Are We Ready to Downsize Our Cars?

What happens if Washington mandates 35-mpg cars — and no one buys them?


TheCarConnection tested the Chevrolet Aveo,Detroit’s only entry in the B-car or subcompact segment, and in the process found the public apathetic to such small cars despite their basic usefulness. In auto industry insider jargon, “the dogs aren’t eatin’ the dog food.”


Right now, sales of the Aveo and the B-cars are a telling response to all the hand-wringing by so-called mainstream media, public officials, and professional nags about fuel economy. The only problem is, the public just ain’t interested, not withstanding such a surprisingly pleasing product as the Korean-built, Chevy-branded Aveo.


It’s all in the numbers, and here I don’t mean EPA fuel economy ratings. For the first four months of 2007, according to Automotive News, retail sales of the eight subcompact entries in the B segment came to a meager 101,000 in an overall cars-and-trucks “light vehicle” market of 5.2 million. The more upscale C segment of a dozen or so compact cars meanwhile racked up some 490,000 sales (excluding Toyota ’s Prius, which is priced out of any entry-level segment). Still, the combination of Bs and Cs is a feeble eleven percent of the market at a time when retail gas prices are soaring.


(To keep this simple, B-cars are those with wheelbases under 100 inches. The Toyota Yaris at 100.4 inches edges this slightly, but I counted it in the Bs as Toyota ’s relatively successful replacement for its ill-fated Echo. Note that our government rates car sizes differently, based on interior volume, thus labeling the Aveo a “compact” as well as leading to some other weird classifications.)


And this year’s overall B segment sales can’t be compared to last year’s because several entries are new; of carryovers, some like freshened Aveo are up, some like the Scion xA are down. Despite a recent announcement by J. D. Power that vehicle buyers are downsizing compared to last year, the B segment definitely is not burning a hole in any records.



Could it be mileage?


Maybe buyers are smart. Because when you look at the numbers, B-cars don’t exceed the fuel economy of larger, plusher C-cars by all that much.


Take a look at the current EPA fuel economy ratings for the eight manual-transmission B-cars. They range from the Volkswagen Rabbit’s 22/30 mpg up to the Toyota Yaris at 34/40 mpg. For carryover 2008 models, however, the EPA will downgrade these numbers considerably. For example, Suzuki says EPA mileage for its 97.6-inch-wheelbase Aerio will drop from 25/31 mpg to 21/29 mpg under EPA’s new calculating rules — and this Suzuki is at the lower end of the segment’s mileage ratings.


Other B-car EPA numbers for 2007 models include “our” Aveo at 27/35 mpg, the fraternal twins Hyundai Accent/Kia Rio at 32/35 mpg, the Scion xA at 32/37 mpg and the Honda Fit at 33/38 mpg. (Scion’s new 2008 xB has upsized itself right out of the B-car segment and is now squarely a Chrysler PT-Cruiser-sized compact.)


Generally, C segment entries are comparable in fuel mileage to the Bs, which to the extent mileage is a purchase incentive, may be one reason the Bs are so much weaker in sales. For example, the 2007 Focus wagon with automatic that I took delivery on the other day rates 27/34 mpg and the segment’s top selling Corolla, when equipped with stick shift, manages 32/41 mpg.


These numbers are terribly important, because Congress is currently debating a proposal to raise the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) to 35 mpg from the present 27.5 mpg. The single CAFE number is reached by combining the urban and highway test cycle results, weighting the city cycle 55 percent and highway, 45 percent. Thus, even before the model year 2008 recalculation such as for the Suzuki described above, not a single car in the B segment achieved 35 mpg in the urban cycle.



What Washington wants…


So if the smallest and most fuel-sipping four/five passenger sedans can’t cut the 35-mpg deal, how does Washington in its wisdom (?) expect a vehicle mix that fills the needs and wants of the vast American public to do so?


A key issue is not whether Americans can be forced by Washington to downsize into Bs and Cs, but rather if they can be persuaded to give up automatic transmissions, which typically give up a mile or two per gallon compared to manuals. I think not, even though stick shifts, like B-cars, are the norm in most of the world. Sure Americans “shifted for themselves” before the Fifties, but only in Hollywood can you turn the clock of life back.


That’s not going to happen, any more than Americans accepted the infamous seatbelt interlocks foisted on them by Washington back in 1974. Congress was inundated by outraged complaints from the electorate and quickly killed the measure, even though it would have been a great safety advantage. The medicine isn’t always swallowed.


Only a widespread alteration in American culture is likely to cause a substantive change in American vehicle tastes. These tectonic shifts do happen, but they can’t be legislated or regulated without unfathomable economic disaster. And it takes time, years really, for as-yet-unknown inventions to mature and for development to take place.


That said, the threat of regulations ought not to be the only incentive for an automaker to offer a B-segment car. It is important for dealers to have a viable entry-level car to enroll young buyers, since loyalty to dealers can be stronger than brand loyalty, with repeated and upgraded future sales in the offing.


So back to our question — Is America ready to downsize, or will it take up arms to defend its big trucks?


We're convinced people will switch if it's in their interest and in the nation's interest. They — the cars, that is — just have to be good.

Related Articles


2007 Chevrolet Aveo (5/22/2007)
Gimme a B—but will the rest of America think small?


Bloomberg: NYC Taxis Must Go Hybrid (5/22/2007)
Says fuel savings will offset cost of new cabs.


Calif. Asks EPA to Boost Fuel Economy (5/22/2007)
New rules could force automakers to 40-mpg standard.


Gas Prices: Near Record, Headed Higher (5/21/2007)
Relief won’t come until June at the soonest.

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