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Make way for the micro mobiles

US automakers think small in a downsized economy.

By Correspondent / July 21, 2009

Bob Staake

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In a crippling recession, McMan­sions, Hummers, and supersize are jargon from the recent past.

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But for the US automotive industry – damaged by foreign competition, rising gas prices, and hesitant consumers – “small” might be getting even smaller. Microcars loom large on the horizon, as many companies are investing in, or at least considering, lightweight, economical, and quirky vehicles that are most often associated with zigzagging down European side streets – not keeping pace with semi trucks as they barrel down US highways.

“The advantages are many: They’re inherently low-cost in terms of upfront costs, they’re very simple so they can be affordable, and they can be extremely energy-efficient,” says Christopher Borroni-Bird, director of advanced technology vehicle concepts at General Motors. Dr. Borroni-Bird is helping develop the Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility (PUMA), a two-wheeled electric vehicle based on the Segway scooter.

“Because cities are struggling with how to provide people with personal mobility in general, there’s been a real need to come up with a creative solution,” he says.

Smaller than even subcompacts, the microcar is slowly trickling into the US market as automakers experiment with just how far American consumers will go in sacrificing power and luxury for a lighter car that costs less. The bankruptcy filings of General Motors and Chrysler are forcing US automakers into a new era of experimentation, where the right combination of unusual design and alternative power is the new paradigm of competitive edge.

It also helps the Obama administration in tightening up fuel emission standards. The president wants new vehicles to average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, compared with 25.3 m.p.g. in 2009.

Moving forward, automakers are retooling their production schedules to create vehicles meant to attract consumers who otherwise associated small with cheap. These rollouts include the Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Cruze, both due to be released in early 2010, as well as hybrid versions of existing brands.

But those models, while small, look and feel like traditional automobiles. Microcars only come in extra-small sizes. And while safety concerns persist, the petite vehicles hold their greatest appeal for consumers who simply want to tool around the neighborhood or have a second car that is no less extravagant, or purposeful, than a shopping cart.

“The big bulky things seem out of tune and no longer seem relevant,” says Sheryl Connelly, a global consumer trends and futuring manager at Ford.

Ms. Connelly says the microcar phenomenon is comparable to what happened to bulky stereo systems this decade, having been trimmed to the dimensions of a stamp-sized iPod Shuffle.

“Small cars used to be thought of as entry-level cars, but I don’t think that is the mind-set today,” she says.

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