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Make way for the micro mobiles

US automakers think small in a downsized economy.

(Page 2 of 3)

Smart USA, a division of Chrysler, was the first to debut a US microcar with the launch of the Fortwo, which rates 33 m.p.g. in the city and 41 m.p.g. on the highway, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. In its inaugural year, sales reached about 25,000 units sold in 2008 and the company expects that number to hold steady this year. An electric version will launch in 2010 in only a few US cities, with expansion scheduled for 2012. Other microcars on the horizon are the Toyota iQ, Chrysler’s Fiat 500, and Volkswagen’s Up.

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Chip Snowden, an education consultant in Wilmington, Del., purchased a Fortwo in March 2008 as a secondary vehicle. Familiar with the car from trips abroad, he says he reserved his own for familiar reasons: “We were looking for something that was inexpensive to operate, didn’t cost an arm and a leg to buy, and had good gas mileage.”

But once he got into the driver’s seat, Mr. Snowden says he was surprised “at how much fun it is to drive.”

“It’s a car that’s pretty agile,” he says. “It has more power than you might think. We got it up to 75 [m.p.h.] on the Interstate. That was one of the things that surprised us.”

Besides cars like the Fortwo there is an even smaller subset of microcars: neighborhood electric vehicles meant for controlled environments, such as military bases or college campuses. With these, drivers sacrifice speed (few can top 25 m.p.h.) for zero emissions and affordability. According to Rick Kasper, president of Global Electric Motorcars in Fargo, N.D., sticker prices range between $7,300 and $12,900 for vehicles he sells mainly to industrial campuses, military bases, or planned communities.

“The main advantage of our products is they are very optional ... with zero emissions, we can take them out on the street and also drive them indoors,” says Mr. Kasper.

Futurists tracking issues like growing urban congestion and environmental health say microcars will become part of the solution. GM’s Borroni-Bird says the PUMA, which has a top speed of 35 m.p.h. and weighs 300 pounds, will first become an easier fit in countries such as China, where densely packed cities are already populated by a variety of vehicles, including motorbikes, bicycles, and cars.

But in the US, he says, small, battery-powered vehicles such as PUMA will only become a reality if governments take the first step and create measures like dedicated lanes or encourage taxi companies to restock their fleets with the cars. But for the US, “that’s a ways out. A lot of it is finding a receptive visionary government that wants to be a leader in solving personal urban mobility,” Borroni-Bird says.