Now We Know: U.S. Buyers Don't Much Want Tiny Two-Seat Cars

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2011 Scion iQ at 2010 New York Auto Show, with Scion's Jack Hollis

2011 Scion iQ at 2010 New York Auto Show, with Scion's Jack Hollis

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It was always a big question whether Americans would buy very, very small cars.

When the Smart ForTwo launched in 2008, right into the teeth of gas prices that soared to $4 a gallon, it looked as if the answer might be yes.

But now it seems the longer-term answer is, "No, not really."

Sales of the Smart ForTwo minicar have remained at low levels--10,009 in 2012, after totals of 5,348 in 2011, 5,927 in 2010, and 14,600 in 2009.

In fact, they never again reached the lofty heights of 2008, the ForTwo's first year on sale, when it sold 24,622 units--far higher than the annual goal of 16,000.

And now the results are in for the almost-as-small Scion iQ, which has just completed its first full year on the market.

Regardless of confident predictions in 2010 by Scion executive Jack Hollis that it would sell "1,700 to 2,000" iQs each month, the 2012 sales total is just 8,879.

(Scion also sold a handful of the little iQ in 2011, precisely 248 of them.)

For comparison purposes, Toyota sold more Priuses in December--20,040--than the combined sales of Scion iQs and Smart ForTwos throughout all of 2012.

Technically, of course, the Scion iQ isn't a two-seater like the Smart ForTwo.

It's a "three plus one" seater, with a rear row that can fit a smallish adult in the third seat plus a child in the fourth.

But, frankly, we doubt any of the 9,000 or so Scion iQ owners ever use those third and fourth seats for people.

The Scion iQ is not particularly cheap--the Smart starts at $13,240, but the Scion is almost $3,000 more, at $16,140--and neither car is at the top of the fuel-efficiency sweepstakes.

So it seems the only reason to buy one is the ability to park it in really, really tiny spaces.

That's a useful qualification, but only for a very small number of buyers.

For most of the rest, it appears a four-seat subcompact or a hybrid does the job just fine.

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Comments (29)
  1. Personally, I'd prefer a 2-seater. I think they aren't selling well because consumers can buy a 4-seater with better gas mileage for about the same price.

  2. Wrong Gregg, see my post below...city n combined mpg is better in ice vehicles w/ these little guys.

  3. Well said Gregg, well said.

  4. My sister just leased an iQ and likes it a lot. I think she got a really good deal.

  5. I DO want an iQ (type vehicle) -

    -BUT-

    I want it to cost 10k and get at least 50mpg - as a vehicle of this size should.

    The customers are there - the product is not !

  6. Xi,
    See my post below. These vehicles are tops for ice vehicles in both city n combined mpg. They are unlikely to get much higher then 40mpg hwy this decade due to the restricted aerodynamic improvements possible for microcars.

    And you're nuts if you think $10k is going to be the price for any new car anymore.

    My primary issue w/ these cars are the crash test scores of both. Both do well, except for rear crash, in IIHS but both not well or untested in govt crash tests.

    However, the new Smart EV coming out later this year might be ease both of our worries as it will get at least 100mpge n should be much safer in crash tests. It should cost about $17K or less too after incentives.

  7. Small cars imply efficiency, either gas mileage or electric range. They are delivering neither, and therefore give no plus to the trade off of interior space and perceived safety.

  8. You are wrong Mittar...see my post below.

  9. I'm not wrong, you're talking semantics.

  10. John,
    Does any one fact check articles before they are posted over there? It seems almost daily that at least one of these articles has a simple incorrect statement that could have easily been fact checked. This time its your turn:

    "--and neither car is at the top of the fuel-efficiency sweepstakes."

    In fact, both the IQ n Smart car ARE tops in the fuel efficiency sweepstakes...and I'm not only referring to tops in their class. The fact is that the IQ(36/37) and the Smart(34/36) are tops in city/combined mpg for any non-hybrid or ev vehicle of any size...including diesels.

    http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/PowerSearch.do?action=noform&path=1&year=2012&mclass=Small%20Cars&srchtyp=marClass

    Get your facts right before you post!

  11. Those numbers are underwhelming to say the least.

  12. @Erik: My goodness! Bad day?

    You are correct *IF* and only if you constrain the search to "small cars" and eliminate all hybrids & plug-in vehicles. But while 37 mpg (for the Scion iQ) and 36 mpg (for various Smart ForTwo models) are decent combined numbers, they're bettered by almost a dozen hybrid models of various sizes.

    I wrote "neither car is at the top of the fuel-efficiency sweepstakes." Which is true. Four Priuses get ratings more than 30% higher, along with offering more seats, more cargo capacity & more amenities. So do various other hybrids.

    I did NOT write "neither car is at the top of the *gasoline-only small car* fuel efficiency sweepstakes." Is that perhaps what you read?

  13. I guess you and the most of the other fools that thumbed up your reply on this site aren't into facts...and comparing apples to apples. Of course the hybrids will have better mpg! Duh! And the hybrids cost many thousands more and are much bigger too. They are completely different classes of vehicles!

    I'm not necessarily a fan of these microcars...especially when I can't even fit well into either but I am in to straight forward articles and factual statements. Apparently you are not w/ this article. And basing success on a low volume vehicle w/ only the first year is just plain stupid too. Look at the history of the Prius.

    I visit this site to be informed/enlightened but too often we're giving dumb speculation or errors. I'm done!

  14. @Erik: First, please refrain from blanket insults of the commenters on this site, e.g. "fools".

    Second, yes, there are many classes of vehicles sold in the U.S. It appears that you want efficiency measured solely within each class, and not compared across classes. Sometimes we do that on this site, but that was not how my statement--which is factually accurate on its face--was written, or intended.

    Public expectation also probably plays a role. Those unfamiliar with two-seat microcars seem to expect them to achieve mileage of 50 to 70 mpg. Obviously they don't.

    I'm always willing to correct factual errors you identify in anything we publish. You do not appear to have done so thus far.

  15. @Erik: You also suggest that the article is based only on first-year sales. That is correct for the Scion iQ. It is completely wrong for the Smart ForTwo, which is now in its SIXTH year on the market (as the article indicates). That seems like something of a track record to me, no?

  16. I expect more form the iQ and thr Smart. The Smart has been around for 2 decades and should offer stellar fuel savings. Same thing for the iQ, I expect more from Toyota. Both of these cars considering their tiny footprint should deliver in the 50mpg range. They simply are not the best bang for your buck and certainly are not on top of the fuel frugal heap. They could do much better.

  17. You are wrong n simply don't know what you're talking about. The aerodynamics of these types of ice cars are never going to give them high hwy mpg...at least for this decade.

  18. It is NOT just the aerodynamics. Tires and weight also matter. But they aren't getting the superior city MPG either.

    But keep this in mind. Those are "conventional" ICE. It is incorrect to compare them with "hybrid", especially those that use Atkinson cycle engines. Atkinson cycle engines have higher efficiency than conventional ICE but they are "useless" in car by itself without the compliment of the electric motor. So, it almost requires it. But adding hybrid powertrain will addd significant cost and weight to the car.

    So, it is NOT "fair" to compare a compact ICE with hybrid. But I do agree that they could have increased efficiency by putting a small diesel in those cars. It does add significant cost as well.

  19. I looked at a Smart car, but the MPG was in the LOW 30's. I wouldn't buy ANY car with that low MPG. As small as it is, Smart should rock the MPGs. I'm increasingly discovering smaller doesn't mean energy efficient (same with fridges and Priuses).

  20. I own a Smart fortwo Electric Drive and I'm very happy with it. It's my daily driver to work (30 miles each way) and it works perfectly for me.

  21. I think there's a much bigger market for occasional use of cars like this thorough services like Car2Go, ZipCar or even RelayRides.

    The shifting experience on the gasoline Smart forTwo is unpleasant, especially after one has been spoiled for the electric drive; On my first Car2Go trip here in Seattle I thought that there was something horribly wrong with the engine until I realized that occasional loss of power and drop in RPM was due to the funky electronic shifting. I'd been ready to call the emergency line and report engine trouble!

  22. IF THESE CARS GOT 40-50 MPG THEY WOULD SELL !!!! MY 99 METRO 1.0 3CYL 5SP GETS 40-55 MPG.

  23. @Mike: As we usually do, we have to note here that your 1999 Geo Metro could not legally be sold as a new car today. It's missing a great deal of now-mandatory safety equipment, and would likely fail modern-day crash tests--or at least be given the lowest possible ratings by the NHTSA and IIHS.

  24. Not sure if the statement "2 seat cars" is relevant. But "tiny" is. Unless you live on a golf course type community, I would not drive these tiny cars. The safety issues along makes them unusable on the open highway with larger vehicles. Crash tests, I believe are mostly based on the cars own weight and speed running into a fix object. I would not want to get into a fender bender an SUV or truck however.

  25. Even the largest SUV is no match for a semi-truck on the highway or a city bus. That's an interesting turn of phrase, though: "unless you ... I would not". If you don't want to drive a small car, don't buy one. Fuel taxes and efficiency mandates will push people towards sensibly sized vehicles in time.

  26. Yes the dude up to the top of this page says American people don't want a 2 seater car. WELL I DO !!!! Theres only me, why should i drag around that other front seat and that big back seat and some of them with another seat behind the back seat.. If I want a camper I'll buy that. and I have one extra seat and thats enough.

  27. @Hazel: Unfortunately, sales data shows that you are part of a tiny minority of buyers, just 1 or 2 percent of the market.

  28. I love the design of the Honda CR Z but its fuel efficiency and lack of speed make me doubt buying one. I dont mind that it is only 2 seats at all. I think most people do not like the small cars because...well...they are ugly and dorky looking. Honda did a great job bringing back a sporty version I just wish it was comparable to other small or hybrid cars under the hood that are out there.

  29. I love the smart car. Makes me feel good about buying the Fit. For 10% more money I get a real 4cyl engine tuned for regular (vs a 3cyl tuned for premium), a real 5 spd torque converter automatic (vs a herky jerky auto manual), a real luggage area, and a real rear seat. Also I got a crummy 3 year warranty (vs a ridiculous 2 year warrenty).

    Also smart car makes my prius feel like a limo!

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