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.