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Make way for the micro mobiles

US automakers think small in a downsized economy.

(Page 3 of 3)

Even though these vehicles may improve the environment or urban gridlock, safety advocates worry that as cars shrink, the potential for fatalities in collisions increases.

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“The government is mandating higher fuel [standards] but they haven’t repealed the law of physics, which are always in play,” says Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit group funded by auto insurers.

In April the institute released a study that reported the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit, and Smart Fortwo all failed frontal crash tests with heavier, mid-sized vehicles. In these tests, the drivers suffered a high risk of head and leg injuries when traveling at 40 m.p.h. and after air bags inflated. Microcars fare much better in test crashes against a stationary barrier, but Mr. Rader says those tests do not necessarily tell the whole story because they tend to reflect collisions against vehicles of similar weight. Because microcars are so small, however, “just about everything you hit will be heavier than you are.”

He says consumers interested in fuel economy in addition to safety have options in the mid-size range, such as the Ford Fusion, which averages 40 m.p.g.

The very features that make microcars desirable are the ones that may, in the long run, limit their appeal. Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates, says battery-driven vehicles such as the PUMA or the Chrysler Peapod will have to increase their top speeds and features for consumers to respond favorably.

Mr. Schuster says this is why some of the companies are focusing on the “quirky appeal” of the cars instead of their efficiency. The front end of the Peapod, for example, is in the shape of a smile.

“It will take a special marketing campaign and a special consumer – someone has to be really drawn to the vehicle and the fact that these are even greener vehicles than the Ford Focus. Right now they’re limited,” he says.

Which is why Ford is the single major automaker that has chosen to sit out on micros, at least for the moment. The company sells the Ka, a two-seat micro, in Europe and Latin America, but has no plans to launch the car in the US anytime soon. The reason, according to Mark Schirmer, product communications manager at Ford, is there is not yet a demand.

“We’re not saying ‘no,’ ” says Mr. Schirmer. Instead the company is preparing for the US launch of the Fiesta, already a bestselling subcompact in Europe, in early 2010.

“Let’s see how the Fiesta does. We know that if we can’t build enough Fiestas, we’ll probably look into Ka,” he says. “There is a huge appetite for smaller so we’re heading that way.”