When Craig Hoi Pong darts around in his car, fellow motorists stop and stare. They check out his 17-inch rims, lowered suspension, LED blue-hued lights and yellow rear spoiler.
His isn't a muscle car, classic car or hot rod. It's a two-seat Smart car — on steroids.
"Gas was killing me, and I thought, 'Let me get one of these Smart cars and customize it and see how it goes,' " says the 35-year old, who owns the Hoi Pong Customs shop in Sunrise, Fla. "I'm not at the mercy of the gas pump [now], but I wanted it to look cool."
Auto-accessory company Auto Trim Design in Tukwila sees plenty of small-car owners looking for something extra for their vehicle, according to CEO Jerry Hudson. "People just like individuality," he says. The company installs five to 10 sunroofs in Toyota Prius cars each month, and adds striping and custom leather interiors to cars such as Mini Coopers and Fiat 500s. Hudson says the application of Mopar graphics is also popular among local Fiat 500 drivers.
— NWautos staff
The Toyota Prius hybrid, Fiat 500 and Smart models might be smaller in length and pack less horsepower, but that's not stopping their owners from going the extra mile to personalize them — or from showing them off on city streets and at automotive events.
As gas-friendlier car models have hit the roads in recent years, their budget-minded buyers are putting money aside to give these cubicle-sized vehicles more aesthetic oomph, says Dan Edmunds, an auto engineer with car-industry website Edmunds.com.
Sometimes modifications can cost almost a third or even half of what owners paid for the car. Hoi Pong has spent about $4,000 to alter his 2013 Smart car, which cost $14,000.
Just adding different tires and rims doesn't cost that much and can make a big difference, Edmunds says. "They will be entertaining even if they are pretty economical cars."
Yes, adding bigger or high-performance tires may negate the cars' gas savings, he says, but motorists also need to take their driving habits into consideration.
"Attitude is everything when it comes to [miles per gallon]. You need to drive like the throttle and brake pedals are made from eggshells to do well," he says.
Some dealership and auto shop employees say they've been seeing more drivers customizing their pint-size rides. "People want something to call their own. They want to personalize them to match their style," says Stephanie Rivero, events coordinator at Rick Case Fiat in Davie, Fla.
Drivers don't usually expect to customize hybrid cars at first. Kai Tang, 29, was driven to buy a 2012 Lexus CT200h hybrid hatchback purely to save gas.
But then he realized he could trick it out with some modifications. He lowered the suspension by 3 inches, added lighter rims and refurbished the car's interior from tan and black fabrics to red.
"I have done everything that I can do to it," says Tang, a cabinet manufacturer, who has spent $10,000 on the modifications. "It's saving me gas, but it's more appealing. It looks a lot better."
R.J. Enriquez of West Palm Beach, Fla., also modified his white 2013 Prius plug-in vehicle. He painted the roof black, so that it matches the side mirrors, and added an antenna that resembles a shark fin. He also installed 18-inch wheels, up from the car's standard 15-inch wheels, and dropped the suspension by 2 inches. His Prius rolls like a low rider.
"It kind of ruins the gas mileage a little bit, but for the look of it, it's worth it," Enriquez says.