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Big change coming in small-car thinking - Metro US

Big change coming in small-car thinking

North America is not the natural habitat of the tiny car.

The tiny car thrives better wherever the air is thick with French or Asian cigarette smoke, and/or wherever there is incessant horn honking. Basically any place where city driving is considered blood sport.

We have congested urban centres too, but not as many and not as big, and between them are provinces and states where bears are still on top of the food chain.

We never liked or needed those tiny, “furrin” cars, and they didn’t like us. With some notable exceptions, we’ve pretty much stayed our separate ways. But, as Mr. Bob Dylan likes to sing, “the times they are a-changing.”

There has been a convergence of several developments of late, all of which point to more interesting tiny cars on North American roads. We have the gas and environment thing happening of course, and there is more urbanization. There is also globalization — automakers need to spread their new-car investments over many countries, and there is a push to harmonize international standards.

But the most important development has really been the cars themselves — the automakers have finally realized that North Americans will buy into small cars too, if the vehicles are more character driven. Historically, the feeling was, if you’re driving a small hatch, it wasn’t by choice — you didn’t care about cars, and just needed something to get from A to B, or such a car was all you could afford.

So the automakers obliged us, by making these rides very price-driven and commodity like, and with the corresponding personality and fashion sense of a chest freezer.

The re-born Mini essentially broke that way of thinking by showing that car buyers will gladly hop into something compact and pay a premium for the privilege, if it exudes that certain something (which the industry calls “appeal”). Other cool small cars in this new mould are Honda Fit and Smart.

Size-wise, the Mini and Fit are what the industry calls B-segment cars. One of the most notable “appealing” B segment cars on the horizon is the 2010 Ford Fiesta — a very smart, modern design, almost a foot shorter than the new Fit.

And not to be outdone, Chevrolet recently unveiled an even smaller, and equally appealing, A-segment car, the Spark, at the Geneva auto show.

European models will be powered by a new 1.2-litre engine, capable of going 100 km on less than five litres of gas. But its main claim to future fame is that unlike other minute cars, it eschews cuteness for toughness. It was created at GM’s Korean studio, and designers noted that it is one small car that is not afraid of big SUVs.

Speculation is that we’ll see Sparks on North American roads sometime in 2010 (as 2011 models). If you see one on the road then, I would advise caution. Because, as you know, the only thing worse than crossing up a brute, is crossing up a short person with an axe to grind. I for one remember when my kids were going through the terrible twos, and, believe me, I prefer not to revisit that experience.

– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for more than 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.

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