The new Smart ForTwo coming in just more than a year looks slightly better on paper.
RICHARD TRUETT

Where U.S. shoppers draw the line on buying very small cars

Richard Truett covers engineering for Automotive News.
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Daimler says it’s giving the Smart car another go in the United States by rebuilding it from wheels to roof, complete with new powertrains.

It may not help.

When it comes to small cars, American buyers have a limit to how low they will go.

The Fiat 500 appears to be the smallest car Americans are willing to buy in decent volume.

And because BMW’s Mini Cooper has ballooned in size and now competes with cars as big as the Ford Focus and similar-sized hatchbacks, the Fiat 500 has inherited the small-car throne.

Cars that are too small simply haven’t clicked with American buyers -- despite persistently high gasoline prices. Take Scion’s iQ, for example. The stubby little four-seater has sold just 1,227 copies in the United States through June, down nearly 50 percent from a year earlier. Smart’s ForTwo has moved only 4,647 units in the United States through June, up 4 percent from a year earlier.

The Scion iQ’s wheelbase is 78.7 inches, its length is 120.1 inches and its curb weight is 2,127 pounds. It is EPA rated at 37 mpg highway. The Smart ForTwo has a 73.5-inch wheelbase, is just 106.1 inches long and has a curb weight of 1,808 pounds.

Of course, the Smart car has been dragged down from the start by its powertrain, a gruff and gutless old 1.0-liter three-cylinder rated at 70 hp. It is connected to a dual-clutch transmission whose gear shifts are jerky. The sensation is much like rowing a boat: You lurch forward at each upshift. All that suffering brings you just 38 mpg on the highway -- if you dare venture onto a highway in the spindly little two-seater.

Fiat, on the other hand, has sold a respectable 18,179 500s in the United States through June this year, and that does not include the larger four-door L model.

BMW has moved 13,531 Cooper hardtops in the United States through June, which includes some of the last 2014 models. The new car, which is just now landing at dealerships in volume, is bigger than the ’14.

The Fiat 500 has a wheelbase of 90.6 inches, a length of 139.6 inches and a curb weight of 2,363 pounds. The 2015 Mini Cooper has a wheelbase of 98.2 inches, a length of 151.1 inches and a curb weight of 2,605 pounds.

The new Smart ForTwo coming in just more than a year looks slightly better on paper. A three-cylinder engine remains, but it will be available with a turbocharger. A five-speed manual transmission will be available as will a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. The new Smart will be about 4 inches wider, but the same length.

A Facebook friend quipped that Daimler should just rename the car the Smart ForCAFE. Because the only reason it is here, he says, is to offset sales of fuel-sucking Mercedes-Benz sedans and SUVs.

The recipe for small car success in the United States?

It looks like this: at least 40 mpg highway, a usable back seat, a wheelbase of at least 90 inches and a length no less than 135 inches. A price in the mid teens also helps.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.

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