Small talk

Jan 26, 2010

Little by little, smaller cars are the talk of the town. Or at least the talk of the auto industry. There’s the Yaris from Toyota, the Fit from Honda, smartfortwo from Mercedes, Mini from Cooper (BMW), the Focus from Ford and the Aveo or Cobalt from Chevy (although Chevy’s 2011 Cruze is GM’s small-car hope for big American sales).

Maybe in 2011 Chrysler/Fiat will bring in Fiat’s 500, and perhaps we’ll see something from India and maybe another from China.

There are more, familiar and unfamiliar. They’re everywhere and promise to make their presence known for a long time.

January’s 2010 North American International Auto Show in Detroit showcased the global market of what’s available, will be available and in concept. Conspicuous were the best of the fuel sippers in hybrid, electric and alternative-fuel form, as well as the piston-pumping internal combustion engines that still rule the motorways. To highlight the electric surge the Detroit show debuted Electric Avenue, a 37,000-sq.-ft. area on its main show floor; around 20 of these new-technology vehicles got the media buzz.

Most conspicuous – and most hyped – were the world’s small-car (or at least smaller) offerings, where manufacturers showed just about everything they’ve got.

Least conspicuous – at least, least hyped – were the full-size pickups and SUVs that for so long were the stuff that ruled the minds, hearts and roads of America. The big vehicles haven’t been fully relegated to the back rooms of car-dom, but their gas-guzzleness has put them on the sidelines while their littler cousins take the field.

This isn’t the first in the time in our modern collective memory that small cars dominated the automotive landscape psyche, if not wholly the roadways. During the gas crunches of the 1970s drivers would queue up their vehicles at gas stations, sometimes snaking around a city block. That’s when small cars that got more mpgs than their land-yacht behemoth cousins gained attention.

But even many of those ’70s-era small cars by today’s standards weren’t that efficient. They just had smaller engines in downsized and often-uncomfortable cars like the Ford Pinto, Chevy Vega or Datsun [now Nissan] F-10.

Yet as consumers realize that fuel prices will rise again, likely nearing the $4/gal. they experienced in the summer of 2008, and that even with a growing economy concerns continue about jobs, housing and prices for all goods, small cars will be the option selected more often for general-use personal transportation. Moreover, with the national government bolstering alternative-fuel vehicle design with grants and loans, even more attention is paid to fuel economy. And small cars equate well with the notion of fuel economy.

Thus, 2010 heralds the new era in the direction the automotive world is taking, and the work of restylers will focus more on small cars throughout the next several years, if not this decade and beyond.

Interesting to note, however, that CarMax Inc., a national used-car dealer, reported only one small car, Honda’s Civic, in its top 10 list of used vehicles most searched for in 2009. Consumers might have been looking for those great deals where the cost-per-mile tradeoff was less important than the potential retail savings.

Trucks? They’re a part of the fabric of America, even if they fall out of favor among some consumers. SUVs? Though their 1990s and 2000s era of gas-consuming bigness is over, they’re being downsized or even called something else; but their imprint isn’t gone.

In what almost seems like the blink of an eye, the vehicle field of play changed from big to little, from big trucks and SUVs to small players. That’s the way of the world.