Microcars like Daimler's smart fortwo have populated the streets of Europe and Japan for decades. But until recently, you couldn't find an American auto executive or analyst who thought they had a chance to become a popular and profitable niche in the United States. The arrival of the smart fortwo on American shores in 2008—and the onset of skyrocketing gas prices—have changed that picture.
Several automakers, prompted by the warm reception to smart by consumers, are preparing their own pipsqueak cars for America—although most of the diminutive offerings are not as small as the smart fortwo. Moreover, the new entrants could far exceed smart's combined 36 miles per gallon. Here's some of the latest big talk about small cars.
Toyota has plans to introduce its minicar, the iQ, in the next couple of years. The iQ is larger than the diminutive smart, but not by much. Its wheelbase is a little more than five inches longer, and on the whole, the car is only about a foot longer than the smart—11.4 inches to be exact. That said, its slightly larger size and some under-the-skin engineering wizardry will give the iQ better handling than its competitor, according to Hiroki Nakajima, the vehicle's chief engineer. Nakajima also told Automotive News, a trade publication, that the iQ will have the best fuel economy of any Toyota other than the Prius.
Automotive News also reported that Hyundai is considering bringing the Indian-built i10 to the U.S. The car, currently on sale in 70 countries around the globe, is 140 inches long—almost three feet longer than the smart—and is powered by either a 1.1-liter or 1.2-liter 4-cylinder engine. The former is the fuel economy champ, offering up to 56 mpg, but the slightly larger engine is Euro5 emissions compliant, meaning it would have a better chance of meeting stringent emissions targets in the United States. Hyundai said the car would need to be bulked up to meet U.S. safety standards.
Volkswagen is also considering bringing its minicar, the Polo, to the U.S. The company claims that the BlueMotion diesel version will deliver more than 60 mpg, highway and city combined—while also managing 99 g/km of CO2, an important European measurement. The gasoline version turns in 43 mpg on the same test cycle. Analysts predict that the Polo could land stateside in 2010.
Fiat is working on a hybrid version of its recently revised classic, the 500, that could get up to 80 mpg. The gas-electric hybrid has a start-stop system, dual-clutch transmission, and a battery pack along with Fiat's two-cylinder 900 cc engine. Could Fiat see an opportunity for a win in the United States?
The combo of small and hybrid, or small and diesel, is only bested by Daimler's all-electric version of the smart, which the company is testing in Europe. According to Motor Trend magazine, Daimler is planning to introduce the electric smart to global markets in 2010.
There have been similar big announcements about eco-friendly small cars from General Motors, Ford, Mitsubishi and others.