Is Lady Luck about to smile on Toyota, Honda and Nissan again?
Those Japanese automakers are in the midst of launching a crop of small cars in the United States just as gasoline prices are dancing around the $3-a-gallon mark.
Conversely, General Motors is launching its redesigned full-sized SUVs, with the sibling pickups due this fall.
It was similar fuel-price shocks in the 1970s that sent consumers running to Japanese automakers in search of better fuel economy. Many got hooked on quality and durability, and they've never come back.
And once again, the Japanese will largely be competing against each other in this segment. While Chevrolet can counter with the imported Aveo, Ford never saw fit to bring the stylish Ka over from Europe, and the guys at DaimlerChrysler haven't offered any sign that we'll get a shot at something like the Mercedes-Benz A class.
Let's be clear. It's no slam dunk for Japan Inc. this time. The vehicle quality from domestic automakers is much better today. And despite the dire predictions of analysts and pundits, Americans haven't abandoned SUVs en masse despite record high gasoline prices.
Americans aren't big fans of small, especially when it comes to vehicles (except for the enthusiasts and singles among us who make a sports car their daily driver).
So let's not assume that the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and Nissan Versa are going to be runaway hits.
But let's also acknowledge that their timing couldn't be better.
While it should be crystal clear to everyone that fuel prices have only one way to go over the long term (and it ain't down), the driving force behind these new small cars was cool, not fuel.
The Fit and Versa draw heavily on designs Honda and Nissan already were building for other markets. They're coming here because marketers at the automakers would like to grab the attention of some of those young -- and old -- buyers who have been joining the Scion party.
Also, Toyota, Honda and Nissan needed to do something because their traditional entry-level cars -- the Corolla, Civic and Sentra -- aren't so entry-level anymore, with typically equipped sticker prices heading north of $15,000.
But you can still put a serious dent in the bank account with one of the new entries. A well-equipped Yaris or Fit carries a sticker with the bottom line in the $15,000 to $16,000 range. Nissan hasn't set Versa prices, but you can bet the loaded ones will be in the same neighborhood.
Then there's the coolness factor.
This week, the Toyota Yaris sedan failed to excite my school car pool jury -- the kids said it looked weird. But then they have no experience with the Toyota Echo, the less-than-successful car replaced by the Yaris. They haven't seen a Fit or Versa yet.
They didn't ask, but I could have told them that all three cars average more than 30 mpg.
Sounds pretty cool to me.
You may e-mail Dale Jewett at [email protected]