Auto executives are preparing for $3 gas—or maybe $4 or $5—to become the new reality. One piece of evidence is a new generation of electric drivetrains, from hybrids to pure electric cars, destined for vehicles in greater numbers than ever before. At the same time, the very definition of a segment—like what is a compact, a coupe, or an SUV—is being reshaped into smaller packages, with sleeker designs and a lot more connected infotainment.
Executives gathered at the 2011 Detroit auto show sang the small car chorus. “As gas prices get above $3, people start making different decisions,”said Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally. GM CEO Daniel Akerson said rising oil prices would skew those decisions toward smaller vehicles. And Jim McDowell the U.S. head of Mini—the brand perhaps most associated with redefining the appeal of small cars—said, “When gas increases in price, it provides a natural incentive for people to accelerate a decision that they’ve already been thinking about.”
Here are three examples of segment-busting sharply styled smaller cars are on display at the Detroit show, which runs through this weekend.
Chevy Sonic – Small and Sporty
The Chevy Sonic is G.M.’s best stab at reshaping the compact car into cool. That means a youthful, aggressive design, backed by turbocharged performance and fun handling. The 138-horsepower Sonic will be offered as a four-door sedan and a sporty five-door. Chris Perry, vice president of Chevrolet marketing, said the Sonic combines small car practicality with “the passion for driving that Chevrolet vehicles like the Corvette are known for.” We expect the Chevy Sonic, going on sale in fall 2011 as a 2012 model, to join the 40-mpg club.
Hyundai Veloster – Connected Coupe
The Veloster, which goes on sale this summer, is a coupe with a unique third door for rear-seat access, powered by a 1.6-liter direct direct-injected four-cylinder engine mated to Hyundai’s first dual-clutch transmission. And it’s loaded with connectivity, such as Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics system, Pandora web radio with seven-inch touch-screen display, Gracenote display technology with voice recognition, AVI and mpeg video playback via USB, video game console connectivity with 115-volt power outlet, and of course, Bluetooth hands-free phone. Expect 40-mpg on the highway with this one as well, which Hyundai brags is better highway fuel efficiency than Honda CR-Z Hybrid.
Ford Vertrek – Sleeker Small SUV
The Ford Vertrek concept is a vision for a smaller and sleeker utility vehicle. The concept retains most of the cargo space of an SUV, while powering the vehicle with a 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine equipped with stop-start (some call it micro-hybrid) technology to deliver best-in-class fuel economy. The sleek appearance of the Ford Vertrek concept is all about aerodynamics, to support high mpg and low emissions. Ford says it will “complement the high-tech powertrain solutions Ford envisions.” Can you say future hybrid and/or clean diesel? Keep in mind: It’s on Ford’s C-platform which can take hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or full electric drivetrains.