"Bigger is better" is dead.
True, that marketing philosophy has proved lucrative for the better part of a century. Americans like big cars and trucks and big powertrains to haul them.
But now that Congress has passed a 35-mpg corporate average fuel economy standard, that philosophy is obsolete. Automakers must prepare consumers for some big changes.
The industry must show the public what the future will look like. Vehicles will shrink, and engines won't be quite so large. But with the right mix of styling, technology and performance, marketers still can create excitement.
Yes, it will force some new thinking among automotive marketers. The old 0-to-60 yardstick won't disappear entirely, but it will apply to a shrinking niche of performance cars.
That's OK. The success of the Toyota Prius proves that some consumers appreciate such mundane attributes as good fuel economy. As gasoline prices creep toward $4 a gallon, good fuel economy will become a marketing necessity.
Moreover, small cars don't have to be boring. Europe's rally cars attract a devoted crowd of gearheads, and Chrysler LLC sized up that niche with its Dodge Hornet concept.
To their credit, automakers saw all this coming. This year, the Tokyo and Frankfurt auto shows featured fleets of concept cars powered by hybrids, diesels and other fuel-stingy powertrains. We are confident that the upcoming Detroit show will continue that trend.
Here's a suggestion: Automakers should rummage through their product lineups in Japan and Europe for practical people movers. Don't assume that American consumers won't like hatchbacks simply because they weren't popular in the era of $1-a-gallon gasoline.
It's encouraging to see that General Motors and Ford Motor Co. are evaluating their European lineups for vehicles that might sell in America. Properly priced, a Chevrolet Zafira could do well here.
Here's more advice: Don't be bashful. The public has displayed a taste for style statements such as the Mini Cooper and Scion xB. In such a crowd, generic transportation won't cut it.
In the future, vehicles such as the Nissan Cube and Ford Verve will up the ante. Beware of the old marketing verities. Bigger-is-better is sooo last week.