It had to happen. Many people are now finding big cars profligate and vulgar. Not only is high fuel consumption costing too much money, it could be costing the Earth too. So small cars are becoming desirable-and fashionable. But what is there to tickle the palate of someone with sophisticated Euro-phile tastes? Here are seven such cars, three of which are definitely heading across the Atlantic.
Maybe it was waiting for America's newfound interest in small cars to become more lasting proposition than mere fad, but the car now known as the Smart Fortwo has been in Europe's transatlantic departure lounge for quite a while. What began as a joint project between Mercedes-Benz and Switzerland's funky Swatch watch company is now wholly owned by Daimler. And thanks to the involvement of Roger Penske's operation, it has an American ETA: January 2008. The Smart Fortwo has, predictably, two seats. Its rear-mounted engine has three cylinders, displacing one whole liter, and its tiny turbocharger brings the power rating to 71 hp. Which makes it good for a 91-mph top speed-if 'good' is the right word in this context.
The small car segment is hotting up considerably, with sensible Japanese offerings appealing to first-time buyers and anyone else on a limited budget. But with the right marketing, the Smart has the potential to be the next must-have item. Remember, there were better MP3 players than the iPod, but Apple had a great design and a clever way to sell it.
Smart expects to sell around 20,000 a year in the US, with prices for the base model starting at around $12,000. Considering the Fortwo will be more of an emotional purchase and initially taken up by those notorious early adopters, it really ought to have an iPhone cradle with Bluetooth this and interconnective that. Once people have got past the 'cool accessory' aspect, they will find the Smart perfect for city driving, particularly when finding a parking space is problematic. With a wheelbase similar to that of a motor scooter and an overall length appreciably shorter than a MINI, it can squeeze into the unlikeliest of spaces. But how far out of the city the car's popularity will stretch remains to be seen.
That automotive law was at work in VW too. In Europe, it happened with the VW Golf, where the Polo took up the slack. Then the Polo got bigger, so VW brought in the Fox, a small, tall hatchback made in Brazil, and a successor to the over-priced Lupo.
The Fox is cheaper and it shows. The quality of cabin materials is not as high as, say, the Golf's. But it's fairly roomy and has those prestigious initials on its nose.
Being a VW, it has a wide choice of engines-including some clean and highly efficient diesels-all of which comply with stringent EU emissions regs. There are a few variations, including a mini-SUV-styled car called the CrossFox. The basic car has scored well in European crash tests and comes from a manufacturer with an established reputation and a wide-reaching US dealer network. So if VW ever decided to bring the Fox Stateside, it shouldn't be too much trouble. Currently, the company has no plans to do so, but is said to be keeping a close eye on the subcompact and smaller car segments.