland? I noticed the same thing in Costa Rica… weaker engines but nowhere to get to in a hurry.

SpiceLMF's avatar

@lucillelucillelucille But that’s kind of arms race mentality. I get it, you want to feel safe in your car, that’s a completely reasonable thing to want. But then everyone’s buying a huge car so they can feel safe. If we all drove normal cars for our needs then maybe we wouldn’t all have to drive massive cars to feel safe. But then again my car is one of those cars that would be flattened in about two seconds – 1983 VW Rabbit.. and I’ve actually contemplated getting a Smart car haha… so I’m definitely being demolished in an accident lol

SpiceLMF's avatar

@kevbo Yeah as most the time in Dublin it’s just grid lock traffic haha. Though it’s funny, Irish roads have a much higher speed limit than roads in NY and believe me people drive up and over the speed limit. I went for a road trip and was inching along on these tiny dirt roads and people were zooming past me. They have no fear but they also have really high rates of motor accidents.

My boyfriend (Irish) actually laughed at NY highways 55mph speed limit saying how ridiculously low it was.. then again I don’t think many people actually drive 55.

JLeslie's avatar

@SpiceLMF Interesting. Would you say that you rarely travel at high speeds for long periods of time? In large, densely populated cities in the US we do buy smaller cars with smaller engines. I agree with you, I think it mostly has to do with Americans idea that bigger is better, and looking powerful. But, even this idea varies around the country. I was thinking when I was in Germany, a long time ago, the cars had a lot of power, they just tended to be smaller (this may have changed since I was there). As opposed to what I saw in Tokyo, where the cars were small with less power.

JLeslie's avatar

55 is ridiculous.

Snarp's avatar

A lot of people have a lot of misconceptions about engine size in the U.S. I drive in very hilly terrain, and I drive in snow occasionally, and I have a 1.5 liter 4 cylinder. I have never had any trouble accelerating or maintaining speed, even uphill with passengers.

Now as cars get bigger and heavier, you tend to need somewhat bigger engines, and Americans like big cars. But mostly its just ego.

In the case of the Golf I would expect that it is both the American ego driven desire for a big engine and the bigger car phenomenon. It’s quite possible that the Golf sold in Europe is not the same as the Golf sold in the U.S., even if it looks different. To meet American road safety requirements and the desire for quiet of American consumers it may be much heavier than the European car.

If it’s not, then it is too much. I drove a Golf in Germany, and it handles hills without problem. Now the Opel Corsa is a different story (or it was back in ‘96).

SpiceLMF's avatar

@Harp, that’s a really good answer. I completely forgot how much more expensive petrol is here. Probably because my liter to gallon conversion skills are non-existant.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

European cars are smaller and lighter than U.S. models. Even cars with the same name badges are different over there. I’ll bet the European Golf is lighter than the one sold in the U.S.

They have different needs, anyway. Good public transit, something we don’t have here. A grocery getter is all you need, if you need a car at all.

SpiceLMF's avatar

@Snarp Yeah you’re right that the Golf could be a completely different build in the US requiring different engine power etc. I don’t really know the nitty gritty of the differences; in fact I was surprised to see the engine sizes were different.

Yeah Golf’s are extreeeemmely popular here in Ireland and I’ve never seen anyone have trouble with hills. As for Opels, I had a to rent a car here and got an Astra and it was a struggle getting it up steep hills… my friends kept on saying what a great car it was and all I could think was “I hate this car!” Perhaps it was my fault though for having very little practice driving a manual in hilly conditions. My friends thought it was crazy that I’d never done a hill start before. There are no hills where I’m from in NY!

gemiwing's avatar

A lot of European spec cars have more torque and more horsepower than the same ones available in the US. Even with their smaller engines.

We do require a few different features added to the car which do make it heavier for some models. Engine size isn’t always a good indicator of engine performance, most notably in the lower to mid range of vehicles.

I think we tend to have bigger engines because American’s equate a bigger engine with more power and we aren’t taxed for congestion zones, engine size or mpg. So car makers give us what we want- and apparently what we want are land yachts.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

There’s a lot more of the United States than there is of Ireland. That is in no way intended as a put-down of Ireland. But people in the states drive their cars a lot more (by which I mean both “more often” and “farther per trip”) than most people in most European countries. People in the States think nothing of driving from Michigan to Florida for Spring Break, for example and other such trips. In Europe most people would take a train for a trip like that.

We often live farther from work, often travel in worse weather (generally—I’m not including Russia or Finland or the upper Scandinavian regions in this comparison!) ... and we don’t have Europe’s rail system.

A couple of years ago when I flew to Chicago I rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser for the rest of my trip into Wisconsin. It felt underpowered for the trip on the Interstate, although I had no problem with the small size.

My four-cylinder Toyota Camry is certainly not a “land yacht”, although I realize that it is much more car than most Europeans in my situation would employ. (And for the use that I normally give it, it may be a bit on the “luxurious” side, I suppose.)

gemiwing's avatar

But given the price of fuel, wouldn’t it make more sense to have a smaller car for longer distances and thus a smaller engine? I’m not following why people are saying because our country is bigger that we need a bigger car. Can someone explain it to me?

Harp's avatar

I don’t quite get the “distance” argument. I bought a Honda Fit precisely because I was going to have to start doing lots of cross-country driving and didn’t want to pour gas down the drain. The Fit easily maintains my… um…generous speeds.

Harp's avatar

dang it, @gemiwing beat me to it.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

@gemiwing and @Harp, I think the one-word answer to your questions is “durability”. But I’ll leave it to automotive engineers to explain just why that is. (It’s possible that we’ve just been fed a bill of goods—it wouldn’t be the first time!) But a larger engine does seem like it “ought to be” more durable in the long run.

SpiceLMF's avatar

@CyanoticWasp Many of your points may be true for mainland Europe (I don’t know as I don’t live there) but I can say that the Irish love to drive probably just as much as us Americans. Once the Celtic Tiger hit and their economy was booming the amount of automotives on the road exploded. Sure they have a tiny country in comparison so there may not be distances like Michigan to Florida but most of my friends will drive home (2+ hours) for a day, weekend etc and the miles do add up.

Mostly everyone I know owns a car and I live in a city (or the outskirts considering Dublin City Centre is like 2 square miles). Plus the public transportation here leaves a good bit to be desired in terms of coverage so driving is very attractive especially if you live in the country.

Oh and sedans/toyota camry-esque cars are popular here but the hatchback is still king. As for durability, I don’t know why a bigger engine would guarantee that, but my knowledge of engine mechanics is close to nil.

gemiwing's avatar

@CyanoticWasp I know diesels last a lot longer than gasoline engines, so maybe we should all be buying diesels then. I think we’ve all been fed crap by crappy car companies. Maybe things will start changing soon?

SpiceLMF's avatar

@CyanoticWasp I hear you on the Diesel front. There’s still the latent belief that diesels are ultra loud and dirty and because they’re not popular in the US all the car companies won’t offer their really great fuel efficient diesels. My boyfriend was pushing me to consider buying a Diesel Golf (he owns one) but I’m still iffy on doing that in the US because they’re not that popular…. the cycle goes on.

Check out this article on the most fuel efficient new cars. Most are diesel and most aren’t available in the US

CyanoticWasp's avatar

@SpiceLMF, when I lived in Michigan my everyday commute was an hour each way—I lived 55 miles from my work place. So that wasn’t “an hour sitting on the freeway”, that was an hour at 55+ mph. And it was @gemiwing who commented on diesels, although I do have a comment to add on that as well. I wouldn’t avoid the diesel because it’s “not popular”, but because of pocketbook issues: can you fuel it readily? is it affordable? do you want to keep it for a long time to get your money’s worth?

@gemiwing, I expect that diesels might become more popular someday, but I think that right now they have a cost issue (initial cost + maintenance) to overcome with the general public. Gasoline engines, for whatever other demerits they might have, are relatively cheap and “forgiving” (at least in terms of being able to run when not in the best condition). The little that I know about diesel is that they operate at very high compression and (because of that) the engine performance is critical. So the costs to keep that engine in good shape (as well as the initial cost for the thing in the first place) are relatively higher than for a gasoline engine with the same general power output. (Diesel mechanics generally earn more than gasoline engine auto mechanics.) I think that the diesel engine may be inherently more durable than it’s gasoline-driven performance twin, but that’s part of the marketing issue: people here don’t generally seem to want a car that’s going to last a long time if they’re acquiring them on two- and three-year leases.

SpiceLMF's avatar

@CyanoticWasp Sorry for mixing up the posts. Not popular is probably too general of a label… It’s more about what comes along with that eg. availabilty/price of fuel (though pricier it would go a longer way), availability of mechanics that service diesels regularly, and resale value of course…

Though that being said I’m not really one that goes through cars every 2–3 years; I drive cars till they die so resale value is probably irrelevant. My first car I bought 5 years ago and that was a 1983 VW Rabbit. I absolutely love that car and dread that I’m going to have to get rid of it as it’s not running :( and sadly would take a pile of money to get it back in shape. When I’m home in NY I drive my mom’s 99 Altima. As for buying a new (aka used car, new to me) would be nice but sadly not practical as I’m not sure where I’ll be living in 6+ months… alas the Altima will have to do.

jctennis123's avatar

To carry all the fat people

Fred931's avatar


Factotum's avatar

I have a mid-sized SUV and I love it. It hauls materials when I need them hauled, it holds a lot of people and luggage when I need to go to the airport, it’s comfortable on long trips and the gas mileage is decent.

I don’t know who’s who here but I would point out that college kids have a lot of theories about what cars should be driven that evaporate after they get a job, get married, have a couple of kids and live outside the city they work in.

Turns out an SUV is pretty damn handy.

Snarp's avatar

@Factotum I’m not a college kid. I have a family. I don’t live outside the city I work in because I have no interest in spending more than an hour of my day commuting, and I have the luxury of being able to find an affordable home on the edge of the city that meets my families needs. My compact car holds two kids in car seats, luggage, groceries, and everything else I need to carry on a regular basis. I have taken cross country road trips with three people and luggage and been perfectly comfortable. Did I mention that I’m 6’4”? I also was smart enough to realize that I had no need for the SUV of strollers that would have required me to buy an SUV to haul it.

What I know is that almost every SUV I see is occupied by exactly one person and no luggage or materials. Most also appear to have never been dirty. I believe there are statistics to back up the fact that most passenger car miles are by single commuters. So how many miles do you drive to and from work by yourself compared to how many miles you spend transporting materials or on long road trips with extensive luggage? How much more are you willing to pay for gas for those occasions? What if gas was 9 dollars a gallon like it is in Europe, would you still be willing to pay that price for the occasional convenience of an SUV?

JLeslie's avatar

My SUV does not hold more luggage than my car. I hate having so many SUV on the road. I actually have one now, my husband bought it, because he races cars and needs it to pull a trailer behind him, so we finally gave in. I would not get one for myself. Harder to get in and out, you are blocking the view of the car behind you, meaning he is more likely to smack into if you stop short, you air condition the entire space using more energy. I prefer a car with a normal trunk and back seats that fold down if you need more trunk space.

Snarp's avatar

I rented a car on a recent trip and I ordered a full size car because I was going to have an additional passenger and would need the room. They were all out of mid-size cars and gave me a small SUV. The thing was terrible. It did have plenty of luggage room, but there was less legroom and headroom than my compact car. Awful design. So here’s a car that gains you nothing but a bit more cargo room over a compact and about half the fuel economy. It seems like a car offered up so people can have an SUV with less guilt, but what their really getting is a compact car and the ability to not realize they should feel guilty.

SpiceLMF's avatar

@Factotum Have to agree with the other commentors. SUVs definitely have some great benefits but the question is do we really need those benefits. @Snarp already made some point on this. Most people I know who drive SUVs have no need for them. For example, a coworker drove a Chevy Avalanche with upgraded massive tires. She literally had to vault herself into it. All that just to drive around her 2 school age children and go 20 minutes to work. She told us she never used the bed either; she just always drove big cars and wouldn’t feel safe in anything smaller. I feel bad for the poor schmuck that sees that thing barreling towards them ha.

Also, I don’t have children but I do know that when I was a kid my mother squeezed us into a 2 door hatchback with no trouble. It is possible to raise kids without a SUV, plenty of people have done it and plenty of people do it today in and outside of the US. My aunt raised 4 kids and has never owned an SUV. Even the people I know with 3+ kids who may legitimately need the extra space have said to me they bought an SUV because they didn’t want to drive a “soccer mom” car. That’s their choice of course but even then they could purchase something smaller than an Avalanche. At the end of the day it’s convenience rather than need.

Snarp's avatar

And whatever happened to station wagons?

SpiceLMF's avatar

@Snarp haha that’s what my Aunt drove us around in… I bet those backward facing seats were complete death traps though. There’s this type of car called a crossover which I’d say is the closest thing to a modern station wagon but those are just SUV/car mash ups

Factotum's avatar

@Snarp The SUV is the station wagon. It’s a mini-van with safety features. It’s a panel van with seating. I’m not talking about the monster ones – I have a Honda Pilot. It’s roomy but not enormous. It gets maybe 17mpg and I don’t drive it far or often. I am retired and my wife takes the train.

The question ‘do we really need’ bugs me. I could list a lot of things that most of us don’t ‘need’; wedding rings, jewelry in general, iPods, 3-bedroom homes, a second car, a large tv, a thermostat we can set for comfort rather than survival temperatures – the list goes on.

But I believe that the rocks you buy, the size and temperature of your house, number of vehicles and gadgets you own are a matter of personal choice.

An argument was made that a woman who had a huge vehicle only dropped off two kids and did a 20 minute ride to work. If our assumption is that mpg is the source of SUV evil surely she gets a pass while someone with a two-hour commute, even in a fuel-efficient car, is the real eco-villain.

As for not being able to see around them, then same is true of most trucks – of any size.

To return to the topic of the thread though, an engine is like a dog – you buy it according to your taste and you feed it according to its appetite. America is a big country and we like big things.

SpiceLMF's avatar

@Factotum First, I’m not so sure SUV’s are safer than mini vans… not on average at least. This is an interesting article

Of course we don’t really “need” any of these creature comforts to survive and of course it’s personal choice. But I’m not talking about need to survive, I suppose what I’m really talking about is reasonable wants. There’s a point where you go above and beyond even wants. Sure I don’t “need” a car that’s safe, reliable etc, but that’s a reasonable want. In the same token, sure I don’t need a diamond ring but purchasing a 2 caret blood diamond is excessive. I just find SUV’s in not all but many cases to be excessive

And your right the person who has a 2 hour commute would probably be worse than the woman with the massive car & the 20 minute drive. But a) I’m sure she does use her car more than just a 20 min drive a day, my point was that none of which she uses her car requires her to have an Avalanche and b) sure 20 mins in a big car is better than 2 hours in a more efficient car… but you know what would be even better, 20 min commute in a efficient car.

Snarp's avatar

@Factotum I’m fine with that, but you seemed to be arguing that people need SUVs and that we were all a bunch of college kids who didn’t understand what it was like to have a family. I merely wanted to point out that I am not such a person, that SUVs are not needed, and that it is all a matter of personal preference, just as you said.

What I think is that we should have to pay the full cost of choices like SUVs, including paying for the environmental costs. I expect that that would change people’s opinions about big cars in the U.S.

But on a simpler level, we basically put more engine in every car in this country than it needs. Why does the Mini Cooper get such low gas mileage compared to similarly sized cars? Because it has more engine than it needs. And by needs in this case, I mean more engine than is necessary to effectively merge onto interstates, accelerate up steep hills, and go double the average interstate speed limit.

Factotum's avatar

@Snarp I honestly wouldn’t mind cars being taxed for environmental costs if a) the tax went towards improving the environment in the most efficient way possible and b) if the tax truly represented such costs. We are nowhere near being able to quantify such a thing. Inventing such a tax now (aside from the luxury tax which may well apply to an Avalanche) would just be random chiseling.

I do not mean to say that all people who argue against SUVs and apologize for the comment.

With regard to too much engine…dunno. Some roadway problems can only be solved by horsepower such as passing on a two lane highway when one of the vehicles involved suddenly changes speed.

Personally I think gasoline is too cheap and favor raising the price – or doing less to keep it cheap.

@SpiceLMF You’re right of course, it would be better if the long distance commuter were to drive in a more efficient car.

jerv's avatar

All I have to say here is that almost every car I’ve owned had 1.6L engines and I never had a problem getting where I needed to go. In fact, the anemic 4A-LC in my old Corolla was particularly well-suited for winter driving specifically because it was weak. The point of having an engine is to move the vehicle, not to rip up the ground underneath it.
The only cars I had with bigger engines were a 2.2L Corsica (mitigated by a too-tall 1st gear), a 3.1L Aerostar (heavy as hell), and a 2.2L Subaru (4WD can get away with more power before spinning the tires). I’ve borrowed a few cars with more engine and, while they were quicker on dry pavement, they were nearly unmanageable in the snow or mud and outright dangerous on ice.

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