Noise, Vibration & Harshness: Small Cars

Detroit has always preferred selling cars by the pound. And when skeptics criticized its predilection for building them longer, wider, and heavier, it countered by privately revealing a little trade secret - it doesn't, heh, heh, really cost that much more to build them bigger.

But here's the flip side to that tip: it still costs less to build them smaller. And now, with the demand for quality small cars that command premium prices accelerating while demand for big 'uns wanes, the joke turns out to be on those whose only value claim is more road-hugging weight for your money.

As a practicing glutton, I well realize quantity can be a critical component of quality. But it needn't be, and, often, it oughtn't be. In recent years, the exalted size-is-value equation has been crumbling in this country - not just in the automotive realm, but elsewhere, and not a moment too soon. The idea that something is necessarily better, more special, or more luxurious, merely because it's bigger, is as specious a premise in cars as it is in homes, electronic equipment, and vittles.

I don't care how much Cheez Whiz you slather on top or how much dead weight it can tow, the best things don't always come in big packages. The last eighty years or so - during which time our corporations spent countless billions attempting to persuade us that heft and prestige were inextricably entwined - helps, in part, to explain a nation whose corporeal avoirdupois is exceeded only by the collective fatness of its automotive fleet. Attention, supersize shoppers: just because it's a good deal pound for pound doesn't mean it's a good idea to stick it in your mouth or your garage.

Europeans and Asians, among others who tend to eat and drive smarter than Americans, have known the sublime pleasures of lighter meals and cars for generations. But while many of us here understood the attraction, it wasn't until the runaway success of the new Mini Cooper that one could finally stand up in public and say, "Stop the narrowcasting, all you carmakers. There is a segment of the American market that will pay a premium for a quality small car."

So obvious, yet it took Mini to prove it, even to its owner, BMW, which thought twice about bringing the car to America and then projected sales conservatively. We could go on about the Bavarians' concomitant obsession with building ever bigger cars and trucks, but let us today give them three rousing cheers, for they're not just bringing us the right-size new 1-series, their Mini has blazed the trail for others to follow, if they're smart.

If they're not smart but Smart, they'll find themselves hindered in a few key respects - their cars are good (not great like the Mini) and late to market. Most important, they missed a brilliant chance to upgrade the image of two brands when they chose to keep the cars away from Mercedes-Benz dealers. Instead, Smart cars will be sold at various dealerships franchised by that hard-charging corporate Mr. Fix-It, Roger Penske, in settings that will run the gamut from the occasional blue-chip Benz peddler to Highway Howie's All-Brand Auto Mall.

Contrast this strategy with that being floated for sales of the diabolically adorable Fiat 500 at American Ferrari dealers in an expected 135-hp, Abarth edition. Perfect. A kind of all-purpose conscience salve and green "it" bauble, the 500 will appeal not just to those in the market for a $175,000 Ferrari but also to those who would be if they only could, along with those who simply love the way the 500 looks and what it stands for - fun-to-drive, environmentally sound chic. Why shouldn't buying one be a class experience?

But let's not get lost in marketing sauce; the quality of the small car is the point. People credit Mini executives for brilliant viral and print media when the fact is, they could've sold these cars with a sales force of convicted felons using prison pay phones.

The Fiat 500 rings all the same bells as the Mini - it's retro-chic-er than hell and is reportedly great to drive. Come in, Italy: this car will appeal not only to an expanding segment of the American buying public, it will steal more than a few Mini owners, as early adopters burn out and the backlash that inevitably taints every latest thing takes root. For many, it's already time for something else small, cute, practical, and upscale.

So welcome, too, the new Volvo C30, a certain winner and new favorite that eschews retro but not quality or function. We can't wait for the Saturn Astra; it won't be as cheap as the Ion it replaces; on the other hand, it won't be as cheap as an Ion. And let's not forget the Audi A3, the Volkswagen GTI, and the Mazda 3, among other small cars that have been reminding us lately of a cosmic truth: sometimes, it's better to pay more for what you get than get more for what you pay.

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