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

Richard Truett covers engineering for Automotive News

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.

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 this year 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 and its length is 120.1 inches. It is EPA rated at 37 mpg highway and has a base price of $16,420, including shipping.

The Smart ForTwo has a 73.5-inch wheelbase and is just 106.1 inches long. It is EPA rated at 38 mpg highway and has a base price of $14,020, including shipping. The new ForTwo coming in just more than a year will be the same size.

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

The Fiat 500 has a wheelbase of 90.6 inches and a length of 139.6 inches. The 500 with a five-speed manual is EPA rated at 40 mpg highway. Its base price is $17,295, including shipping.

The recipe for small car success in the United States 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.



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