Written by Jim Motavalli, Mother Nature Network
Growth has long been Detroit’s mantra, but now the industry is surviving by thinking small. I’m writing this from Germany, where gasoline costs $7 or $8 a gallon (you thought $4 was high!) and a Jetta is a big car. I did see a Hummer in Leipzig, but believe me it’s an anomaly. More typical of what’s going on in Berlin these days is the launch of a fleet of 1,000 Car2Go Smart share cars — the largest concentration in the world.
America is finally getting hip to small cars, and the 2013 Chevy Spark, set to go on sale in the U.S. around now, is a good example of that. I saw one of these minis on display at my local Earth Day celebration and admired how well it stacks up against equally diminutive competition. To say that it looks and feels Korean is actually quite a compliment these days, given how impressive both the restyled Kia Optima and Hyundai Elantra are. The Korean connection isn’t random; the Spark (like the Sonic) was designed at GM’s studio in Seoul. Expect the less-than-2,000-pound car to start at less than $13,000 and achieve about 45 mpg on the highway.
Consider these size facts, provided by GM:
- The Spark, Chevrolet’s littlest car ever sold in North America, is 50 percent smaller than typical full-sized cars from 1973 (think Chevrolet Impala, Ford LTD, Cadillac DeVille), the year American car size hit a peak that it has only gradually gotten away from;
- Like the Honda Fit, the Spark is tall — six inches taller than that 1973 sedan. You could wear a top hat at the wheel. Adding vertical space is a great idea, because it makes small cars much better load haulers than they have any right to be.
- The Spark has the same front and rear-legroom as that ’73 landmark. That’s a great retort to this over-six-foot friend of mine who told me his ’73 Cadillac was the only car he could “fit into.” Well, actually he’d fit fine in the back seat of the Spark.
Buoyed by statistics like this, the Spark mini car could sell as well as Chevy’s new subcompact, the Sonic, which is moving out the door at rates 38 percent higher than the indifferent compact it replaced, the Aveo. Some 8,251 Sonics were sold in March. The Spark is already a world car, and selling it here brings the domestic industry in line with the rest of the globe. It’s doing well in India, which explains this TV ad, which tries to turn the little road warrior into a sex symbol:
Americans are continuing to buy Ford Fiestas and Focuses in great numbers. Focus sales in California (the nation’s largest car market) are up 135 percent in the first quarter of 2012. The fuel-efficient Fusion and the Focus are Ford’s sales leaders. And the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid has rebounded from the they-catch-on-fire debacle, with sales of 1,462 in April.
I’ve reported here several times that the Big Three didn’t initially see the advantage of selling hybrids to big-car-loving Americans (“it can’t tow a boat!”) but then got their clock cleaned by Toyota, which introduced the Prius in the U.S. in 2000. Now the car is selling so well that Toyota is talking about building them stateside.
By 2015, Toyota expects to be selling 200,000 Priuses a year in the U.S., and 400,000 of the expanded Prius family (which includes the roomy V and the fast-selling and under $20,000 C). In the first quarter, Toyota sold 60,589 Priuses of all types in the U.S.
It will be interesting to see if Chrysler can also strike gold with the new Dart, set to get 41 mpg on the highway with a 1.9-liter four, a manual transmission and a special aerodynamic-enhancing eco package. The Fiat 500 hasn’t been a huge hit, but bringing back the iconic Dart name was a smart move. Chrysler itself is enjoying huge sales, thanks in part to its first credible compact in a long while, the 200.
As the Who said, “Won’t get fooled again.” American automakers, tempered by the near-death experience that resulted from an over-dependence on trucks and SUVs, are unlikely to make the same mistake again. They have to stay lively, because the imports are likely to get much better, too — consider that Mercedes-Benz is about to bring a whole new class of fuel-efficient subcompacts into the American market. This isn’t the ’50s, when the imports included some fairly god-awful mini cars, like the English-made Peel.
The Sonic may be small, but it’s big in what it means for the domestic auto industry. Detroit downsized, and consumers are buying in. If gas drops to $3 a gallon after the peak of the summer buying season, will Americans think big again? I don’t think so, although there will be some movement in that direction. We’re looking at a fairly profound and very welcome change in values.