Avoidable Contact #84: In which the laziest automotive engineers do some of the best automotive engineering
The French talk about l’esprit de l’escalier, that frustrating moment when you come up with the perfect reply or retort to someone’s cutting comment after you’ve walked away from them. We should also recognize l’esprit de l’instagram, a unique subgenre of wit in which one says clever things exclusively on social media. I happen to know someone who is the perfect example of this—if you read automotive media, you know him too; he’s more widely published than I am. Online he is the very soul of wit, delivering “snackable” snark and just-this-side-of-confrontational comments that make me wonder why I didn’t think of them first. In person, however, he’s tongue-tied and twisted, just an earthbound misfit. You get the idea. Can barely string two words together. As Pope once wrote,
So well-bred spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the game they dare not bite.
Yesterday I drove the new Charger Hellcat Widebody Redeye Triple Felony Pitbull Edition. OK, I made the last part of that up. I was enthusing about it online and someone commented,
A showcase for the laziest kids in the engineering class.
Big—as the kids say nowadays—oof. I knew what he meant; the conventional wisdom of automotive enthusiasm tells us that the 2021 Charger is nothing more than a warmed-over ’90s W210 Benz. Supposedly you can still bolt some Benz suspension parts directly to a new Challenger, or to a pre-2011 Charger.
In all of this, the conventional wisdom is mostly wrong. There are some interchangeable parts, yes—but if you think that means there’s been no new engineering or design done, then you’ll find being a Honda tuner to be the very soul of disappointment, because the big H will use the same component from here to eternity where the customer can’t see it. Porsche, as well, used VW Rabbit control arms in the 924 and 944, until it came up with a design of its own that is universally despised for its ephemeral lifespan and intergalactic servicing costs.
Oh, and there’s National Part Number 716102, Seal, Rear Crank—named “Cranky” by yours truly in an article a while back. You’ll find it in a ’75 Rabbit 1.7L, a first-gen Porsche Panamera Turbo … and the Bugatti Veyron. I think you get the idea. Sometimes, as the man said, a control arm is just a control arm.
What we cannot deny is that the 2021 Charger still has a lot in common, in both concept and execution, with the barely-post-Millennium LX-body Chrysler 300, a car that came out … let’s see … FOUR generations of Honda Accord ago. It was still possible to buy a fifth-generation Malibu when the 300C came out. We’re on generation nine now. Even relatively long-lived cars like the Toyota Avalon have been ground-up re-designed twice since then.
Of course, there’s a penalty for this pathetic laziness. Chrysler’s refusal to build a modern car with two-liter-turbo power, modern styling, and hybrid/EV compatibility appears to have led to all-time high sales numbers for these nameplates in the past few years, much of it in exotic variants that can fetch up to five times as much money as a base Honda Accord.
Wait. Hold up.
Let me get this straight. Everybody in the automotive business knows that now is the time to go full steam ahead into EV production, if you’ll pardon the odd mixture of transportation metaphor and desired reality there. They also know that in the short but unavoidable (hint, it’s only really the latter) time between now and The Electric Singularity ™, the customer is desperate to buy brand-new designs powered by the ubiquitous and China-tax-friendly 2.0-liter four-banger turbo. She (by which I mean “the customer”—it’s very popular nowadays in auto writing to say “she” instead of, for example, Setright’s “T.C. Mits, The Celebrated Man in the street”) wants fastback styling and big thick doors and really raked-out windshields and all the stuff we take for granted everywhere from the Accord to the new BMW 3 Series.
Everybody knows this but Chrysler, whose lazy engineers just keep building the same car with more power and bigger tires. Not only does this lazy course of action sell a lot of $60,000-and-up versions of a $29,995 car, it also somehow results in additional sales for the $29,995 car! The Charger and Challenger are probably the only cars in human memory to be both high-volume rental-lot fodder and the kind of dream vehicles that inspire TV shows and rap music.
Being the sort of hopeless lifetime nerd who cannot help but draw technical parallels to everything, I’m reminded of back when the Intel Itanium processor was supposed to make the so-called “x86” processor irrelevant. It was at least the third processor with that particular job description, depending on how seriously you took HP and Sun Microsystems. The Itanium was absolutely better on paper than the x86 that you could buy on the shelf next to it, but the x86 had broader applications and it just kept improving. Today, Itanium is the answer to a trivia question—as are “Motorola 68k,” “PowerPC,” “UltraSPARC,” and “PA-8600.”
Now let me tell you a secret. The newest Charger doesn’t feel as consciously ultra-modern as, say, a C-Class Benz or Audi A3. But it’s pretty far from a 2004 Chrysler 300C in everything that matters, whether you’re talking soft-touch door cards or the uConnect 5 system. If you don’t drive new cars for a living, the Charger feels like a new car. This is important, because the people who drive new cars for a living represent the smallest possible segment of new-car buyers, while the people who don’t make up the largest possible segment of same.
By standing behind the same-shaped vehicle for so long, FCA has built up tremendous brand equity. Social media is filled with “meme accounts” that plumb the depths of humor associated with stereotypes like, “Everybody joins the Army just to buy a Charger,” and “If you’re at home and you see your girl on Instagram in the passenger seat of a Hellcat, that’s not your girl anymore.” The Charger/Challenger are America’s favorite cars to modify in fashions ranging from mild to (you guessed it) wild. People know how to fix them.
Oh, and don’t get me started on resale value. V-8 Mopars have plenty of it nowadays. Used-car shoppers on a fixed budget will have much better luck finding an affordable Avalon (or, whisper it, 328i) than they will getting a solid Charger R/T on the cheap. If you want to know why this is so, YouTube will be happy to show you how you can put 450 horsepower to the wheels of a 5.7 Charger without lifting the heads off the engine.
Are FCA’s engineers the laziest in the business? Maybe. They don’t have a Bolt or a Volt or a Leaf or an EQC or any of those other absolutely wonderful, astounding, amazing showroom paperweights. They haven’t managed to match the brilliance of Chevy’s Trax/Trailblazer/Equinox/Blazer/Traverse five-finger crossover death punch. Last I heard, they don’t even have a plan to trash all their gasoline-powered cars by 2022.
On the other hand, they managed to singlehandedly preserve the concept of the desirable American-branded sedan after Ford and GM abandoned the field in cowardly fashion. They make cars that look like four-wheeled thugs and brutalize racetracks into submission while also pairing with two Bluetooth devices at once and offering wide-angle rearview camera. Heck, the Challenger alone comes in specs from “stick-shift track rat” to “Friday-night drive-in throbber” to “203-mph wide body” to “AWD winter specialist.” Name another car that can do that. Not even the BMW 3-Series has that kind of range any more.
The Challenger and Charger, by their very continued existence and success, expose an unpleasant truth in the auto industry—namely, that pretty much every new design of the past decade is optimized for:
* Chinese tax laws
* EV and hybrid compatibility based on future California legislation
* Euro pedestrian protection laws
* Various social and political imperatives embraced by the automakers
Did you notice anything missing in there? How about stuff the customers want? Today’s designs are built for governments and media critics, not for the people who actually buy them. This novel practice of hating your own customers has become very fashionable lately; you see it everywhere from major sports leagues to shoe companies. But Chrysler isn’t going to play that game. It’ll just keep making the old cars that people actually want to buy, and people will keep buying them.
In short, I’d like to congratulate Chrysler’s engineers on their laziness. They are “lazy” the same way a good UNIX administrator is “lazy”—which is to say they are effective. And while I wanted to write all of the above in my response to my friend’s Instagram comment, I decided at the time to put my phone down, enjoy six more laps in the Hellcat Redeye, and save my retort for today’s column. This turned out to be the right choice, just like building cars for your customers instead of for politicians is the right choice. Therefore, this sort of laziness shall, in future, be called:
l’esprit de l’challengeur.