Small cars not only answer

The American public wants small cars, critics say, the very cars the Detroit Three don't produce.

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There’s no question that people prefer a short, simple answer to complex problems. What’s wrong with the Detroit Three? According to critics and various letters to the editors, they’re not building cars people want to buy.

The American public wants small cars, critics say, the very cars the Detroit Three don’t produce. To that end, the “D3” are pumping what little money they have into new subcompacts and alternative fuels. But while Americans say they want subcompacts, what they really want is for other people to buy them.

However, industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers says Canadians like smaller cars. In 2008, the top three sellers were compacts: the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Mazda3. Two subcompacts made the top 10 list – Toyota Yaris was fourth and Hyundai Accent sixth. All others were compacts, save for the eighth-place Toyota Camry.

In the U.S.? The top seller was the midsize Camry, followed by the Honda Accord. Also among the top 10 were the midsize Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Impala and Chevrolet Malibu. Only four compacts made the list: Toyota Corolla/Matrix, Honda Civic, Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cobalt – while Toyota Prius came in at number 10.

Hang on, something’s missing. If people really are clamouring for tiny cars the D3 lack, then shouldn’t at least one or two of them be on the list? Every American buyer out there could have chosen a Chevrolet Aveo, Honda Fit, Yaris, Nissan Versa, Suzuki SX4, Accent, Kia Rio or Scion xD.

If the D3’s sole error is in lacking subcompacts, then logically, shouldn’t the U.S. top 10 be nothing but little cars?

Instead, midsize held the largest market share, at 20.9 per cent, followed by compacts, at 15.6 per cent. The subcompact segment was the only one that showed a gain, up a whopping 19.8 per cent – but to only 3.8 per cent market share. Americans still bought more than 2.7 million midsize cars, but only 507,184 subcompacts. Even luxury cars outsold them.

U.S. gas prices topped $3 per gallon in May 2007, and never went below $2.70 until last October. If it’s all about fuel efficiency, why isn’t Prius top of the list, followed by all other available hybrids?

Instead, if you look at trucks, the Ford F-Series sold 476,588 copies – almost 40,000 more than Camry. Second-place Chevrolet Silverado outsold second-place Accord by more than 92,000 vehicles. And both trucks were down 24.8 per cent from 2007.

In short, if you look solely at size and segment, the Detroit Three are “building the cars people want to buy.” But in their mad rush to satisfy the letter writers, and now U.S. Congress, they’re concentrating on a sector Americans are largely ignoring.

As long as gas prices stay relatively low, the alternative vehicles they’re promising – hybrids, electrics and extended-ranges – won’t fly either. People look at pump prices right now, not down the road. Environmental concerns go out the window when it comes to cash.

Certainly, the D3 have to do something to shore up lagging sales. The sudden push to bring tiny-footprint, tiny-engine, alternative-fuel vehicles to market will no doubt satisfy the letter writers.

The question is whether it’ll satisfy the people who are walking into dealerships, putting down their money, and actually driving away with a car.

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