Not so long ago, boat-sized cars cruised the motorways of this wide-open country. If you wanted to see a tiny car, you’d have to go to Europe or watch Mentos ads (which looked suspiciously like they were shot in Europe). But with the continuing interest in fuel efficiency and smaller carbon footprints, microcars have grown more common, with new compact concept cars springing up at every auto show.
While fuel economy and environmental concerns provide much of the motivation for buying a small car, John Filiss of SeriousWheels.com counts off some other motivations. “Very small cars can be quite endearing in appearance, and there are microcar clubs around the world for people who collect old Isettas, Messerschmidts, and other very tiny cars from yesteryear. Another aspect is that smaller cars are regarded by many as being more fun to drive.
"Of all the small car manufacturers today, Mini has probably succeeded the most brilliantly at making this a big part of their marketing. A small go-cart has a more visceral feel than a full-size car, including sports cars that may have better performance figures, and that same quality is definitely evident in smaller cars versus their larger counterparts. So long as you don’t have an intimidation factor of being surrounded by much larger vehicles, tiny cars are also easier to drive; traffic lanes always have plenty of width, you can turn on a dime, and almost any parking space will do.”
One concern that arises when considering tiny cars is safety in the event of collision. This can vary greatly from vehicle to vehicle. “Manufacturers like Mini and Smart have put a great deal of effort into making their cars as safe as possible,” says Filiss. “There are some basic physics that work against small cars in a collision that are hard to completely overcome, though. A large car will usually fare much better in a collision than a small car. On the other side of the equation, however, small cars generally have better braking, better handling, and better maneuverability than larger vehicles. So your ability to avoid an accident entirely tends to be better in a smaller vehicle.”
Cost: Under $20,000
The world’s smallest four-seat urban car (about 66 inches wide and 117 inches long) has buzzed throughout Europe and Japan but was not available in the U.S. That was supposed to change with this year’s planned arrival of the Scion iQ—although that’s been delayed indefinitely because of quake-related parts shortages.
When the Scion does emerge, it will feature 11 airbags, including in the back to protect from a rear-end collision. That back area has two seats that fold down to create a modest cargo area—enough to stow a bag of golf clubs or a medium-sized haul of groceries.
This low-emissions city car is based on the Toyota/Scion iQ, but with Aston Martin luxury, craftsmanship — and as the auto publications noted in tones ranging from scandal to scoff — an Aston Martin price tag as well. Like the iQ, this “bespoke luxury commuter car” can seat up to four, and it’s the same length, but the Cygnet has leather seats and numerous features are customizable.
The original Mini was built by the British Motor Corporation from 1959 until 2000, Filiss says, and the original was much smaller than the current model. After BMW bought the company in 1994, the current model emerged in 2001, with a Mini Cooper II redesign starting in 2006.
Another new twist on this classic debuted at the Shanghai Auto Show: a limited edition Rolls Royce-inspired Mini. The three-door hatchback will perform like the MINI S with an estimated 30 miles to the gallon, but its leather, lambswool, and walnut burr interiors and spoked alloy hubcaps evoke the Rolls.
The Tango 600 is a high-performance electric car with a racecar's safety roll cage that can reach speeds exceeding 130 mph. Batteries and drivetrain are not included with the T600, but the car is also available as the mass-produced T200 at a lower price. Depending on the user’s battery selection and driving style, it can get 40 to 200 miles of freeway driving, and will recharge up to 80 percent from standard outlets in 10 minutes. A full charge takes under 3 hours.
Its size provides many advantages for navigating a crowding planet. It’s five inches narrower than some motorcycles, which allows it to zip through stopped traffic by lane splitting, or riding between cars that are slowed or stopped in heavy traffic. (This practice is legal in many places internationally, and it’s tolerated when motorcycle riders do it safely in California.) It can be parked perpendicular to the curb like a motorcycle, allowing up to four such cars in one spot, and it allows two Tangos to drive with ample clearance in a regular traffic lane.
Cost: Under $30,000
The limited-run three-wheel, two-passenger 2011 DUO promises 300 miles of driving using $6 of electricity, rather than $50 of gas. DUO stands for “doesn’t use oil” and adds an extra passenger capacity to Myers Motors’ original NmG (“no more gas”) electric vehicles. The charge can handle a daily 60-mile range, with an option for a 100-mile range for drivers with longer commutes. And it fits in a motorcycle parking space.
Cost: $10,990-$17,690+ (Fortwo)
The most commonly sighted micro-sized city car, the basic Smart Fortwo comes in gas-powered models and is also available for lease with an electric drive. But far more exciting, at least in the prototype’s looks, is the electric car concept revealed at the Geneva Motor Show, the “speedster” version of the smart car, capable of speeds up to 75 with a range of 85 miles.
With a convertible roof, and wind deflectors (rather than windshield) with integrated solar cells, and iPhone dock for the passenger seat, many are hoping it will join the Fortwo on the market soon.
Cost: $ 23,000+
Alfa Romeo is returning to the United States, but Filiss says “there are frankly a lot of questions regarding which models will be available when it happens and the dust finally settles.” What is known about the MiTo available in Europe is it has a new stop-and-start system that reduces fuel consumption and C02 emissions, integrated navigation, and available Bose sound system.
The newly redesigned Ford Ka, while not yet sold in the American market, is noteworthy in Europe as a lower cost, smaller take on the Fiesta with a distinctive “smiling face” design. This Ka offers low carbon emissions, sustainable/ reusable parts such as noise insulation made from recycled denim and upholstery, automatic parking sensors to prevent scrapes and dents, and other features in a zippy, customizable compact package.
This car concept capable of seating four adults from Indian manufacturer Tata might look like a futuristic golf cart, and for now it is still a figment of the future —- the expected release year for Europe is 2013. At its Geneva Motor Show debut, it drew praise for its city-friendly features like outstanding maneuverability and the “scissor” style doors designed to rotate upwards for getting in and out after parking in the smallest of spots.
The ultra-sleekly designed XL1 is Volkswagen’s diesel plug-in electric hybrid vehicle. “While this car is only a concept, it is interesting on several counts. One is its extreme efficiency: it achieves an amazing 261 MPG,” says Filiss. “Another thing intriguing about this design is that it is a third generation concept, with earlier 1 liter car concepts going back to 2002 and 2009. Volkswagen is clearly very interested in this ultra-efficient design, and there may be a production model based on this theme in the coming decade.”