Small cars: nowhere to go but up

With more families driving big utility vehicles, small cars have been left in the dust.

And collecting dust, in car lots across America.

Now automakers believe they know how to make subcompacts more attractive to buyers: Build them bigger.

"It is axiomatic that when you ask small-car buyers what they'd like to see improved in their cars, they say they want more space," said former Chrysler president Bob Lutz, at a press conference.

Following lessons learned from fast-selling SUVs, carmakers have decided the best way to expand is up.

Four subcompacts hitting the road in the next year or so feature tall roof lines reminiscent of mini sport-utility vehicles, which increase comfort and utility without sacrificing much maneuverability or economy.

The Ford Focus (shown, next page) and Toyota Echo are ordinary subcompacts with as much room inside as the compacts in their respective showrooms. The Toyota Prius applies the same principle to a gasoline/electric hybrid it hopes will appeal to families.

And the Chrysler PT Cruiser, a 2001 model, uses the same layout with a station-wagon back end, and retro styling for more versatile appeal.

These new vehicles promise to rejuvenate sales by eliminating two small-car drawbacks: lack of space and refinement.

Enter the tall-small sedan.

The Ford Focus is three inches taller than the Escort it replaces. While that doesn't sound like much, it creates gobs more room inside. Taller passengers sit more upright.

And as anyone who has ever sat behind someone reclining on an airliner knows, upright passengers take up less space, giving more knee-room for backseat passengers.

"What [adding height] does is give you the space of a car in the next class up," says John Doughty, chief designer of the Focus. The Focus boasts more interior room than its next "larger" sibling, the Contour.

"You look at older cars where people sat more upright, and people always say 'Look at all the room,' " he adds.

The Focus can accommodate 97.5 percent of adult males, something almost no other small car can do.

The Echo, too, has an inch-and-a-half more legroom for front and back seat passengers than Toyota's compact Corolla.

Conversely, "when you stretch people out, it takes more linear space and you may end up with something less comfortable," says David Cole, director of the Center for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The tall layout has other advantages, too.

Such tall sedans offer about the "most optimum" structure for a car, says Dr. Cole. They're naturally stiffer than wider and longer cars, allowing designers to make them lighter than other cars with similar interior space. Stiffer bodies reduce vibration and noise and can improve ride and handling.

Drivers also like the view over the road. And tall-smalls are easier to get in and out of than low-slung compacts.

The design, however, does have some drawbacks. Taller cars can roll over more easily. And the larger front surface hurts aerodynamics, says Michael Seal, director of the Vehicle Research Institute at Western Washington University.

The higher vantage point, to see over taller traffic ahead "is literally an escalating problem," he adds. "What are we going to do to end this race toward the skies?"

Still, the idea of building taller sedans is nothing new. The Japanese have built so-called "high-roofs" in their home market for 30 years. Sedans in the US were more upright before longer, lower styling became popular in the '60s. And, of course, upright seating can be found in all of today's sport-utility vehicles.

What's new is applying the design to compact sedans.

If Ford's Focus can win over buyers who rejected both the Escort and Contour as too small, it can cut Ford's development budget for future small cars in half, by building one, instead of two. (Contour and Escort are both slated to disappear by 2003.)

Simultaneously, the company could eke out more money per unit.

The Focus splits the difference between the Escort and Contour in length, width, and price. And consumers seem willing to pay a little more for more room and greater refinement than the Escort offers.

"All US automakers have had trouble selling small vehicles," says Dr. Seal.

In fact, the top-selling small cars, the Ford Escort and Chevy Cavalier have lost money for years. Automakers subsidize their sales to meet corporate average fuel economy regulations.

Chrysler, too, expects to earn a premium on each PT Cruiser it sells.

And the four-cylinder compact scores a double play on Chrysler's bottom line: Because it's a truck by government definitions, it will lower the company's truck corporate average fuel economy, and allow more sales of profitable big SUVs and pickups that lower the average.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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