Small is big at the Auto Show


What's small is big again at the Philadelphia International Auto Show.

Performance and speed may be the name of the game for many visitors - deep-pocketed buyers and mass transit dreamers alike - but auto show chairman Dom Conicelli said people seeking fuel-efficient transportation will find their options have opened up.

Conicelli pointed to rising fuel prices and government mandates on fuel economy driving the trend.

"We are definitely seeing an uptick in the amount of small cars," Conicelli said in an interview last week, as workers busily put the finishing touches on the show.

Probably the biggest little deal is the Fiat 500. Like many of the smallest cars, this tiny hatchback has been zipping around Europe for years. Now that Fiat has a 25 percent stake in Chrysler as part of a government-sponsored reorganization, the brand will return to the United States after nearly a 30-year hiatus.

Ariel Gavilan, head of communications for Fiat Brand North America, said in an e-mail that the addition of Fiat to select Chrysler and Dodge dealers positions the company for the future.

"We expect the small-car segment to more than double by 2014, and we think that there is an opportunity to bring back the Fiat brand and the Fiat 500, a vehicle that will offer Italian design, modern technology, fuel efficiency, and affordable price to the U.S. consumers," Gavilan wrote.

The Fiat will be available at dealerships in Cherry Hill, Downingtown, Langhorne, Lansdale, and Wilmington. The vehicles are expected to be available at dealerships this month.

The Fiat is joined by other 2011 subcompact debutantes Ford Fiesta and Mazda2. The class also includes the Honda Fit, Mini Cooper, Nissan Versa, and Toyota Yaris.

But one market analyst said the trend had less to do with consumer demand than government regulation.

"Government regulations are driving the trend to smaller, more efficient vehicles," said Aaron Bragman, a senior analyst with IHS Global Insight Inc. in Detroit, who watches the automotive industry closely.

He points out that federal rules on average fuel economy for automakers are tightening between 2011 and 2015, and that expected further restrictions between 2017 and 2025 will require automakers to cut fuel consumption drastically.

According to data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the combined average fuel economy for cars and light trucks, set at 27.6 m.p.g. for 2011, climbs to 34.1 m.p.g. for 2016. The proposed rules for 2017-25 are expected to be released in September and finalized in July 2012.

So how can automakers turn these pieces into something attractive to the public?

"Consumer demand is making those vehicles less no-frills econoboxes," Bragman said.

Case in point: Ford's new-for-2011 Fiesta. The few Americans who remember the nameplate recall a 1978-80 hatchback modeled on the Volkswagen Rabbit that offered no automatic transmission, no air conditioner (except as a dealer-installed option), bare-bones seating, and a glove box door - as an option.

Thirty years later, the car has Ford's high-tech telematics system featuring Bluetooth phone and iPod connection and Sirius satellite radio, air-conditioning, and even cup holders and a deep glove box standard, and an optional start button and heated leather seats.

"Consumers desire small cars, but they want all the features and technologies all the people have grown to expect in larger vehicles," said John Felice, general manager of Ford-Lincoln marketing.

Bragman cited the success of the Mini for the last decade as paving the way for small cars that are still big on amenities.

Like the Fiat 500, the Fiesta had been available in Europe for years, and was given a freshening a little more than a year before coming to the United States in the summer.

But Felice disputes the importance of government regulations in driving the trend toward small cars.

"When you look at fuel prices well over $3 a gallon and the spike in 2008 to $4 is still fresh in everyone's mind, fuel economy has continued to rise as a reason to purchase," Felice said.

"Regardless of what the government mandates, there's a demand out there for fuel efficiency."


Contact Scott Sturgis at 215-854-2558 or