Minicar Mania

Microcars like Daimler’s Smart have populated the streets of Europe and Japan for decades. But until recently, you couldn’t find an American auto executive or analyst who thought they had a chance to become a popular and profitable niche in the United States. The arrival of the Smart ForTwo on American shores this year—and the onset of skyrocketing gas prices—have changed that picture.

Several automakers, prompted by the Smart phenomenon, may be readying their own pipsqueak cars—maybe not all as small as the Smart ForTwo—for America. Moreover, the new entrants could far exceed Smart’s combined 36 miles per gallon. Here’s some of the latest big talk about small cars.

Automotive News reported that Hyundai is considering bringing the Indian-built i10 to the US. The car, currently on sale in 70 countries around the globe, including Europe, is 140 inches long—almost three feet longer than the Smart—and is powered by either a 1.1-liter or 1.2-liter 4-cylinder engine. The former is the fuel economy champ, offering up to 56 mpg, but the slightly larger engine is Euro5 emissions compliant, meaning it would have a better chance of meeting stringent emissions targets in the United States. Hyundai said the car would need to be bulked up to meet US safety standards.

Volkswagen is considering bringing its minicar, the Polo, to the US. The company claims that its BlueMotion diesel powertrain will deliver more than 60 mpg, highway and city combined—while also managing 99 g/km of CO2, an important European measurement. The gasoline version turns in 43 mpg on the same test cycle. Analysts predict that the Polo could land stateside in late 2009 or 2010.

FIAT is working on a hybrid version of its recently revised classic, the 500, that could get up to 80 mpg. The gas-electric hybrid has a start-stop system, dual-clutch transmission, and a battery pack along with FIAT’s two-cylinder 900 cc engine. Could FIAT see an opportunity for a win in the United States?

Daimler is testing all-electric versions of the Smart in Europe and plans to have them on sale worldwide by 2010, according to Motor Trend magazine.

How Smart Is Smart?

The Smart ForTwo went on sale in January with the first model year sales forecast at 20,000 units. That could be a low estimate, considering that Daimler has delivered 14,000 cars in the first seven months. In other words, Smart is selling at the same volume as the Mercedes GL Class SUV—or for that matter, the entire Land Rover or Saab divisions. With these numbers, it’s hard to argue that the Smart launch is an embarrassment to Daimler. Other small-ish car divisions are claiming banner years. BMW says it is sold out of the Mini for the 2008 model year—31,500 units through July—and is taking orders for 2009.

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  • Bryce

    These cars are going to bulk up to meet safety and emmisions standards. I don’t believe they will be able to maintain these larger numbers stateside. we will see…….

  • PatrickPunch

    We will see …

    … when fuel price increases another 50% in a few years time.

    Moreover these cars are excellent in city traffic where speed is lower and parking space could be a problem. Two of these may fit into a SUV parking spot ;-)).

  • jh

    While I hate to say this – I tend to agree with Bryce…..

    the only caveat would be if they are designed with a super structure type frame and incredibly specific crumple zones…. otherwise these cars will lose a lot in the name of safety…..

  • Aggieland

    I hope they put in rear airbags or something. If anything rear ended the i10 (or similar car) the passengers in the back would be toast.

  • Armand

    Bryce…not what’s going to need to happen is people will need to downsize. That’s going to be a very painful fact of life for many people but oh well….they’ll need to live with it.

  • uktiger

    We should have mini car, or hybrid only streets. Another possible policy would be to charge license fees based on gross vehicle weight. mini car $25 per year, 5k pound suv, $2,500 license.

  • mdensch

    I think uktiger is onto something. IF the US had an energy policy, it might include a fairly steep tax on motor fuels to keep the retail price above $4/gallon (or higher) and a graduated annual vehicle tax or license fee system which was based on either vehicle size or weight or on engine displacement.

  • Armand

    A good energy policy should start with education….educating the mass dullards on how to save more and consume less.

  • Dom

    The VW Polo Bluemotion Diesel is IMO the most promising car on that list, and should be able to be imported without “bulking up” as most VW cars are somewhat over-engineered when they hit the US anyway. And it won’t be a cheap Econobox… it will be a solid quality small car.

  • Gerald Shields

    Not that I don’t agree with you Bryce, but if the trend towards smaller, fuel efficient cars is consistent, it may not matter since it’s going to be ridiculous to have an SUV as we know it if gas prices are the way they are. Moreover, chassis technology has come a long way to the point the these cars could take a good hit from an SUV and the driver and it’s passengers will survive.

  • Giant

    Those not accustomed to smaller cars need to spend some time overseas, like in India. Smaller, “less safe” vehicles abound, yet there seems to be tons of people. It seems their population is not directly proportional vehicle safety.

  • Bryce

    owel, doesn’t really matter to me. compact would be closer to my size of car I would need for tooling around town, not super mini. Like I said, we will see how it pans out.