Microcars Are Hoping to Sell ‘Big’ in the U.S.


NBC News

Makers of microcars – like the Smart, MINI and Fiat 500 – are out to woo American consumers, who are seriously looking to buy smaller vehicles this year.

Find out what automakers are featuring that will attract U.S. buyers.

While it’s 27 inches longer than the original Fiat 500 Coupe, the Italian maker’s new 500L is positively minuscule when parked alongside more mainstream crossovers, SUVs and minivans.

Slip inside, however, and you may be in for a surprise. Despite the Fiat 500L’s pint-sized footprint, it offers as much interior space as the big Chrysler 300 sedan. Big things can come in small packages, or so Fiat hopes more and more Americans will discover.

The Italian maker got off to a “pretty poor launch” in late 2010, its new U.S. chief executive Jason Stoicevich admitted during a media preview of the 500L in Baltimore this month. But the original 500 line suddenly seemed to click with consumers last year, as 2012 sales surged to 43,000, slightly more than anticipated. Fiat has even more ambitious expectations for this year now that second model line is rolling into showrooms.

Even law enforcement has taken to the most mini of the minicars: The Smart car.

But some Americans are migrating to smaller vehicles that have long been mainstream in crowded, costly markets such as Europe and Japan.

These aren’t the stripped-down microcars of decades past, however. In fact, some of the features that once drew customers to classic econoboxes don’t apply to some of these newer offerings.

“When you’re selling a microcar for compact car prices, you have to offer an appealing vehicle that steps out of the traditional small car hierarchy,” said consultant Jim Hall of Detroit’s 2953 Analytics.

Small cars, in general, are beginning to gain momentum, even if Americans maintain their love affair of bigger vehicles. According to Ford Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields, B- and C- segment vehicles – which range from the Fiat 500 to the Ford Focus — have jumped from 13 percent of the overall U.S. market to 20 percent since 2005. And the trend is expected to continue at an even faster pace.