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September 13, 2009

News & Features

Matchbox nation: Move over, road hogs -- small cars are more popular than ever

Special to NWautos

Small cars

Clockwise from top right: Smart ForTwo, Chevrolet Spark, Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent.

In 2008, the only car whose U.S. sales increased from the year before was the Mini Cooper. This year, two of the top 10 cars bought in exchange for a "clunker" were the subcompact Honda Fit and Nissan Versa. And next year, Ford will bring the diminutive Fiesta -- one of the best-selling cars in Europe -- to the U.S.

The small car has made a comeback, and there's no sign of consumers or automakers turning from the trend.

Ballard resident Steve Court grew up in England, where his family drove Minis. When it came time for his wife, Darcy Nothnagle, and him to purchase a car three years ago, they wanted a smaller car that was inexpensive and could accommodate their two young children.

There weren't many subcompacts on the market at the time, so they settled on a bright red Chevrolet Aveo.

"Overall, we're pretty happy with it," Court says. "It's not as economical as you'd expect for its size -- it gets about 32 miles to the gallon. But it gets me from A to B, it's easy to park and it doesn't use too much petrol."

Chevy Aveo

Steve Court and Darcy Nothnagle, with children Theo, 2, and Sophia, 6, enjoy their Chevy Aveo. (Scott McCredie)

The Aveo and its twin Pontiac version, the G3, are the only subcompacts from an American automaker currently on the market.

Car industry analyst Jessica Caldwell of Edmunds.com says the American auto business model traditionally has focused on bigger cars because profit margins are larger and there was less consumer demand for smaller vehicles. So American manufacturers were "left out in the cold when fuel prices went up last summer," she says.

That may change in the next few years, however. The Fiesta's U.S. release is highly anticipated, as is the 2010 release of the Chevy Spark, which is smaller than the Aveo and is reported to get 47 mpg.

Caldwell says choices should expand even more as manufacturers take note of the small cars' increasing share of the market. In July, she says, the subcompact category had the "highest market share [it has] had since we've been tracking sales data [in 2002], and probably the highest share ever."

While subcompacts of the past -- such as the Chevy Vega and Ford Pinto -- were lampooned for their lack of amenities and poor performance, today's breed are more than mere "econoboxes."

"They're better equipped than they were 10 years ago," Caldwell says. "They have better sound systems, sunroofs, side air bags. It's not just 'Let's see how cheap we can make this vehicle.' "

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