Tiny Cars Finding New Homes in the U.S.

Henry Sailer in his Honda Fit. i i

Retired attorney Henry Sailer, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, gave up a minivan to drive the new Honda Fit. Jack Speer, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jack Speer, NPR
Henry Sailer in his Honda Fit.

Retired attorney Henry Sailer, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, gave up a minivan to drive the new Honda Fit.

Jack Speer, NPR

With gas at around $3 per gallon, it would seem a good time for automakers to step up their marketing of small cars. Honda, Nissan, GM and Toyota are introducing new fuel efficient, sub-compacts to the U.S. market. The cars are finding some unexpected buyers.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Monday's we focus on technology. Today, tiny cars with big gas mileage.

With gas prices stuck around $3 a gallon, there's been a lot of interest in hybrids. But there are other vehicles that promise better mileage and lower gas bills, and some have been selling briskly.

The new models are tiny, but with a highway rating of nearly 40 miles per gallon, they're more fuel-efficient than many hybrids and cost a lot less. NPR's Jack Speer reports.

JACK SPEER reporting:

By American standards, the cars are Lilliputian, especially when parked next to a large SUV. But several of the car companies are betting the pint-sized vehicles will be a big hit with U.S. drivers.

There's a youthful vibe to the marketing of the cars, as illustrated by this ad from Honda.

(Soundbite of Honda commercial)

Unidentified Man: Gas-like reflexes. The Fit. New from Honda.

SPEER: Other automakers have also introduced their own versions of the small cars. Toyota has the Yaris. Chevy sells the Aveo. And Nissan recently introduced its subcompact car called the Versa, which is now rolling into dealer showrooms.

Priced at between $12,000 and $15,000 the vehicles were primarily designed for Europe and Asia, where roads are narrow and gasoline is expensive. But while manufacturers appear to be targeting the youth market, that group may be interested in driving something else, according to Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at Global Insight.

Ms. REBECCA LINDLAND (Analyst, Global Insight): It's really not the preferred type of vehicle for the younger generation. They want big trucks.

SPEER: And SUVs and crossover vehicles, like Honda's strange looking Element. But the tiny cars are selling, just not to the targeted market.

At a Honda dealership outside Washington, D.C., one of the first owners of a Honda Fit wasn't a 20-something with a meager paycheck, but a 77-year-old retired attorney. His main condition for buying the car? Whether it would appeal to his dog.

Mr. HENRY SAILOR(ph) (Retired Attorney, Washington, D.C.): I have a fairly enormous dog who fits cheerfully in a backseat.

SPEER: And Henry Sailor says he doesn't find his new car cramped, even after giving up a much larger minivan.

Mr. SAILOR: I don't regard this as a miniscule car. There's plenty of room for stretching around, and so forth.

SPEER: Both Honda and Toyota have seen strong sales for their entries into the super-small car market. Ernest Bastien is with Toyota's Vehicle Operations Group. He says, because of the better than anticipated sales, dealers have scant inventories of the cars.

Mr. ERNEST BASTIEN (Vice President, Vehicle Operations Group, Toyota): They're selling faster than they're coming in. Most of our dealers have waiting lists. It's one of those situations where if we could fill the inventory faster we could sell more, but I think right now the dealers are doing a good job trying to get the cars to the people.

SPEER: Honda has done equally well with the Fit. But the overall market for really small cars is, well, pretty small. Taken together, all of the manufacturers expect to sell only around 360,000 of the vehicles in the U.S. this year.

Many U.S. drivers are also likely to worry about how such small cars would fare in a crash with a 5,000 pound truck. Christina Ra(ph) is a product planner with American Honda, in charge of the Fit. She thinks modern safety features make that less of an issue than in the past.

Ms. CHRISTINA RA (Senior Product Planner, Honda): With the equipment on the vehicle now, with six air bags, and the general structure of the vehicle -crumple zones and just kind of that evolution of the overall body structure -customers seem to be less concerned about that than I think they would have been even three or five years ago.

SPEER: However, putting aside the matter of safety, U.S. drivers are also notoriously fickle, having embraced small cars in the past, only to abandon them once gas prices fell. Still, right now, dealers say they're having a tough time keeping the cars in stock. Toyota has just an eight-day inventory of its Yaris on dealer lots. Honda has a similarly tight supply of the Fit.

Jack Speer, NPR News, Washington.

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