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Small cars ready to cross Atlantic

Published October 11, 2008


As proof of how world events are affecting automotive product planners, several car makers last week said they are considering whether small vehicles previously reserved for Europe could also be marketed in North America.

(For a wish list of desirable European vehicles, see page W31.)

As part of its global turnaround plan, Ford has already announced that some of its smaller European offerings will be introduced to us over the next few years, starting with the subcompact Fiesta, then the compact European Focus in 2011, among others.

Its three-door supermini Ka, which debuted last week at the Paris auto show, was originally going to be left off the shopping list of models potentially coming from Europe (where the Ka goes up against the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500).

But Ford CEO Alan Mulally told a Detroit radio station last week that interest inside the company is growing and top executives are looking again at bringing the city car into North America. No doubt the economic downturn and inflation have influenced the decision to think small.

Toyota and Audi are also looking into the feasibility of bringing in cars that we were told were for European consumption only.

Audi, which says it never designed its new subcompact A1 five-door concept for North America, is rethinking its strategy. Audi officials believe U.S. customers, especially, have made “a real shift towards smaller cars and trucks,” and that the movement has “staying power.”

Toyota’s iQ microcar — essentially a Smart Fortwo clone with the ability to house two additional occupants in the back bench seat — is also being considered for here. A company insider told Automotive News that Toyota was looking into the viability of the iQ in the U.S. The microcar goes on sale in Europe in early 2009, and don’t be surprised if it arrives in North America some time after that.

GM speeds away from SUVs

The price of a barrel of oil may have dropped this week to less than $90, but that hasn’t stopped North American new car buyers in their migration from gas-guzzling truck-based SUVs to more fuel-efficient crossover vehicles.

The Detroit News reported that General Motors, in a cost-cutting measure, will accelerate its planned shutdown of the Ohio plant that builds its GMC Envoy, Chevrolet Trailblazer and Saab 9-7X midsized SUVs. The date has been moved up to this Dec. 23 from the summer of 2010.

All three vehicles have seen their U.S. sales fall at least 30 per cent through September, compared with the same period a year earlier.

The news came on the same day GM announced the start of production of its new crossover, the Chevrolet Traverse, in Tennessee.

Prius goes all Lexus on us

Lost in the glare of shiny new vehicles that could be touched and smelled at the Paris auto show last week, Lexus officials confirmed that, yes Virginia, there will be a Lexus version of the next-generation Prius.

Karl Schlicht, Lexus Europe’s president, told Automotive News Europe that starting in 2010 the Toyota premium brand would sell a hybrid car based on the new Toyota Prius in Europe.

The new Prius — to be unveiled at the Detroit show in January — will have CO2 emissions of 92 grams per kilometre, Toyota sources said. A low-emissions version will have CO2 emissions of 89 g/km.

Toyota says the Lexus iteration will likely have slightly higher CO2 emissions, mainly because it will be more “performance oriented” than the Prius. The new Lexus hybrid is expected to be smaller than its current performance hybrid, the $69,000 GS 450h.

There is a larger dedicated hybrid model planned by Toyota’s luxury brand. But its CO2 emissions would be too high for European buyers and will not be sold there.

Surveys say one of the biggest hurdles for those considering a hybrid is the higher price compared with gas models.

High price of cheap car

No one ever said building the “world’s cheapest production car” was going to be easy.

After introducing it in January, Indian auto maker Tata promised its super-cheap four-seat Nano microcar was going to be on sale in its homeland by the end of this year.

But then local farmers resorted to violent protests against the construction of the Nano factory in India’s West Bengal state. In reaction, Tata halted construction of the plant. Then it announced it was abandoning the factory’s location altogether, forcing Ratan Tata, head of Tata Group, to tell The Times of India that the car was “an orphan without a home.”

Now, it looks like Tata has signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Gujarat state government for a Nano plant that will have a larger production capacity than the abandoned facility, starting at 250,000 Nanos per year and eventually doubling.

The land is already owned by the state government and will be sold at prevailing market values. Tata says the delays have pushed back the launch of the car until about 12 months from now.

Volvo gets the hybrid bug

Volvo, with its well-educated and urban demographics, always seemed like it should be at the forefront in offering “green” technologies. But except for conventional diesels in Europe, Ford’s premium brand has been slow to market sexy hybrids of any kind, anywhere.

But last week Volvo announced plans to bring a diesel hybrid to the European and North American markets by 2012, while start-stop technology will arrive next year.

Volvo’s smaller cars, such as the C30, S40 and V50, will get the start-stop hardware first, followed by the rest of the lineup. Diesel hybrids will appear first in the larger sedans, crossovers and SUVs.

A plug-in variant will come “very quickly” after the initial hybrid arrives, said Magnus Jonsson, Volvo’s senior vice president of R & D.

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