Shift to Small Cars Gains a Little Momentum

As small cars grow up, more customers might downsize

Mid-size cars, best-sellers in the United States for about two decades, might finally have some competition from small, affordable, well-designed and fuel-efficient cars.

Compact cars are expected to outsell mid-size models as early as this year, according to marketing information firm J.D. Power and Associates.

LA Auto Show: Find Your Favorite Cars, Images, Debuts

For about  20 years, reliable mid-size cars like the icon of practicality -- the Toyota Camry -- have been the most popular among U.S. drivers. But the move to downsize might mean more feature-packed and fuel efficient small cars on the road like the Chevrolet Cruze, Sonic and Spark, Honda Fit and Civic, VW Golf and the Hyundai Elantra.

Automakers sold about 250,000 more mid-size cars than compacts in the United States about five years ago. Toyota's Camry has been the best-selling car in the country for about 15 years.

For a moderate level of holiday travel fun, try counting Camrys on the way to visit the relatives.

But J.D. Power estimates that by 2015 compact and subcompacts will account for 20 percent of sales. Mid-size cars will account for only 14 percent, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

One reason: These aren't your father's econoboxes.

"All the technology that's available in the larger cars, now comes in a subcompact," said Richard James, of General Motors, when he discussed Chevy's new Spark at the LA Auto Show.

New small cars are loaded with technology and features that buyers expect from larger vehicles, but they cost less up front and at the gas station. The Camry SE gets a respectable 25 mpg city, 35 mpg highway. The Spark, for comparison, and its 1.2-liter, 4-cylinder engine, offer 30 mph city, 40-plus mpg highway.

And, it has seating for four, a center touchscreen and color schemes that rival a bag of M&Ms.

But modern small cars offer more than just gadgets and loud color schemes. Some are packing more performance into their small-car lineup or borrowing from models that have been popular overseas. Ford, for example, debuted its Ford Fiesta ST and Focus ST in North America this month at the LA Auto Show. The hot hatchbacks are a few steps up from the base models when it comes to style, suspension, power and anything else required for sensibly enthusiastic driving. 

But don't count the Camry out. Toyota has bumped up fuel economy in the latest Camry, which costs less than the outgoing model. The latest SE version costs nearly $1,000 less than the 2011 model.

And, when it comes to vehicles, downsizing is relative. Five of the 10 top-selling vehicles in October were midsize sedans, many of which might have been purchased by owners seeking a downsize from large sport-utility vehicles and "crossovers." 

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