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What happened to the great American family cars?
If you, like me, love cars and have young children, then unless you’re seriously wealthy you’ve got a problem, because you have nothing to drive. I spent some time over the winter driving a new Chrysler Town & Country Limited, and I admired it hugely.
It was well thought out and did everything I asked of it. It was extremely pleasant to operate, and in many respects the ideal vehicle to transport a batch of children—aside from the $42,000 sticker and hideous new front end.
I also have an extremely good microwave oven at home. Every time I use that, I think about how competently it does its job. But just as I can’t imagine taking the T&C out for a weekend drive on the backroads, I don’t ever find myself microwaving things for fun.
American sedans—remember sedans?—were once large enough that no one thought twice about putting three kids in the back seat and a week’s worth of luggage in the trunk and taking off for vacation. A Dodge Polara or Chevrolet Biscayne was less a car than a sort of modern covered wagon, a slow-moving home that drifted across the country at a pace dictated by the interval between the World’s Largest Ball of String and the next A&W Root Beer shop.
For those for whom that wasn’t enough, there were seven- and nine-passenger Country Sedan wagons, in which when you got tired of the kids fighting, you could banish them to rear-facing seats far enough away that nothing they threw (or threw up, because wow, was it bouncy and full of fumes back there) would end up in the front.
And even though Ford would install a 370hp, 429 Cobra Jet with a Shaker hood in a Torino Squire wagon, that was the equivalent of a Cadillac CTS-V or E63 Mercedes wagon, rare and very expensive—and when you get right down to it, not actually all that useful.
So to transport my family today, we’re in a Subaru Legacy wagon, which I liked for its sort of Japanese cool (Bruce Willis did the home market ads for two decades) and with a five-speed, sporting pretensions. But it isn’t aging well, and I really need to replace it.
Only I can’t. Not only isn’t that model made any longer, there’s barely anything like it. As far as I know, the sole remaining people-movers sold in the USA with a manual transmission are the Subaru Forester, Hyundai Elantra GT, and Mazda5. And all of those share a problem with my current car: They’re not very big and more than anything else, that’s the main difference between the family truckster era and today. It was an era, too, and I can actually put a date on the moment that time went away. It was August 2011.
Summer of 2011 is when the last Ford Crown Victoria was built. In many ways, the Crown Vic was the last holdover of an era that began in the early ’50s, a body-on-frame, rear-wheel drive, V-8 sedan. Writing it out like that brings home just how much of an anachronism it was, but it doesn’t convey how supremely well it did its job.
Tested in countless millions of miles of taxi and police duty, the Crown Vic’s Panther platform was rock solid and good for 300,000 trouble-free miles; even with 237hp you still saw mid-to-high 20s on the highway (better than my Subaru); and most importantly, it had room for an actual family, with car seats and playpens and all.
To get a big sedan today, you have to go way, way up the food chain, and out of America to a BMW 7-series or Mercedes S-class, both of which start north of $80,000. I’ve driven plenty of Chevy Impalas and they’re adequate, but they’re not big; same with a Ford Taurus, which I really like as a car but not to put my kids in, every day. And quality from the Big Three is, frankly, horrifying. When I say the Crown Vic was trouble-free, I mean they just didn’t break, ever.
So why not drive an SUV like everyone else? I like trucks and I’ve owned plenty; and I think the Jeep Wrangler is an American icon. But from a driving point of view, SUVs don’t get the job done. I like sitting close to the road, and I like my cars to handle like cars. SUVs, even today’s good ones, make compromises I don’t like.
That’s why I’ve spent the last six months trying to convince my wife she’s not going to age 25 years the minute she sits down in a Crown Vic or worse, the nearly identical Mercury Grand Marquis. If I’m an anachronism for wanting a comfortable car that fits my family and makes me feel like a king every time I drive it, I can live with that.
And if you have an 85-year-old relative with a sweet Crown Vic they only drove on Sundays and waxed twice a month...well, you know how to reach me.