Americans’ relationship with small cars has historically rated between hate and tolerance, but that’s changing. For reasons that range from economics to changing demographics and notable sophistication, subcompacts are finding love in America.
“A couple of things are driving the segment,” said Steve Majoros, Director of Chevrolet Car Marketing. “One, is economics. People are asking what they really need – what people really want out of a car and what these offer in terms of safety, design, and features. Two, is the value proposition being delivered with these vehicles that was not there three, four, or five years ago. We’re not alone; there’s a lot of great competition.”
Cars in this class start under $15,000 and include the Hyundai Accent, Mitsubishi Mirage, Mazda2, Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, Chevy Sonic and Chevy Spark. With an average new car transaction price exceeding $32,000, these subcompacts are ideal for first-time buyers or somebody who does not want a large car. Highway fuel economy hovers around 40-MPG. Affordable and efficient, they especially appeal to younger generations.
“It’s fun, it’s sharp, everybody loves it; girls say it’s cute,” said Ryan Coulson, 24, of Brownsburg, Ind., of his orange Chevy Sonic. “Sizing is just right for me. I love the hatchback –it fit a bike, furniture dolly, and power washer. Can’t wait to do some camping. My favorite feature is the touchscreen with smartphone link. It’s easy to connect the telephone, satellite radio, and Pandora.”
For some, it’s features. For others, value.
“I love the fact it gets really good gas mileage,” said Brooke Hartman, 24, Antioch, IL, of her Sonic. “I drive over an hour to work each day. I have a lot of babies in my life and it is easy to get them in and out. Bluetooth is definitely my favorite feature; I’m always on my cell phone. This is my first new car, so price was everything too.”
Age doesn’t matter; these cars offer big bang for the buck. They can also be surprisingly sophisticated.
“Small little cars used to mean crappy, but they don’t mean that anymore,” Chevrolet’s Majoros said. “People want practicality, functionality, and efficiency, but also some fun. They’re taking their digital life into their cars.”
This segment has traditionally been dominated by Japanese automakers, but gravity sways towards the Chevy Sonic, Ford Fiesta, and Honda Fit with the Fiat 500 acting as the style trailblazer. Each has its vices.
Chevrolet adds 4G LTE Wi-Fi to Spark and Sonic for 2015. Additionally, Chevrolet offers Siri Eyes Free smartphone control, and apps for BringGo navigation, TuneIn global radio, and Pandora. Luxurious Sonic Dusk and sporty RS editions suit distinct personalities. Spark appeals with vivid colors like Salsa, Denim, and Grape Ice.
Beyond its Aston Martin grille and European handling, Ford Fiesta innovates with an EcoBoost three-cylinder 1-liter engine that delivers 123 horsepower/45-MPG hwy. An available rearview camera, customizable ambient lighting, heated leather seats, voice-controlled infotainment, and sporty ST package with 197 horsepower turbo-four excite.
Fiat cultivates multiple personalities with stylish GQ and Gucci editions, classic 1957 Edition, and aggressive Abarth models. Bright colors, Beats audio, and convertibles separate the Italian. There’s even a 500e plug-in electric for California.
“It’s great to be able to expand reach of the brand,” said Matt Davis, head of FIAT brand product marketing. “GQ editions are upscale with luxuries; the retro-inspired 1957 edition speaks to our brand’s rich heritage. The 500 Abarth Automatic will give customers a unique driving experience in sport mode. Updated interiors for 2015 include a TFT [electronic] instrument display. We’re giving them something they can’t get from a different sized vehicle.”
All of these cars suffer intense competition as a larger and better-equipped Honda Fit, a class pillar, debuts this summer. It offers a flip-up rear seat, heated leather, rearview camera, LED taillights, and 130 horsepower/41-MPG four-cylinder engine.
Among others, Nissan’s Versa offers the lowest price ($11,990), cavernous interiors, and a peppy new SR sport edition. Toyota Yaris earns a reputation for durability while its cousin, the Prius c, delivers 53/46-MPG city/hwy. The related Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio offer graceful style and 138 horsepower direct-injected engines. Despite 44-MPG hwy., the three-cylinder Mitsubishi Mirage has all the grace of a tractor.
Even it is far from crappy.
Unlike in the past when each market had a unique product, automakers now build one car for the world. It’s more cost effective. Customers get amazing cars at affordable prices while automakers make a fair profit. This gives domestic automakers an edge they didn’t have before. GM develops most of its small cars in South Korea; Ford leverages R&D in Germany. Production locations sprinkle the earth.
Fiat builds the 500 in Mexico and Poland. U.S.-bound Fiestas are built in Mexico, but similar models are built in Germany, Spain, and China. Chevrolet’s Sonic is built in Michigan, Korea, China, and Russia. Honda builds the 2015 Fit in a new Mexican plant.
While Chevrolet is proud to build Sonics in Michigan, tomorrow’s subcompacts could be assembled almost anywhere.
Federal fuel economy regulations that encourage more efficient cars and the emergence of subcompact crossovers ensure growth in this segment.
Buick’s popular Encore is based on the Chevy Sonic. A Chevy version, the Trax, debuts this fall – as does the Honda Fit-based HR-V. Fiat will debut a new crossover during November’s L.A. Auto Show.
Powertrains advance. Given Ford’s success, count on more turbocharged three-cylinder engines. Turbo-twos and diesels may be next. Expect more plug-ins to join the Fiat 500e and Chevy Spark EV to meet states’ zero emissions vehicle requirements.
“People are cost-conscious and concerned about fuel economy, but we’re giving them lots more creature comforts – features of larger cars at a lower price point,” Fiat’s Davis said. “The segment is growing; there’s a huge opportunity. Customers say, ‘This car makes me smile; I enjoy being on the road again.’”
Drivers once bought sub-compacts because they couldn’t afford anything else. Today’s drivers are showing small cars more love because they enhance their lives. It’s good to be small.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun