Smaller Than Small: Is America Ready for Tiny Cars?

With subcompact “B-class” cars moving upscale and into the mainstream, a niche is opening for even smaller cars. While Americans have always had a few microcars to choose from (current examples are the Smart fortwo and MINI Cooper) more companies will be testing them out in the American market in the coming years. These new offerings each take different approaches to the idea of a tiny car. Here are the ones that have been announced so far, from smallest to largest:

Scion iQ

The Scion iQ is based on a model Toyota's been selling overseas for a couple years now. In name and appearance it's very similar to the Smart fortwo. However, there are some key differences. The Scion is a little more than a foot longer than the Smart and has room for four (although the back two passengers certainly won't be very comfortable). Also, its powertrain is more conventional. The IQ carries a four-cylinder engine in the front mated to a continuously variable transmission. Expect the iQ at Toyota/Scion dealers in spring 2011.


Fiat 500

The Fiat 500 has pretty much the same mission as the MINI Cooper, which is to provide retro European style in a very small package. Like the MINI it's a three-door, four passenger hatchback. The Fiat, however, has a much lower base price than the MINI. That lower price is made possible in part by the fact that the 500 is built in Mexico instead of imported from Europe. Despite its price, the 500 does not skimp on innovative engineering. It features the first U.S. application of Fiat's Multi-Air engine technology and an optional six-speed automatic transmission. It will arrive at select Chrysler dealers (in its own “Fiat Studio”) starting in January.

Chevy Spark concept

Chevy Spark concept

Chevrolet Spark

At 143 inches long (in European form) the Spark is closer in size to conventional B-class cars than the MINI, Smart, Scion, or Fiat. It's a five-door hatchback with room for five passengers and Chevy promotes it as sensible entry-level transportation. In Europe it offers a 1.0- or 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine mounted in front with a manual transmission. However, it will probably need a larger engine and an optional automatic for U.S. duty. Chevy promises the Spark will reach U.S. shores by 2012 but hasn't given much detail about how it will differ from its global counterpart.

How many more cars like this will the U.S. see? It depends on how well received these three are. Automakers do not need microcars like this to meet fuel efficiency standards since they've demonstrated they can get comparable miles per gallon on much larger cars. These smallest of cars will have to succeed on their unique virtues of maneuverability and perky styling.

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