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.
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.