For some, a large car is not such a bad deal

Does buying a "big car" makes any sense today? To some motorists, yes, it does. I know one woman who runs a furniture business in suburban Boston. Two years ago she gave up an aging Lincoln Continental for a Chrysler New Yorker that gets maybe 6 to 8 miles to a gallon of gas, if that. Of course, in the last 12 months she's driven no more than 2,000 miles, she says; thus, the "moment of truth" at the fuel pump doesn't come too often anyway.

The point is, she prefers a big car for the creature comforts it offers, the sense of well-being all around, and the fact that she wants to buy what she likes, and that's that.

In fairness, the "big cars" of today aren't the "big cars" of yesterday, by a long shot.

The 1980-model biggies, on the whole, get much better mileage than the big cars of even a couple of years ago -- and a whole lot better mileage than a four- or five-year-old car a buyer might want to turn in.

Generally, a large luxury car today uses a much smaller engine and is far more fuel-efficient on the road. Too, it probably calls for the same kind of gas as today's small cars -- unleaded. Almost every new car requires lead-free fuel, because of the catalytic converter that helps the car to meet the tailpipe-emission requirements of the law.

The Lincoln Continental, for example -- always the epitome of bigness, comfort, and luxury on the road -- is about 900 pounds lighter in 1980 than it was in 1979. Yet at the same time, the inside passenger space hasn't suffered much at all; and some measurements are even more favorable to the passenger than in last year's car. The trunk, for example, is larger in the truncated 1980 -model Lincoln, compared with the '79 model it replaced.

Fuel economy is a lot better, too. Instead of the 400-cubic-inch engine in 1979, the new-model Lincoln uses a 302-c.i. engine as standard and the Ford 351 -c.i. engine as an option. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the 1980 -model Continental with a "351" engine at 18 miles per gallon, compared with 13 two years ago with the 400-c.i. engine.

In a week-long, 60-mile-a-day commute in a 1980-model Lincoln Continental Town Car, for instance, I was able to average about 16.5. Further, with the Ford automatic overdrive transmission as standard on the car, on an Interstate trip the m.p.g. figure is increased by as much as 4 miles a gallon, thus pushing the figure up to 20 or better.

The corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) for all manufacturers this year is 20; therefore, the Town Car on a trip can meet the requirements of the law without any help from some of the higher-mileage small cars now being built by Ford.

And speaking of price, the cost of some of the less-luxurious big cars may not be too much higher than the cost of a highly optioned small car. The compact or subcompact that lists, in its basic version, at $5,000 may end up costing $8,000 or more when the buyer dresses up the car to where he or she wants it.

A buyer can often dicker over the price of a big car, whereas the small cars are in such high demand that dealers are less inclined to bend on the full sticker price and more. And don't forget that the manufacturers are providing car dealers with high-dollar incentives to move them out the showroom door.

A big car may be a lot more versatile for the owner as well. After all, not everyone can get along with a 4-seater mini these days. One big car is certainly cheaper to own and run than two smaller cars, which may spend a lot more time on the road as well.

Automakers are emphasizing "range" these days, largely to compensate for the high-mileage claims of the small cars. In some cases, with a larger tank and optimum conditions on the road, even a big car will get surprisingly good distance on a full tank of gas.

Obviously, a Lincoln at up around $12,000 or $13,000 is a high-priced car -- higher than any domestic smaller car, even if not some of the imports.

But how about the Buick Le Sabre, Chevrolet Impala/Caprice, Ford LTD, and Oldsmobile 88? The EPA's estimated m.p.g. is listed as 22 on each of them, even though the motorist may end up getting more or less on the road himself. The Dodge St. Regis, with a 225-c.i. engine, is listed at 18. Among the smaller cars, the Ford Fairmont with a 200-c.i. engine is 21. A Datsun 510 is 27, the Toyota Celica 21, and the Ford Pinto minicompact with a 140-c.i. engine, 24.

Those figures aren't too far from a Lincoln Continental, when you come to think of it. Mileage on the road is very much an individual sort of thing, anyway. No two drivers covering the same route at the same time and in the same type of car with identical equipment would get precisely the same distance on a gallon of gas.

A little more than a year ago, full-size cars were selling so well that the domestic carmakers had a real concern over whether they would sell enough small cars to meet the federal government's CAFE figure of 19 m.p.g. The Iranian revolution changed all that faster than any other external influence has ever changed the auto industry, the Ford Motor Company says.

Today, with Americans more and more aware of rising fuel prices and the possibilities of spot shortages in the future, the small-car trend is continuing and, indeed, is here to stay.

Nonetheless, taking a hard look at the whole picture, a larger car for some people might not be such a bad deal after all.

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