Compact Owners Want Higher MPG, Unwilling To Downsize Again

September 9, 2009

American shoppers want more fuel-efficient future cars, but they might not be willing to downsize very much—or do without the features of larger vehicles.

That’s what the latest study from the California-based market-research firm AutoPacific indicates. As part of a study called “Small Cars in the USA – Planning for the Coming Boom,” the firm used data from its annual new-car survey, this time including responses from more than 32,000 U.S. new-vehicle buyers. From these responses, the AutoPacific singled out those who either currently own small or mid-size cars or will consider a compact vehicle next time.

The company found that owners of the smallest models, including the Chevrolet Aveo, Honda Fit, and Toyota Yaris, wanted better acceleration, more tech features, and increased cargo space—but they typically aren’t willing to go smaller than what they have today. “Tomorrow’s successful small car won’t be tiny,” said AutoPacific president George Peterson, in a release. “It will be reasonably sized, have increased fuel economy, adequate performance, and a full load of customer features.”

“When they bought these cars they accepted lower power and cargo room for better fuel economy and a high value price,” said Peterson, “but in the future they want something more—bigger, faster, and with more bells and whistles.”

Peterson noted that in the firm’s most recent Motorist Choice Awards, 106 of the top 107 vehicles were large cars, luxury vehicles, SUVs, crossovers, or minivans, with the BMW 1-Series the only small car ranking in the top 100.

The Fiesta will get some changes for its U.S. debut, but will retain most of what makes the Euro version so popular

The Fiesta will get some changes for its U.S. debut, but will retain most of what makes the Euro version so popular

Dan Hall, AutoPacific’s vice president, pointed out to that as the entire market has shifted upward in size, today’s compacts are yesterday’s mid-size cars; rather than actual downsizing, this accounts for much of the growth in the compact segment. “All the models that were considered small before aren’t now,” commented Hall, referring to today’s Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, both roomy cars that approach the dimensions of the mid-size Accord and Camry just over a decade ago. Likewise, the 2011 Ford Fiesta that's expected next year will be about the size of the former Ford Escort.

This migration of small-car owners into larger, more luxurious vehicles isn’t a new trend, but it underlines that the movement to downsize isn’t as significant as some have pronounced. The small-car market is expected to remain strong for many years though, as Gen Y drivers—75 million strong—shop for their first new cars. By and large, they’ll be looking toward smaller, more modestly priced vehicles.

Small-car models that do better will be those that have sets of features and options comparable to those of larger cars, Hall says.

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