Sunday, January 6, 2013

Reality about small (really small) cars is sinking in

The Christian Science Monitor article Will Americans buy tiny cars? Nope states the obvious. Small cars are not part of our culture.

I was living and working on Long Island, NY when Volkswagen started to infiltrate the American market with the Beetle. We are talking the 60s. It seemed logical for commuting. Gas although not as expensive as today's gas - still relatively speaking it was expensive. It was a factor for many who drove to and from work.

The Beetle not much bigger, if at all, than the Smart was very fuel efficient. Later in life I drove a 68 Karman Ghia (sporty VW) and the gas mileage was around 30 mph. And low maintenance. A 6 month DIY project. A rather inexpensive car to purchase too.

Even then a small car was touted as a gas saver and commuting vehicle. While it caught on for a segment - its limitations made it a cute but unrealistic car for anymore than one person. Gas savings and low maintenance costs could not overcome the fact that it was a small car with a very limited market appeal.

While it seemed perfect for a second car for the family or for teenagers or even the new college attendee - safety was a big concern. Maybe exaggerated concern - but the Beetle compared to standard American cars of the day was a really small car that seemed more likely than not to be your coffin in a serious accident.

Today the Smart and other similar vehicles face the same problems - a market that is limited. Safety concerns and little value in smallness are not sufficiently overcome by the price of a gallon of gas. Consumption of gasoline is much like that with cigarettes - there is an addiction that costs do little to change purchasing habits.

While there is a market, it isn't large enough to save continued production. They are not earth savers, nor are they necessarily easy on the pocketbook. Cuteness carries a market just a few steps. Green concerns is still limited to a tiny segment of society.

The Christian Science Monitor draws a reasonable conclusion that Americans will not buy small cars like the Smart. It isn't about being green or not - it is about the absence of a market. Consumers still make decisions on purchase price and functionality. The price of a gallon of gas is like a 'sin' tax.

But maybe more important to Americans is that cars still mean more than cost and functionality. Our culture, unlike say that of Europe, is car concentric. Infrastructure is important too. In those European cities where the roads accommodate the larger and faster cars - they proliferate. They pay the price.

The auto is more than a means of transportation. They are probably more important than the residence. Cars are a hobby. It is a lifestyle. They are means by which we not only enjoy our environment but explore it. I grant that it is changing - but Americans will never accept the European view of cars. Never say never?

It seems clear though that electrics and hybrids are here to stay if for no other reason than they promise not to limit our range nor require us to give up the comfort and experiences that come with a larger car. While many cars do not appear to be large from the outside - many are as large on the inside as the 'boats' of the 60s and 70s. It is more than price and transportation.

Americans value the automobile. It is not a toaster.

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