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The World's Most Popular Cars

Small Cars in Big Numbers

In the post-globalized era, chain stores and fast-food eateries can be found almost everywhere on the planet. But when it comes to the most common car models, some of the biggest names remain unfamiliar to Americans.

“The rest of the world is really not a lot like us,” says Bill Visnic, a senior analyst for, which provided this list of globally popular cars. “Small, compact, affordable cars more or less represent what the rest of the world drives.”

The World's Most Popular CarsAmerica is big, Americans prefer big, and frankly, Americans are big. As the following slides demonstrate, small cars are popular just about everywhere else, and have been for years, because they’re economical to buy and to run. They make the most sense just about everywhere else but here. But Americans are coming to their senses and becoming more environmentally aware.

Several cycles in recent years have made U.S. consumers consider scaling down. In 2008, Visnic says, we were on the tail end of the SUV boom, and Hummers were still around. Now in 2011, after a recession and huge economic downturn, comes another jump in gas prices. “It shifted our national consciousness, what the needs are compared to the wants,” says Visnic. “The late '90s through the middle 2000s was very much a market driven by wants rather than needs, and we saw that rise of SUVs, [while] pickup trucks got a lot more ostentatious. We kind of lost our minds for a while there.”

Chevrolet Cruze
Approximate cost in USD: $17,000

Also known as the Holden Cruze and the Daewoo Lacetti Premiere, depending on the country where it’s sold, the Cruze is the first true global compact car for GM, after it went bankrupt in 2009 and then restructured. It’s already become quite popular in the U.S., but the important factor about the Cruze, Visnic says, is that it’s carrying the flag for GM now as it expands the Chevrolet name. “It was very fractionalized all around the world previously. In China they carried a lot of different names because they were with joint venture partners. In Europe, Opel carried the flag for GM. So they’re consolidating everything and reforming everything under the Chevy brand.”

Ford Fiesta
Approximate cost in USD: $14,000

Ford has been on the global car map since the 1970s with the Fiesta subcompact, which only recently came to the U.S. in 2010. This is one of two Ford models on the list developed under the company's global process called One Ford, both models which Visnic says are much better efforts than in the past.

But with these they’ve done a more productive job in making it work in all the different world markets, says Visnic, plus they’re just really great cars.

Honda Accord
Approximate cost in USD: $22,000

Just about everybody knows the compact Accord. It is a prime example of what Honda does globally—take a nameplate and use it everywhere. They’ve developed the car with a certain set of very basic assumptions—size, weight, engines, Visnic explains. “But they adapted them ever so slightly to the regional tastes of where they are selling them, and build them close to where they are selling them.” Clearly their method is succeeding.

“Honda’s formula has always been more coming up with one very general set of assumptions about what an Accord is and enabling your process to make it ever so slightly different for different markets,” Visnic observes. “They’re extremely good at it. That’s one of the reasons these cars are so popular around the world. They’re equally good no matter where they are. None of them is ever a compromised version of the good Accord that’s somewhere else.

Honda Civic
Approximate cost in USD: $16,000

As with the Honda Accord, everybody recognizes the Civic subcompact. Honda takes the Civic general platform: A civic everywhere will be this size, have this kind of engine (can be pretty diff US/ Europe) then you have ever so slight difference in, say, width, which is important in Europe with narrow streets. People have to park a lot in urban areas. That is pretty much the way almost any world car: Engines that work here don’t work elsewhere because of fuel economy and power level—In Europe you have to offer a diesel in just about everything you sell—diesel is cheaper. In Europe around 50% of cars have diesel engines, Visnic says, so Honda designs the car to accept a wide range of engines, to be adaptable.

Toyota Camry
Approximate cost in USD: $20,500

The two Toyota models representing in this and the next slide are part of the same phenomenon as with the Honda cars, only Toyota does it in markedly higher numbers than Honda does. Toyota is a much larger company. On the topic of size, the Camry is physically larger car than the others on this list, so the tremendous U.S. popularity is what earned it its spot.

Toyota Corolla
Approximate cost in USD: $16,300

It seems the dependable Corolla has forever been the world’s best-selling car. Both the Camry and the Corolla are sort of an indication of the sheer numbers of what Toyota has become over the years, says Visnic. They sell in vast numbers in most markets. However, that probably won’t hold true this year. Because of the tsunami disaster in Japan, Toyota lost a lot of production for several months, so it’s likely that at least for this year GM will get that distinction, he says.

Toyota Yaris
Approximate cost in USD: $13,500

The lesser known (in the U.S.) Yaris, known as the Vitz in Europe, is Toyota’s very small subcompact. “It’s never been much of a player [in the U.S.]. The subcompact is something we haven’t paid much attention to but we are now,” says Visnic. They’re especially popular in Europe and in Japan, for two reasons. “In the regions where they sell these subcompacts in really high volumes, there are a few things going on—high fuel prices. The small cars get the best economy. In Japan and Europe, all fuel is really expensive.

"The second thing is Japan, Europe, and China are markets with a lot of congestion. The smaller the car, the better off you are. It’s easier to maneuver in tight areas, easier to park.” In Japan especially, where parking fees are scaled by the size of the space needed, a car’s size is of the essence. And in Europe, a subcompact can even be used as a family car, which would be out of the question in the U.S.

Volkswagen Golf
Approximate cost in USD: $18,000

Although it’s had a bit of a branding identity crisis here in the States (you might remember it as the Rabbit, then the Golf, then the Rabbit…), Golf is the prototypical modern compact car. “VW showed the rest of the world how to do it with the golf with styling that was appealing even though it was more or less just a box,” says Visnic. “They really honed the formula of how to do that and make it appeal all over the world, repeatedly year after year in a way that only the Germans can do it.”

Volkswagen Polo
Approximate cost in USD: $15,700

The Polo is not available in the U.S., but VW is talking about bringing it here. The company would just need to figure out how to make it profitable.

And there you have it. “What really stuck out to me is it is almost all of these are basically the same car,” Visnic says. “You’ve got a small one and a really small one. The only exceptions are the Accord and the Camry. They are very popular only in this country. They’re pretty big, but in the other markets they’re not as big as they are here. The Accord here would be like a limo everywhere else in the world. We just look at them as family cars.”