IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Small cars that could raise American pulses

A new crop of small cars that debuted at the 2007 Frankfurt Auto Show this month could raise the pulse of American small car enthusiasts and win a few converts if they reach production and come to the United States. By Dan Carney.
Volkswagen says the Up! concept is only a test vehicle, but its eventual importation to the U.S. is possible.
Volkswagen says the Up! concept is only a test vehicle, but its eventual importation to the U.S. is possible.Dan Carney

Predictions that this is the year Americans will finally embrace small cars seem to perpetually miss the mark. Gas that’s cheap in relative terms, broad avenues and free parking continue to invite Americans to use roomier, more comfortable cars.

But a new crop of small cars that debuted at the 2007 Frankfurt Auto Show this month could raise the pulse of American small car enthusiasts and win a few converts if they reach production and make it stateside.

The problem is, so far most of the small cars sold in the United States have been not only inexpensive, but also cheap.

Some drivers might appreciate the virtues of small, but few drivers enjoy cheap. That’s why the Mini Cooper and Scion models have met success in the United States, while various Korean and second-rung Japanese manufacturers have struggled. Even Toyota couldn’t sell its insultingly cheap Echo, and it’s straining to lure buyers to the Yaris.

That situation could be about to change. Carmakers are preparing a new generation of stylish, innovative small gems meant to slug it out in Europe’s hypercompetitive small car market, and the result could be some truly enjoyable compacts for American drivers.

The Smart “fortwo” will be coming to these shores early in 2008, and as exciting as the prospect of being able to park nose-in to the curb may be to some city dwellers, other small concepts shown at the Frankfurt show (which have room for more than two passengers) will be more interesting to U.S. consumers.

Take the Volkswagen Up!, for example.

It may only be a concept car, but it’s an extraordinarily well-thought-out one. It seems to have been designed with production in mind. In fact, company officials have described plans to be able to build the car in stripped-down specifications for emerging markets and tarted-up configurations for us spoiled drivers in developed markets.

The Up! has a rear engine design that is not only a homage to the original VW Beetle’s configuration, but also enjoys significant cost and packaging benefits. The layout makes the chassis of the car very flexible for adaptation to future variations, such as a minibus or two-seat coupe, just like the old Beetle spawned the VW Bus and Karman Ghia. And the Up! has taillights that are covered by the glass of the rear hatch — a neat design detail.

Volkswagen says it only produced the Up! to test out its suitability for American and European consumers, but expect a quick confirmation of production plans and, hopefully, eventual importation to the United States.

With the ongoing turmoil at Ford over the company’s lack of stimulating new product and its financial difficulties, Ford felt the need to demonstrate a vision for the future in Frankfurt, and it accomplished that with the Verve concept car.

Ford offered no detailed road map for the Verve, but with it the company did illustrate its styling direction for the near future and hinted at plans for refreshed compact models.

The new model won’t arrive a minute too soon in the United States, where the latest edition of the Focus compact car is based on the old original model while the rest of the world has a new car that shares a platform with the Mazda3 and Volvo S40.

Ford has accurately identified the need for high-quality execution if its Focus replacement is going to appeal to customers, and it’s going to need good materials like glove leather that are “beautiful to touch,” observed Ruth Pauli, Ford of Europe’s chief designer of colors and trim. Those sorts of details are helping Ford “bring a feeling of ‘premium-ness’ to the volume small car world,” she added.

A tiny, 10-foot long concept car called the iQ was Toyota’s Frankfurt offering (that’s two and a half feet shorter than the diminutive Yaris).

Recognizing the difficulty of packing four people into such a small car, Toyota gave the iQ’s cabin two regular front seats and a right rear seat behind the passenger that’s also designed to hold another adult. The seat behind the driver (who has less ability to scrunch forward to make space for the passenger behind him) is smaller and only meant to hold a child so the driver can pilot the car without hugging the steering wheel.

Nissan showed its own micro car with a different take on seating three adults and a child. The Mixim puts the driver in the middle of the car, with both passengers set back on each side of the driver. A child’s seat/parcel shelf directly behind the driver’s seat provides space for a fourth passenger, and access to the unorthodox arrangement is through equally crazy diagonally hinged doors that lift forward and upward. The Mixim is propelled by electric motors using lithium ion batteries powering all four wheels.

Fiat doesn’t currently sell cars in the United States, but the company is recapturing the spirit of its best-known and most popular model in Europe, the 500, which carried generations of Italians much as the Mini and Beetle provided basic transportation for postwar Brits and Germans.

And just as the Mini and the Beetle have seen successful revivals, so Fiat has resurrected its venerated icon, the 500. Despite its petite dimensions, Fiat aims for the 500 to be as safe as possible, saying it expects the car will score the maximum five stars on Europe’s crash safety test thanks to the seven standard airbags. Additionally, the company said it expects six stars if and when the crash test is upgraded (no word on whether the stereo’s volume knob also goes to eleven).

While the Mixim is a pure concept and Toyota has made no announcement about whether its iQ will come to the United States, if Fiat’s 500 is a hit in Europe the company will likely find a way to sell it over here.

One small car company branching out a bit is Mini. It has survived so far with only its one model, but Frankfurt market the debut of a stretched version called the Clubman. The bigger small car features a slightly roomier back seat accessed by a rear-hinged third door on the passenger’s side, and a more spacious rear cargo area enclosed by a pair of side-hinged cargo doors rather than the usual hatch.

The Clubman, which is expected Stateside next year, will surely attract additional customers to Mini showrooms because of its added space. But no one will mistake the still-cramped rear seat for that of, say, the Chevy Impala. And rear-hinged access doors — such as those seen on the Saturn Ion, Honda Element and Mazda RX-8 — have not enjoyed a record of stunning sales success, perhaps due to the inconvenience of actually using them.

Similarly, rear cargo doors block the view out of the rearview mirror, so it will be interesting to see whether Clubman customers clamor for a switch to a traditional hatch.