Small Is Big at Geneva Motor Show

This week’s Geneva Motor Show will shine a spotlight on all manner of green vehicles, including hybrids, diesels, diesel-hybrids, electric cars and hydrogen-powered sportsters. But the biggest trend could be small cars. “There’s a downsizing effect,” said Paul Willis, chief operating officer of Kia Motors Europe. “We’re seeing a change in the mix of vehicles.”

As the European Commission is cracking down on greenhouse gas emissions by proposing a reduction of 25 percent from the current levels of 160 grams per kilometer, automakers are realizing that shrinking the size of vehicles is a feasible and practical way to reduce their carbon footprint.

Small fuel-sippers will be featured throughout the show in Geneva. The Ford Fiesta is garnering a lot of attention, as Ford prepares to migrate the efficient European subcompact to U.S. shores. The Fiesta is expected to go on sale in Europe as a 2009 model, before being offered in the U.S. in the following year. The Fiesta engine lineup will include a portfolio of small and efficient powerplants: two gas engines, a 1.3-liter and a 1.4-liter four, and three diesels, including a 1.6-liter diesel with 85 horsepower.

Toyota will feature the tiny iQ concept car, while Saab will introduce a compact crossover utility powered by ethanol. Audi is also expected to show off its athletic little A3 convertible, combining higher performance with lower emissions.


  • Boom Boom

    Small has always been bigger in Europe than in the US. (You try parking a Buick Lesabre in Rome.) The small Japanese cars that have shown up on these shores in the last 3 years (Fit, Versa, Yaris) have been selling quite well. The US response has been lackluster (Caliber, etc.). Saturn just moved the Astra over from Opel in Europe, so perhaps we’ll see more of that trend from GM and Ford. (They’ve got many popular small cars already on the roads in Europe successfully competing against VW, Toyota and everyone else.)

    Driving a smaller car gets you better gas mileage and costs less. I’ll be interested to see if the trend of the last 15 years towards bigger and more powerful cars starts to swing back towards smaller more efficient cars. Lots of folks out there like their big SUVs and may not be ready to part with them even if it costs $100 for a tank of gas… or $200… yikes.

  • noz

    SUV owners, for the most part, are complete idiots…we’re all suffering for their stupidity and selfishness.

  • Boom Boom

    I’m not an SUV driver… I drive a Honda Civic Hybrid. But calling SUV owners complete idiots is rather foolish and pointless. We’re all part of the problem and must all be part of the solution. Blaming only SUV owners (as nebulous and varied as they are) is just dumb.

    The best incentive to conserve gas is to make it more expensive. At $1 a gallon, folks had little incentive to save gas. I’ll be curious to see what gas needs to reach in price for F150s, Tahoes, etc. to be replaced by small utility vehicles. (As gas prices continue to rise, we’re all going to find out the answer to this question, whether we like it or not….)

  • domboy

    Kudos to Ford if they really do bring the Fiesta to the US. Of course, we’ll probably not see the diesel engines here, as usual. But here’s hoping anyway. At least the European carmakers are bringing their diesels over soon.

  • Paul Rivers

    I simply refuse to drive anything smaller than a civic or corolla for safety reasons. I think other americans most likely have similar feelings on the subject, which is why you don’t see a lot of those subcompact cars here. It’s nice to say that people drive smaller cars in Europe, but I bet you don’t have as many large trucks and SUV’s that you have to worry about hitting you over there, either.

    Just take a look at what the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had to say about the safety and fuel economy or subcompact cars:
    http://www.iihs.org/news/rss/pr121906.html

    “Driver death rates in minicars are higher than in any other vehicle category. They’re more than double the death rates in midsize and large cars.”

    “”People traveling in small, light cars are at a disadvantage, especially when they collide with bigger, heavier vehicles. The laws of physics dictate this,” says Institute president Adrian Lund. Death rates in single-vehicle crashes also are higher in smaller vehicles than in bigger ones.”

    “People often choose to buy very light cars for fuel economy but “you don’t have to buy the smallest, lightest car to get one that’s easy on fuel consumption,” Lund points out. “Models including the Honda Civic, not even the hybrid version, and Toyota Corolla are bigger than the minicars we tested and weigh more, so we would expect better occupant protection in serious crashes. At the same time, these and other small car models get nearly as good fuel economy as minicars.””

  • Boom Boom

    While I accept that, in general, bigger is safer, the IIHS report is out of date and contradicts the data on their website. If you look at the “mini-cars” list, most get a mix of Good to Poor Ratings for 2008 cars.

    http://www.iihs.org/ratings/summary.aspx?class=90

    If you look at the same list for “small cars” you get a similar range of ratings.

    http://www.iihs.org/ratings/summary.aspx?class=40

    The statement that Mr. Lund makes is not supported by the data on his own website. The Toyota Corrolla is listed at Good/Poor/Poor. The Yaris: Good/Poor/Marginal. Which is actually better than the Corrolla. The Honda Civic (my car, BTW) does get all good.. but then so does the Nissan Versa, which is Nissan’s smallest US model but somehow doesn’t end up on the “minicar” page. (It weighs 2700 pounds, only 200 pounds more than the Honda Fit).

    Modern cars do not defy the laws of physics, but car designs can provide a significant measure of safety in a smaller car.

    There is also a chicken or the egg argument hidden in there. If we all drive big cars to be safer, eventually we’ll all end up in D5 Bulldozers. If we all move to smaller cars, then the safety issue goes away.

  • Paul Rivers

    I just don’t think a report from Dec 2006 is out of date. That’s the 2007 model year.

    You may not realize this, but a small car that gets a 5/5 rating is less safe than a large car that gets a 4/5 rating. Every rating page says “Important: Frontal crash test ratings can be compared only among vehicles of similar weight.”

    From http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/19/automobiles/19auto.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin
    “”A good-scoring small and lightweight car is not nearly as good as a good-scoring midsize car — that’s just the law of physics,” the insurance institute’s president, Adrian Lund, said.”

    I certainly do agree with you that there’s a chicken and the egg argument there. But I would say that you should be reasonable about how much smaller of a car you’re driving. I don’t see a safety reason to drive anything larger than a midsize sedan (with good safety ratings). I’m personally willing to take somewhat more of a risk and drive a civic or a corolla. I just think anything smaller than that is the line where is it’s just too risky. And since (as mentioned in the article) those subcompact cars get the same mileage as the “small” cars like the corolla, you’re not even saving gas – so all you’re doing is saving money when you purchase the car. I can’t imagine how saving a couple of thousand dollars is worth a dramatic increase in the risk of getting in a fatal car accident.

    (Don’t get me wrong though, if you want to drive one, go ahead. I just don’t think it’s a good idea. But you’re the one getting hurt, so I’m totally ok with you taking the risk! :-))

    P.S. I should mention that I read in another article that the Hummer was 1 of only 2 large SUV’s to only get a 4/5 front crash rating. If you do feel the need to buy a bigger car, make it worth it – buy something that actually gets good crash test ratings. :-) (And hopefully it’s something much smaller than a Hummer.)

  • Coolyah

    Small cars will be the face of the auto industry in the near future. Several auto makers, Ford, Volvo, Volkswagen to name a few, have done an exceptional job by bringing in and showcasing the best small cars today. I guess the Frankfurt Auto Show in Germany started it all from the unveiling of the Ford Verve and today, small cars are the highlight in the 2008 Geneva Motor Show. Wow, it just keeps better and better each year. I’m really looking forward to having a small car soon. But for now, I’ll stick with my VTS. It only needs a Cadillac header repair and for the meantime, enjoy a ride with a big car.

  • Boom Boom

    Paul,
    If the IIHS’s scoring system only compares cars of the same class, then what is the point of the scoring? They could all have the same score but be completely different in terms of safety? The scores, therefore, say nothing about the safety of a Civic vs. a Fit vs. a F-150. The IIHS system either is flawed or doesn’t support the blanket statement that all small cars are not safe. (They should have a system like the Star system of the NHTSA. 5 Star is 5 Star.)

    That said, I accept your cut off point on safety. I would drive a Honda Fit, but not the sort of go-cart that some of the small scale electric cars out on the market are. Some folks would say that you’re decision to drive a Civic is putting your own life at risk since it is less safe than a Tahoe.

    Risk, in the end, is entirely about perception. Everyone is more nervous about flying in a plane than driving to the airport, but the risk of dying is highest when driving to the airport. (And probably lower if you drive a Ford Taurus to the airport instead of an Aveo.)

  • Paul Rivers

    “If the IIHS’s scoring system only compares cars of the same class, then what is the point of the scoring?”

    I imagine the point is to provide a way to compare car safety between cars in the same class AND to provide independent incentive for car makers to improve the safety of their cars. For example, in the small car class the Dodge Neon (one of the worst small cars):
    http://www.iihs.org/ratings/rating.aspx?id=119

    And the Honda Civic is one of the best cars:
    http://www.iihs.org/ratings/rating.aspx?id=34

    It gives the automakers a solid reason to make a safer car. I certainly agree with you that it’s a little half-assed if you’re trying to decide what the safest car overall is.

    “They could all have the same score but be completely different in terms of safety? The scores, therefore, say nothing about the safety of a Civic vs. a Fit vs. a F-150.”

    Yes. Obviously a Civic vs an F-150 is better than a Neon vs an F-150, but that’s the way it is.

    “The IIHS system either is flawed or doesn’t support the blanket statement that all small cars are not safe. (They should have a system like the Star system of the NHTSA. 5 Star is 5 Star.)”

    It’s not “flawed” – it does a server a very useful purpose in providing independent testing of the safety of a vehicle. This results in a lot of incentive for automakers to make cars that pass the tests with the highest marks. But it certainly is *lacking* if you’re trying to compare a Honda Fit vs. a Ford F-150 for safety in a crash.

    Like I said, just take a look at any page on the IIHS site. It says right there “Important: Frontal crash test ratings can be compared only among vehicles of similar weight.” It’s the same thing with all front impact tests – they take the car and run it at a wall or barrier at a certain speed, only testing what would happen if the car hit another vehicle of the same weight. Only the side crash tests, where they run the same cart into the side of each car actually tests the same weight hitting each car.

  • Boom Boom

    If the side impact is scalable across cars because they use a cart, then why not use the same cart to hit it on the front? Problem solved.

    If you use the data to prove your point that small cars are less safe, then turn around and say that you can’t compare the ratings between car sizes, then the data has no bearing on your point.

    So, if frontal impact must be thrown out, we can look at side and rear impact. And the results come out as just as much of a wash. Some small cars better, some mini cars better.

    Bottom line is that it is not reasonable to single out the smallest class of cars as some universally unsafe rating. Smaller cars will be less safe than larger cars, in general. But that is just as true when comparing a Yaris to a Corrolla or a Corrolla to a Highlander. The increase in risk is going to be the same. There isn’t some magic 2500 lbs cut off number that says “if you car weighs less than this, you’re gonna be sticky paste”. Some smaller cars can be safer than larger cars (based on the IIHS ratings, I’d take a Yaris over a Kia Spectra).

  • Paul Rivers

    “If you use the data to prove your point that small cars are less safe, then turn around and say that you can’t compare the ratings between car sizes, then the data has no bearing on your point.”

    The first paragraph talked about ratings from side impact and rear tests. Since those tests involve slamming the same kart into each car, and they’re neutral between cars sizes, I assume some of what he’s saying comes from that. But he also said:
    “Driver death rates in minicars are higher than in any other vehicle category. They’re more than double the death rates in midsize and large cars.”

    Which sounds to me like it’s coming from death rate statistics, not crash testing.

    Look, we actually both agree that can’t randomly take a larger vehicle and it’s always going to be safer than a smaller one. Personally, I’d rather be driving around in a Honda Fit (subcompact) than a Dodge Neon (small) any day of the week. And if you’re looking for proof that a larger heavier vehicle isn’t inherently safer, all you have to do is look at the 1996-2005 Chevy Astro passenger van:
    http://www.iihs.org/ratings/rating.aspx?id=66

    “Collapse of the occupant compartment left little survival space for the driver.”
    http://www.iihs.org/ratings/image.ashx?rh=66&id=2

    I mean holy crap. Here you have a huge vehicle that’s a deathtrap for the driver because the weight of the vehicle is used to collapse the driver compartment. Ouch.

    But this doesn’t change the fact that a *well designed* larger vehicle is going to be safer than a *well designed* smaller one.

    More specifically, since one of those “subcompact” cars gets the same mileage as a “small” car, buying one isn’t better for the environment and it’s not going to save you money on gas. The only advantage that’s left is that it costs a few thousand less and you can get into slightly smaller parking spaces. Is money and parking spaces worth buying a significantly less safe car for when you could buy a “small” car? I just can’t imagine how it could be.

  • Boom Boom

    Agreed. The Fit/Yaris doesn’t get much better mileage than a Civic/Corolla. (And don’t even get me started about the Smart). My hybrid Civic gets better mileage than any of the mini-cars on the list and there is no compromise on safety. (My only complaint is that all the minicars are wagons/hatchbacks which are more utilitarian. Combine the Civic 5 door they sell in Europe with the Hybrid in my garage and you’ve got a Prius killer with teeth.)

    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:2006_Honda_Civic_5-door.jpg

    Safety has come along way in the last 15 years. It will be interesting to see how much more progress is made in the next 15. Perhaps future cars will have 20 airbags all over creation that will basically make any size car “deathproof”.

  • Audi 4000 Quattro Car Cover

    Hybrid Cars relatively offers a very innovative, efficient yet affordable option for consumers. After longer years of development, newer hybrids have become a practical choice by everybody. I was just expecting A3 convertible to show off sooner with its promised specification of a newer audi 4000 quattro car cover plus modifications on some of its part.

  • Boom Boom

    Autoblog Green and Tv Show Fifth Gear Weigh in on the debate:

    http://www.autobloggreen.com/2008/03/07/video-who-says-small-cars-are-less-safe-than-big-ones/

    Bottom line. Well designed subcompacts from 2007 are going to be safer than any car from the 80s/90s.

  • CecilyLillie

    I totally agree with the small HCH. A cousin of mine, who offers Class B Motorhome for sale has recently told me that people have starting to buy a lot of small hybrid cars lately. I don´t know if this is a fashion.