President Obama vs. The Beach Boys

As a long-time Beach Boys fan, and as still a bit of a car buff, I was intrigued by this headline on Daniel Henninger’s Wall Street Journal column of May 28, 2009. Basically, the column was a lament for what Henninger sees as the passing of America’s car culture, as most recently epitomized by the idea that the Obama administration’s new 39 mpg CAFÉ standard is an “everybody wins” policy.

Henninger’s reasoning is that the advent of 39 mpg cars means the end of enthusiasm for cars as glamorous, high-performance vehicles—not simply a mundane means of getting from A to B. That car culture was, of course, exemplified by numerous songs, not only by the Beach Boys but by Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Deep Purple, and many others.

But are things as bad as all that? I still pick up Car And Driver from time to time, and there is certainly no shortage of exciting, high-performance cars today. Not only expensive Corvettes and BMWs but also sporty roadsters like the Mazda Miata and the new Hyundai Genesis. To be sure, the market for those cars might be reduced once the new CAFÉ standards are fully implemented, but I also question Henninger’s assumption that glamour and performance are inextricably linked with the internal combustion engine.

Way back when, I took a test drive in the ill-fated GM EV-1. Yes, its lead-acid battery pack was ridiculously inadequate for a serious production car. But the high-torque electric motor really peeled out! And take a look at the June 8, 2009 issue of Forbes, with its cover story on forthcoming electric cars, including the stunning high-performance Fisker (on the cover) and Tesla. These entrepreneurs aren’t aiming to build nerdy little econo-boxes; if they live up to their builders’ claims, these will be stylish, high-performance drivers’ cars. (And I can hardly wait till the prices get down to my range!)

I think Henninger greatly underestimates the appeal not only of personal mobility but also of driving a superbly performing vehicle. The internal combustion engine is no longer the be-all and end-all of auto-mobility. But cars—really good cars—will be with us for a long, long time.