Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2008   by Jim Anderton, Technical Editor

Downsized vehicles, upsized expectations

Some numbers have a mythical, almost magic quality. In the NHRA it was 300 miles per hour; on the Dow Jones, 10,000 points. Then there is Wayne Gretzky's 215 point season and Roger Bannister's famous ...

Some numbers have a mythical, almost magic quality. In the NHRA it was 300 miles per hour; on the Dow Jones, 10,000 points. Then there is Wayne Gretzky’s 215 point season and Roger Bannister’s famous four-minute mile. And, of course, the $100 a barrel oil.

While that figure looks like a bargain now, the personal number that hit me this week, like George Chuvalo, is the $100 fill-up. That’s what it takes to fill many full-size pickups or SUV’s these days, and I think that this is finally the breaking point. For most Canadians, me included, there’s just no way to budget that much every month for motor fuel; and also like many Canadians, I can’t significantly reduce the amount I drive or take public transit. I, like much of this country, is going to downsize, meaning the next vehicle I own will be a V-6, not an eight, towing capacity be dammed.

What are the implications for the aftermarket? There are several. The most obvious is the collapse of residual values for the biggest gas guzzlers, meaning the threshold dollar amount an owner will spend for major work will get smaller, forcing vehicles off the road earlier than in the past. The second is the inevitable outcome of the mass migration to inline fours from V-6’s and V-8’s: simply put, it means less work. While the average invoice, job-for-job, won’t be materially less, the real reason is less about the number of cylinders and more about “inline vs. vee.” What I’m talking about is two oxygen sensors instead of four, one head gasket instead of two, a single exhaust instead of duals. The downsizing trend actually ripples throughout the vehicle, with fewer sparkplugs, less engine oil, coolant and transmission fluid as well as smaller tires.

On the other hand, the electronics are as complex as ever and the all-wheel-drive systems of passenger car-based crossovers are much more of a wear item than the part-time systems of pickup-based 4X4’s. Diesels are poised to finally make an impact in the light-duty market, and turbochargers are sure to enjoy a renaissance as former V-8 owners demand economy as well as power. Cylinder deactivation is another possible future growth item in service, as are the new common-rail direct injection fuel systems. I don’t expect piezo injectors to be any more tolerant of dirty or contaminated gas than the current crop, and with the spike in fuel prices, more owners are running on empty before filling up, so I’d expect to see a slight bump in fuel pump and fuel filter sales.

What about alternate fuels and hybrids? The short answer is “not yet,” as hybrids are not yet off-warranty in significant numbers and E85 ethanol, possibly the worst motor fuel ever concocted for everyday driving, mercifully isn’t a factor in Canada, at least not for now; but alcohol fuels are stupid enough that someone in government will force them on us eventually. And the hidden factor we can’t control? There are two big ones on my radar: the cost of home heating in the upcoming cold weather season and the possibility that an election might bring Mr. Dion’s carbon tax plan into action. Don’t get me started!