NEWS: Current Trends in Small Cars - Small is Big

March 24, 2010
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Haven't we seen this movie before? Carmakers bring out a flurry of new small entries in response to a sudden rush of demand driven by spiking gas prices. TV talking heads intone that "gasoline is not going to get any cheaper," but then it does, and U.S. car buyers, whose collective memory is about as long as a snail darter's, revert to form and embrace size and power again.
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But it really does seem different this time. While most international auto shows have pushed a green theme recently, at the Detroit auto show in January, it was all about small. Noting the lack of truck and SUV debuts, Audi chief designer Stefan Sielaff said, "I have a feeling that there is a paradigm shift."
With gasoline prices well off their historic highs - which were nearly two years ago - why are carmakers so eagerly jumping on the small-car bandwagon? Well, there are new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards - 35.5 mpg by 2016, although that's not a hard-and-fast figure, as it will vary for each carmaker depending on the size of its vehicles (bigger vehicles get lower standards). More significant is that the slice of the new-vehicle pie taken by small cars has grown by 50 percent over the last five years, and nothing attracts automakers' attention like a growing market.
B- and C-size passenger cars have gone from 14 percent of the market in 2004 to 21 percent in 2009. Sure, they got a boost by the $4-a-gallon gas panic of 2008 (although prices later dipped below $2 in many places by the end of the year) and by "cash for clunkers" in the summer of 2009, but we're still talking about five years of annual market-share growth. Clearly, larger forces are at work.
Baby boomers and the generation aged 15 to 30 are the two biggest demographic groups, and they've both been driving this growth. Boomers, now often empty nesters and entering retirement, are trading down in size. Meanwhile, half of first-time buyers under age thirty are choosing small cars. Another demographic shift favoring small cars is the urbanization of America: in 2009, according to Ford, we saw more people living in cities than in suburban/rural areas.
A rising environmental consciousness provides a subtle boost, while a more direct one comes from the economic bummer that is the twenty-first century. With stagnant wages and declining household income - due to globalization, rising health-care costs, and disappearing pensions - comes downward economic mobility. Consumption, then, shifts from wants to needs.
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Ford product development chief Derrick Kuzak calls the trend "right-sizing," suggesting that people will buy cars that are only as big as they really need. That is certainly a novel concept in this country, and it raises some questions: Does an office-park dad really need a Super Duty Crew Cab because he might want to bring home a new gas grill from Lowe's? Does a mom of two kids really need a 5000-pound, eight-seat SUV? Obviously, the implications for Mr. Kuzak's employer, and the U.S. car market in general, are profound.
The good news is that the newest small cars are not the bottom-feeding econoboxes we have known previously. "This is going to be a golden age of small cars," says Margaret Brooks, but then she would, since she's the head of small-car marketing for Chevrolet. The thing is, she's probably right. People moving down from larger vehicles don't want to give up any of the comfort and convenience they're used to. And carmakers are looking to boost small-car prices - and thus profitability, which has never been good. They're adding equipment and refinement, making small cars we'll actually want to drive. Small is big, and that's not necessarily bad.
Design Comments
By Robert Cumberford
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Honda CR-Z
It's not as good-looking as the beloved CRX was in its time, but it's still a very attractive, sporty two-seater that tens of thousands of happy drivers will likely enjoy, all the while saving money on fuel. A true Honda.
Toyota FT-CH
It's almost unbelievable to see a really good-looking four-door from Toyota, but the FT-CH is exactly that - and an economical hybrid to boot. Whether or not a production version retains the stylistic charm, this car should be highly successful.
Chevrolet Aveo
The show-car front end seen in Detroit looks a bit like a chicken coop on wheels, with its four oversize wire-textured openings, but the body shape is strong and the car ought to do well in our market.
Chevrolet Spark
Paraphrasing the rockabilly song, "there's a whole lotta stylin' goin' on." Bumps, indents, strangely pointed front-fender shapes, and oversize hip bones above the rear wheels force this tiny city car to support a lot more surface detail than it should have to. Ideal for the young? I don't think so.
Audi E-tron
This second iteration of the ineptly named Audi electric sports car was the prettiest car at the Detroit show, with classic proportions, beautifully handled surfaces, and a superb interior. Nothing's really new, but it embodies the best contemporary design thinking, as the Italian coachbuilders used to do.
Ford Focus
Those big black triangles alongside the grille are less than elegant, but the rest of the car is decent. It's fairly aerodynamic and cheerfully aggressive, with good visual solidity. In many ways, it represents a return to the basic Ford family sedans that sustained the company post-Model T.
Ford Fiesta
Actually more refined in its design than the bigger Focus, the Fiesta will do everything that most Americans need to have done by commuter and small-family cars, with outstanding economy and better handling than has been available in small cars up to now, apart from the Mini Cooper.
Chevrolet Cruze
Stylistically, it's something of a rounder-roofline mini Malibu, and it carries the established Chevy front-end theme well. A hundred horsepower per liter used to be racing-car output. The Cruze is a good bet for small-car stardom.
Honda CR-Z
When it goes on sale this summer, the 2011 Honda CR-Z will be the smallest hybrid you can buy. It's a foot shorter than the current Insight, although it's longer, wider, and taller than the original, two-seat Honda Insight, which, when it arrived in late 1999, was the first hybrid on American roads.
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Along with the original Insight, the CR-Z's other spiritual ancestor is the CRX (sold from 1985 to 1991), Honda's superefficient two-seat funster. Chief chassis engineer Terukazu Torikai has said that, in developing the CR-Z's suspension, Honda benchmarked the Mini Cooper, the (European-market) Volkswagen Scirocco, and the Lotus Elise. That's some pretty lofty company, given the CR-Z's simple strut-type front suspension and torsion-beam rear axle.
To amp up its performance, Honda gave the CR-Z a larger, more powerful engine than the Insight, a 122-hp, 1.5-liter in-line four (versus the Insight's 98-hp 1.3-liter) bolstered by the same 10-kW electric motor. Whether the 24 extra ponies will be enough to significantly boost performance remains to be seen. In a further attempt to inject some fun into the hybrid equation, Honda is offering a six-speed manual transmission as standard equipment, which will make the CR-Z the only current hybrid to offer a manual.
Despite being a foot shorter than its four-door sibling, the CR-Z isn't really any lighter. At 2725 pounds, the CVT version weighs virtually the same as an Insight, while the stick-shift car is a bit more svelte at 2670 pounds. Because of its larger engine, the CR-Z's fuel economy falls short of the Insight's. Preliminary estimates are 36/38 mpg city/highway (CVT) and 31/37 mpg (manual), versus the Insight's 40/43 mpg. The blogosphere has been alight with criticism of these fuel-economy figures, most of it coming from fans of the old - and rare - CRX HF and the original Insight, both of which posted better numbers in their day.
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Clearly, the CR-Z is not a pure mpg play but instead will have to make a case for itself by combining good fuel economy and good performance. But are the powertrain and chassis evolved enough from the Insight's to deliver the latter? We'll know better once we get a turn behind the wheel.
On sale: Mid-2010
What's the big deal?
The CR-Z is a foot shorter than the Insight, and more powerful, but can it recapture the spirit of the CRX?
Stats:
1.5L I-4/electric hybrid, 122 hp, 128 lb-ft; continuously variable transmission or 6-speed manual; 36/38 mpg
Audi e-Tron
Yes, the sexy two-seat electric sports car unveiled at Detroit has the same name as the two-seat electric sports car that Audi showed at Frankfurt last fall. But whereas the previous car was obviously a tweaked Audi R8, this latest E-tron is dramatically smaller, with standout styling all its own. Two electric motors drive the rear wheels and are powered by a mid-mounted lithium-ion battery. The car uses aluminum-spaceframe construction with composite body panels. Audi claims a curb weight of 2976 pounds (60 percent of which is over the rear wheels) and a 0-to-62-mph time of 5.9 seconds. Although Audi has said it plans a limited production run of the R8-based E-tron, no such statements were forthcoming regarding this car, but executives did hint that they are considering a range of E-tron offerings. The show car's crowd-stopping good looks, mid-mounted powerplant, and compact dimensions had others excited at the prospect that this E-tron could in fact be a first look at the long-rumored R4 mid-engine sports car. This more affordable coupe/roadster would slot below the R8 in the lineup and would be twinned with versions for Volkswagen and Porsche.
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On sale: Sometime . . . maybe
What's the big deal? Could be a preview of a new, small R4 mid-engine sports car.
Stats: Rear-wheel drive, two electric motors, 204 hp, 0 to 62 mph in 5.9 seconds
Ford Focus
The Ford Focus has been here since 200, so why is the new version big news? Because Ford is attempting to dramatically elevate the car's sophistication, equipment, and - not incidentally - its price. Our Focus will not be the ugly stepsister to the European model, as the cars will have 80 percent parts commonality, in keeping with CEO Alan Mulally's One Ford theme. Under the hood is a direct-injection 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 155 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque. A turbocharged (EcoBoost) engine is promised at a later date, as is an EV in 2011, along with a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid in 2012. Greater sophistication comes in the form of a six-speed dual-clutch automatic and a customizable display screen (MyFord Touch). Ford will attempt to raise transaction prices - and profitability - by tempting buyers with high-tech extras such as keyless ignition, navigation, a backup camera, and automated parking assist. The cheapie coupe disappears, replaced by an oh-so-Euro four-door hatchback to sell alongside the four-door sedan.
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On sale: Early 2011
What's the big deal? Ford looks to make its small car aspirational, with European refinement and loads of available equipment.
Stats: 2.0L I-4, 155 hp, 145 lb-ft
Ford Fiesta
The first European small Ford to arrive here is the Fiesta, which should reach dealerships by June. The sedan is just fractionally smaller than the current Focus, but the four-door hatchback is more than a foot shorter. Both use an aluminum 1.6-liter four-cylinder making 119 hp and 109 lb-ft of torque, connected to either a five-speed stick or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. The latter is more fuel efficient, posting EPA ratings of 30/38 mpg, or 30/40 mpg with an optional fuel-economy package (revised engine tuning, transmission calibration, and low-rolling-resistance tires). Prices range from $13,995 for the base sedan to $17,795 for the top-spec hatchback, before options. The Fiesta can't come close to matching the Honda Fit or even the Nissan Versa in terms of space for people and cargo; instead, the Fiesta will have to sell on its driving dynamics, which are quite good, and on its styling.
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On sale: June
What's the big deal? Our first new taste of European Ford goodness.
Stats: 1.6L I-4, 119 hp, 109 lb-ft; 6-speed dual-clutch automatic or 5-speed manual; 30/40 mpg; $13,995-$17,795 base price range
Chevrolet Spark
If the Spark looks familiar, that's because it was one of a trio of minicar concepts that General Motors showed three years ago. The public was asked to vote for its favorite, and the Spark, then called the Beat, came up the winner. Initial word was that it would not be sold in the U.S. market, but GM management has changed its mind - perhaps in an attempt to show its government masters that the company is offering more fuel-efficient models in America? - and the Spark will go on sale here in early 2012.
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On sale: Early 2012
Chevrolet Cruze
As Ford is attempting with the Focus, Chevrolet wants to elevate the perception and the price of its compact sedan. It's wisely ditching the Cobalt name for the new sedan, which is slightly larger than its predecessor, the better to make room for not one but two entries underneath it: a new Aveo and the Spark minicar. The Cruze, available only as a four-door sedan (no coupe version this time), comes in four trim levels. The base LS gets a 136-hp, 1.8-liter iron-block four. The uplevel engine, a 1.4-liter turbo in the 1LT, 2LT, and the LTZ, isn't much more powerful (138 hp) but should get better fuel mileage - Chevy is predicting 40 mpg on the highway. The manual and automatic transmissions both have six speeds. Available equipment includes leather, navigation, Bluetooth, heated seats, and wheels as large as eighteen inches.
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On sale: Late 2010
What's the big deal? It's more upscale and more economical than the Cobalt.
Stats: 1.4L turbo I-4, 138 hp, 148 lb-ft; 1.8L I-4, 136 hp, 123 lb-ft; 6-speed automatic or manual; 40 mpg highway (turbo)
Chevrolet Aveo
The Aveo has been a laggard in the tiny-car field, but an all-new version, previewed by the Aveo RS show car unveiled in Detroit, looks like it will turn up the wattage of Chevrolet's subcompact. In fact, if the production version hews closely to what's shown here, it rightly should get a new nameplate, to distance itself from today's car. Although the current Aveo is imported from Korea, the new version will be made in Michigan. The top engine offering will be the same 138-hp, 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine available in the Cruze. GM's Bob Lutz has said that the new Aveo will cost more than today's bargain-basement entry, which has a base price range of $12,685 to $16,085. Determined price shoppers will have another option, though - the even tinier Chevrolet Spark minicar.
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On sale: 2011
Stats: 1.4L turbo I-4, 138 hp, 148 lb-ft
Toyota FT-CH
Toyota has finally admitted that it plans to expand the Prius from a single model to a family of vehicles, which we first reported in June 2007. Toyota Motor Sales president Jim Lentz has said that the plan is to add eight additional hybrid models, with the goal of doubling the company's hybrid sales. Toyota characterizes the FT-CH (Future Technology Compact Hybrid) concept as one possible member of the Prius family, but it is a particularly logical one and something that dealers have been asking for. Nearly two feet shorter than today's Prius, the FT-CH takes the hybrid idea down one size class, from mid-size to compact; it also would be less expensive. Toyota isn't saying anything about the powertrain, but, if anything, it should exceed the current Prius's already-stellar 51/48 mpg.
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On sale: "Early this decade"
What's the big deal? A smaller, cheaper Prius that gets even better gas mileage.
Stats: 153-inch length (vs. 175.6-inch Prius), 100-inch wheelbase (vs. 106.3-inch Prius)
Vehicles By Size
Various countries, government agencies, and even car-rental companies have their own rules for classifying vehicles by size. For instance, the EPA goes by interior volume and weight, while the Japanese government goes by exterior dimensions and engine size. But manufacturers and industry observers more often rely on an informal shorthand that follows the simple logic we all learned from reading Playboy data sheets - higher letters denote bigger, um, cars. Generally speaking, A-segment refers to city cars like the Fiat 500, B-segment to subcompacts such as the Nissan Versa, C-segment to compacts like the Ford Focus and the Toyota Corolla, D-segment to mid-size cars such as the Chevrolet Malibu, and so on.
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TREND
Two feet shorter than a Terrain, GMC's Granite concept is Gamma-based, powered by a 1.4-liter turbo. "We are trying to push GMC [toward] the future," says designer Juho Suh.
- The Mazda 2, platform-mate to the Ford Fiesta and Mazda's smallest U.S. offering, hits dealers late this summer.

- Carlos Tavares, Nissan's chief for the Americas, has said that Nissan will add to its North American lineup two new models smaller than the Versa and priced at less than $10,000.

- BMW brings us its smallest-ever SUV, the X1, in early spring of next year.

- Chrysler will begin selling the Fiat 500 here later this year. The U.S.-market 500 will be powered by a 100-hp, 1.4-liter four-cylinder. A cabrio follows in 2011, and a sporty Abarth version is due in 2012.
COUNTERTREND
Audi board member Peter Schwarzenbauer has indicated that the subcompact A1 (which goes on sale in Europe this year) won't be sold in the United States.
- Mercedes- Benz won't bring the next-generation A-class to America, and the new B-class will come here only as an alternative-fuel vehicle (100 fuel-cell B-classes arrive next year).
- Mini has unveiled the not-so-mini Countryman, a four-door SUV, which goes on sale next February.
- Both Ford and General Motors in January increased production of their full-size SUVs to meet renewed buyer demand.
The Numbers
By David Zenlea
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Small cars dominated the U.S. market in the early 1980s but gradually fell into irrelevancy. What happened? Cheap gas helped, but so did two decades of nearly uninterrupted economic growth, illustrated below by gross domestic product. By the height of the dot-com boom, subcompacts and compacts combined accounted for little more than 10 percent of light-vehicle sales. And although gas prices marched steadily upward throughout the last decade, it was only when the overall economy hit the wall in 2008 that consumers really started downsizing.

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2011 Honda CR-Z

Base FWD 2-Dr Hatchback I4
starting at (MSRP)
$19,345
Engine
1.5L I4
Fuel Economy
31 City 37 Hwy
2011 Honda CR-Z