You say you want to buy a small car? Happy shopping. There are lots of them out there, and you should have no trouble finding exactly what you want.
Whats that? You want to build a small car? Permit me to impart a few words of wisdom and perhaps a warning or two.
If youre planning to sell that small car in the United States, forget it. Americans dont like small cars, and they will buy small only as a last resort -- like when gasoline goes for $4 or $5 a gallon.
OK, I know that has been the word on the street for as long as I have been observing the industry, 54 years. Well, this time, you can take that word to the bank.
Because the truth is that Americans as a whole dont like itty-bitty autos. Theyre proving it every day, even in this time of economic turmoil.
Of course, a perusal of the monthly sales numbers might tell you that Americans dont like any kind of car or truck, but Im straying from the subject, which is small cars.
So lets look at the numbers. Thats where the story is.
In April, Americans bought 108,727 small cars, 40.9 percent fewer than they had purchased in April 2008. It was also 29.2 percent below April 2007 sales, and 2007 is perhaps a better comparison because by April 2008 gasoline prices had already started to go nuts, and it seemed like everybody wanted a small car.
That didnt last long. By last August, gasoline prices had stabilized somewhat. And small-car sales were falling. They have continued to fall. Gasoline is still darned expensive, but its now closer to $2 a gallon than $4.
So what does all that mean to domestic automakers (read: Ford and Chrysler) that are rushing into small cars with flags unfurled? It means proceed with utmost caution. Chrysler has hooked up with Fiat. Why? Small cars. Ford plans to bring in several of them from Europe and is refurbishing its Michigan Truck plant in Wayne to make small cars.
Careful, gentlemen: Dont be the guy who gave a party and nobody came.
President Barack Obama likes small cars. He also likes electric cars, green cars, fuel-efficient cars and alternate-fuel cars. But Obama doesnt buy any of them. He rides around in Lincoln and Cadillac limos purchased with your tax dollars.
The industry has had tiny cars with their flaky fuel systems for as long as I can remember. In the 1950s, both Ford and Chevrolet had plans for itty-bitty autos, but neither car was ever made. Why not? Cost and price. The bean counters figured such cars couldnt be sold at a profit without upsetting the companys entire cost-price structure.
Detroit probably has to get rid of that shibboleth today. It wont be easy. It will be even harder to persuade Americans to think small as Volkswagen did some 60 years ago. (Remember that wonderful ad?)
Automotive News counts 25 nameplates in the small-car class, and for the first four months, only three of them were ahead of last year. The Hyundai Accent and the Smart ForTwo are up; so is the Saturn Astra, but it wasnt on the market for the full four months in 2008.
Hail to the ugly
Years ago, a few French Citroens prowled U.S. highways and byways. What awful-looking piles of sheet metal and glass. They didnt last long.
Then came the Pontiac Aztek, which spawned the term Aztec ugly. The words were used to describe any product that was less than pleasing to look upon. Pontiac put the poor thing out of its misery a few years ago.
It was succeeded by the Hummer, which wrote a whole new standard for automotive ugliness. I have suggested that General Motors replace the wheels on a Hummer with treads, add some armament and give it to the Army as a new light tank.
In any event, the brand wont be in the GM stable much longer. GM would like to sell Hummer, but potential buyers are not creating a traffic jam around GM headquarters.
So Im looking for the ugliest four-wheeled vehicle on U.S. roads. Do you have a nomination? You can send it to me via e-mail at [email protected]