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.
There's a kind of automotive law whereby a car gets bigger with each generation, so, sooner or later, a smaller model has to come in underneath it. As BMW's 3 Series got bigger, another car filled the void. Europe has had the 1 Series (codenamed the E87) in four-door hatchback guise since 2004, replacing the 3 Series Compact. True to BMW form, it's rear-wheel-drive, has MacPherson struts up front with a trapezoidal-link rear axle, comes bristling with driver-aiding technology, and sports yet another of those funny BMW designs.
BMW didn't give the car a spare tire, choosing run-flat tires instead. Which was a bit of an issue. Early models didn't combine well with early run-flat tire technology, giving a hard ride. Hopefully, this has been resolved.
When the 1 Series comes to North America as a 2008 model, it will have a two-door coupe body style (E82), at least initially, with BMW's wonderful straight-six 230-hp, 3.0-liter gasoline-powered engine (the 128i) or its equally impressive 300-hp 3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged six-pot in the 135i. No diesel or hatch versions are planned, but if diesel fuel takes off in the US the way we're expecting, BMW would be crazy not to offer one of its highly respected oil-burners. Oh, and rumors of an M version should not be dismissed as pie in the sky. No prices announced yet, but expect something around or below $35,000.
Hard To Get
The petition starts here. We know for a fact that Audi will be building the A1, a MINI competitor, for 2010. What is still up in the air is whether Audi has plans to bring it to the US. If anyone knows, they're probably a couple of suits over in Ingolstadt. OK, there's enough anti-American feeling in the rest of the world right now, but wouldn't withholding this little beaut be a punishment too far? Rumors have a hot S1 version with 200 hp and all-wheel-drive, while there might even be hybrid and convertible versions in the pipeline.
La Dolce Vita
Fiat doesn't sell cars in the US. Hasn't done for ages. Mainly because it had such terrible product. But now it sees a chance to get back in the game-with one car at least: the new Fiat 500. The original 500 (or Cinquecento, in Italian) was to post-war Italy what the Mini was to London's Swinging '60s. Fifty years on, this retro-chic, modern riff is turning heads and getting people interested in Fiat again.
It's cute, affordable, pretty good fun to drive and has way more personality than anything from the East. And it can be personalized from a long and comprehensive options list. Whereas the old car was rear-engined and could only take a couple of children in its rear quarters, the new one is bigger (though staying as faithful as possible to the original's proportions), front-engined, and can hold a couple of adults in the back-for a short trip.
Engines are currently 1.2- and 1.4-liter gasoline-powered units, or a 1.3-liter diesel. With a revitalized confidence, Fiat expects to bring the 500 to the US in 2010.
A Bigger Mini
With small cars getting so much interest lately, it's a nice irony that one of the brands to start it all is now coming out with a something larger. The MINI Clubman is 9.45 inches longer than its standard sibling (so more room for rear passengers and extra luggage), has rear 'suicide' doors and the tailgate is a split-door arrangement, a nod to bigger versions of the old Mini.
As the Traveller concept, this car has been doing the rounds of car shows. But once a disguised model was seen testing on the Nrburgring, it was obvious a production version would be ready for 2008. It will have a naturally aspirated, 1.6-liter, 120-hp four-cylinder engine as standard, but the Cooper Clubman gets a turbocharged version kicking out 175 hp at 5500 rpm. The Clubman will be priced between the MINI hardtop and Convertible models, so somewhere around $22,000.
Onward And Up-Ward
This is weird. Years ago, Sir Alex Issigonis packaged the original Mini as a transverse-engine, front-drive car, to make better use of space. Now VW is touting its Up concept as something radical in this respect, being rear-engined (and, presumably, rear-wheel-drive). Which seems like an evolutionary step back to the original Beetle. But VW is claiming plenty of usable space within its 11.32-feet length and 5.35-feet width, despite the fact that the Up (VW calls it the 'up!', but that's just silly) is primarily a city car. At least it looks pretty cool. And VWs are rarely described as such these days.