Rising gas prices may fuel minicars' popularity
Marketers hope U.S. follows Europe's lead to save money
G. Chambers Williams III, San Antonio Express-News
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Will Americans ever take to minicars the way people in many other parts of the world have?
And even then, would they ever embrace one as small as DaimlerChrysler's tiny Smart Fortwo?
In Europe, small cars have always been more popular than larger ones. That's especially true in cities where the centuries-old streets are too narrow for most of the vehicles that Americans prefer.
Gasoline prices abroad also drive minicar sales. In Europe, for instance, gasoline was already around $5 a gallon when ours was still around a buck. Diesel engines are especially favored there because of their better fuel economy.
In some less-developed nations, minicars are popular because they are not only cheap to operate because of their great fuel economy, they are also inexpensive to buy.
Americans never have taken to small cars in any fashion.
But some automotive marketers believe that could change as gasoline prices continue to climb.
After reaching $3 and higher last summer, then declining significantly over the winter, they are rising again, as you well know.
Last year, Honda, Toyota and Nissan began importing subcompacts with great fuel economy for sale in the United States -- the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Nissan Versa -- and several other automakers bolstered their own minicar offerings.
Chevrolet, for instance, rolled out a redesigned version of its South Korea-built Aveo sedan. Kia introduced a redesigned Rio subcompact sedan and wagon, as well as its new compact Rondo wagon, the smallest seven-passenger vehicle offered in the U.S. market.
BMW, which has enjoyed booming sales of its United Kingdom-built Mini Cooper since its introduction four years ago, introduced the next generation of the vehicle. It's still a minicar, but in a concession to the U.S. market, it's slightly larger than the one it replaced.
As for the Smart, DaimlerChrysler will begin selling the two-passenger Fortwo model in the United States beginning in January as a 2008 model.
Sales will be through a dealer network being established by an independent distributor, Smart USA, a division of United Auto Group.
These vehicles, which truly are microcars, have been on sale in Europe and several other world markets for almost a decade. A few have been sold in the United States by unofficial distributors, as well.
DaimlerChrysler says more than 750,000 of them have been sold in 36 countries worldwide since they went into production in 1998.
They have figured prominently in a few movies already, including the 2006 "Pink Panther" film starring Steve Martin as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau.
In the film, Clouseau drives a Fortwo.
DaimlerChrysler earlier had announced that it was bringing the Smart to the United States, showing a four-passenger Forfour model at the 2005 Detroit auto show.
But the company backed off its plan, only to revive it last year as gasoline prices spiked.
We won't be getting the four-passenger model, though. It is available in Europe and other markets.
Here, at least for now, we'll get only the Fortwo, but it will come in hardtop and cabriolet (convertible) versions.
Smart USA already is taking reservations for the cars -- for $99 -- at its Web site (www.smartusa.com). The base model starts at $12,000.
The up-level Passion model is just under $4,000, and the Passion Cabriolet is $17,000.
For the U.S. market, the car is 8.8 feet long, 5.1 feet high, and 5.1 feet wide.
The company says two will fit end-to-end in an average U.S. parking space. In Europe, I have often seen two of them parked side by side, nose to the curb, in a single parking space.
Top speed for the U.S. model will be about 90 mph, and the EPA fuel-economy rating is expected to average about 40 miles per gallon.
The car has ample space for two adults in the front bucket seats, and there is 8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seat, accessible through the hatchback tailgate. Cargo space can be up to 12 cubic feet with the cargo stacked to the roof, the company says. You wouldn't be able to see out through the rearview mirror, though. The front passenger seat can be folded to further expand cargo space.
The base model comes with a five-speed transmission with automatic and manual modes, central door locking and leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Air conditioning is optional on this version, as are power windows and alloy wheels.
For the extra $2,000 of the Passion model, the air conditioning, alloy wheels and power windows are included, along with a sunroof, leather sport steering wheel with shift paddles, power heated outside mirrors and AM/FM radio with CD player.
The Cabriolet model gets an upgraded audio system with an MP3-compatible six-disc CD changer.
This car has a soft top with a heated glass rear window. The roof is "fully automatic and can be infinitely adjusted to any position while driving at any speed," the company says.
"For the full cabrio experience, simply remove the side roof bars -- taken out in no time -- and stow them in a special compartment in the tailgate."
Safety is one major concern most Americans have about smaller vehicles. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that the smaller the vehicle, the more dangerous it is in a collision.
As small as the Smart is, some might consider it not much safer than a motorcycle. But Smart says the vehicle has been designed with safety in mind, and it has a host of safety features -- beginning with the vehicle's body structure.
"When you are on the leading edge of vehicle efficiency and small-vehicle design, the issue of safety is a critical element," the company says.
"That's why the core design philosophy of the Smart Fortwo is focused on something called the tridion safety cell.
"Much like a nut is protected by its hard outside shell, the Smart Fortwo's occupants are protected by a steel housing" designed to "transmit impact forces over a large area of the car."
Another factor in its favor: The Fortwo is small -- and therefore nimble enough -- to allow the alert driver to avoid accidents that a larger vehicle would be caught up in.
Standard safety features include electronic stability control, antilock brakes with electronic brake force distribution and cornering brake control, front/side/knee air bags, and a collapsible steering column.
The Fortwo also has "intelligent seats," the company says. "They incorporate seat-belt tensioners that sense motion changes to reduce slack in a few milliseconds."
I haven't been given an opportunity to drive the Smart Fortwo yet. When I have driven one, I'll report back.