Small cars grab off half the US automobile market

Small cars -- subcompact, small sporty, and compact --took half of the US auto market for the first time in 1979. With the cost of fuel rising sharply and the future availability of gasoline an issue of debate, the small-car segment of the auto industry is headed in one direction -- up.

The contrast with a decade ago is dramatic. Historically, the US motorist has opted for a larger-size car in contrast to car buyers in Western Europe and Japan. Simply, the price of fuel in the US was cheap. But with the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 and two stints of waiting in lines at the gas pump, American car buyers now have begun to "think small" in earnest, something that the builders of West Germany's Volkswagen were preaching 15 and 20 years ago.

The smaller cars began the 1970s with one-third of the market, moved up to 46 percent in the post-oil-embargo years of 1974-75, fell back to 42 percent in 1976 and 1977 as more Americans began to "buy big" once again, moved up to 44 percent in 1978, and broke through the 50 percent barrier in 1979.

At the end of the year small makes held an amazing 53 percent of the total domestic automobile market.

Why this continued trend to smaller cars?

* The assumedm cost of fuel is the biggest reason for US car buyers shifting to cars that provide more miles per gallon of fuel burned. Yet some of the midsize and standard-size automobiles of today give more miles of travel for each hour of income than, say, in 1975.

* More working women now opt for a small car instead of an intermediate or full-size cars.

* As the number of vehicles per family goes up, there is less need for only large cars.

Among the top five small-car leaders in 1979, the Chevrolet Chevette was first with 375,000. The Ford Fairmont was next with 338,000, although sales were down 17 percent compared to 1978 because of Mustang's sharp gains. In third place was the Chevrolet Citation/Nova with 308,400. Perhaps surprisingly, the sporty Ford Mustang was fourth with 304,000. In fifth spot was an import, the Toyota Corolla, with 257,100, down 13 percent because of pressure from other small cars, including the Toyota Supra.

* Subcompact -- Chevette and Corolla.

* Small sporty -- Mustang and Toyota Celica.

* Compact -- Fiarmont and Toyota Corona.

Inclusion of the sporty Ford Mustang in the top five is not really surprising , according to Gordon B. MacKenzie, vice-president of sales for Ford Motor Company.

"There is a substantial group of buyers who want more than a bare-bones small car," he says. "They want styling and image as well as operating economy."

Chevette and Mustang sales were up 52 percent over 1978, while the Citation was up 24 percent compared to the 1978-model Nova. The Toyota Corolla was up 21 percent.

Looking ahead, a batch of new small cars will come into the market in 1980 and '81, including Ford's subcompact Escort/Lynx world car, the General Motors subcompact J-cars, Chrysler's compact K-cars, and a new smaller-than-Mustang sporty car from Ford. The importers also have an array of new cars on the way as well.

The Japanese, undercutting the European prices, now hold 75 percent of all import car sales in the US.

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