Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa feature high mpg rates, low price tag.
Tom Incantalupo - Newsday - August 4, 2006
2007 Honda Fit - Part of the fastest growing automotive market segment.
A Hyundai Elantra is hardly a gas guzzler, but at today’s fuel prices, it was costing mortgage salesman Ronald McFarland $60 a week to run his. When it came time for a new car, McFarland decided to downsize: He bought a Honda Fit.
In showrooms since April, it’s one of the smallest cars available in the United States and gets government-estimated fuel economy in the high 30s. “I love the car,” McFarland, 31, said. He figures the Fit has cut his fuel bill significantly.
Although they still account for a small percentage of what Americans drive, subcompact cars like the Fit are the fastest-growing part of the new vehicle market this year - up almost 27 percent from a year earlier, says analyst Tom Libby of California-based J.D. Power and Associates, the market research company.
One reason for that growth, he says, is the rise in gas prices. But another, says Libby, is the appearance of new and redesigned models. The slickly styled Yaris replaced Toyota’s slow-selling and frumpy Echo in March, with vital statistics typical of the U.S. market’s bottom rung: a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine, fuel economy estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at 34 mpg for city driving and 39 on the highway with automatic transmission, and prices that start at about $11,530 in two-door hatchback body style and about $12,000 with four doors.
Meanwhile, Honda and Nissan have slid new and cheaper small cars into their lineups - the Fit and Versa, respectively - below what had been their least expensive offerings - the Civic and Sentra.
The Fit is a four-door hatchback starting at about $14,000. It has a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers only 109 horsepower but gets between 31 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway, with automatic transmission as estimated by the EPA.
Nissan’s Versa is just beginning to reach showrooms, in four-door hatchback variant with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and prices starting about $13,000. A sedan version is due next year, said Joe Samfilippo, Nissan’s senior marketing manager for the Versa and larger Sentra. “I believe a market is there,” he said. “The question is how big that market is going to be.”
A redesigned version of the Hyundai Accent (28 mpg city, 37 highway with automatic), another entry in the super-small class, began reaching dealerships in December. Accent sales in June were up 43 percent from a year earlier. Also redone for ‘06 is the mechanically related Rio, sold through dealers handling vehicles of Hyundai’s Kia unit.
The redesigned Korean-built Chevrolet Aveo (26 mpg city, 34 highway with automatic) is expected to start arriving in showrooms in a few weeks, with prices starting at just under $10,000.
What Libby calls “conventional compacts” - the Corolla, Civic, Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cobalt - still are far more popular with Americans than the subcompacts and represented about 13 percent of the U.S. new vehicle market this year, with about a million sold from January through June. That’s nine times the number of cars in the Yaris-Fit-Versa class.
Libby says gasoline prices aren’t high enough to cause a stampede to the smallest vehicles. “Their appeal is limited because of limited interior space and small powertrains,” he said. “They don’t have the functionality of conventional small cars.”
The Fit is the smallest of the group, at about 13 feet long, about a foot and a half shorter than a Civic.
So far, the Aveo is the only entry in the subcompact field from GM, Ford or Chrysler, but at the Geneva auto show in February, DaimlerChrysler displayed the Dodge Hornet, which is about two feet shorter than the recently discontinued Dodge Neon. The company says it is considering production of a similar car, perhaps in partnership with another automaker.
More recently, Daimler announced plans to import one model of its Smart cars, which are even smaller than the Fit, starting in early 2008.