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Why Americans Can't Get Their Hands on Great Small Cars

Nathan Adlen

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BMW’s Mini builds the Mini Cooper D, one of the most fuel-efficient cars in the world. It has a 1.6-liter, 110-horsepower (with 240 lbs feet of torque) diesel engine that is capable of getting well over 60 miles per gallon (about 80 mpg has been recorded with the manual transmission). In any guise, the Mini Cooper is one of the best handling vehicles you can buy. The Mini Cooper Diesel still has amazing handling like other Minis and is available in several configurations (convertible and larger Clubman), but it is not available in the United States.

Ford has been building the Ka for over 12 years. It is an extremely efficient design and gets remarkable mileage while still being entertaining to drive. It is handsome with a considerable amount of comfort and utility for its size. Over 40 mpg (combined) and great driving dynamics are but a few of its attributes. Despite its age, the Ford Ka is considered one of the most popular cars in Europe and South America. The Ford Ka is not available for sale in the United States.
The United States is prohibited from having hundreds of great small cars. Why?
We can thank our Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) among others for creating very stringent guidelines for these manufacturers to even consider bringing these vehicles to our country. European standards are a tad looser than ours, thus making it easier for cars like these to be deemed safe for public consumption.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has excellent standards shared with several nations worldwide to regulate equipment on cars in order to facilitate trade of vehicles. The United States is not part of the UNECE and has very different standards – some experts say it is a deliberate ploy by our government to keep imports from dominating our market. Our current standards prohibit many of these small vehicles from being imported without costly revisions. Even our own automakers have to jump through hoops in order to get foreign built cars (even under their own company name) into the United States.
The question should be: How can we get the cars to be accepted into the United States sooner rather than later? And what are American-based vehicle manufacturers like Ford and General Motors doing about it?
General Motors has proved that with minor alterations popular sellers in Europe can be brought to the United States rapidly. The Saturn Astra is based on the European Opel/ Vauxhall model that has proven popular there. Sensing a hole in the American market, General Motors wisely “Americanized” the Astra and brought it to market quick enough to replace the void left by the rather unloved Saturn Ion.
Ford is on the fast track too. Several Ford cars are cutting through the red tape to a speedy production. The new Fiesta will be based on the (well received) new Mazda 2 (Ford is Mazda’s parent company). Hoping to make up for dreadful truck sales and keeping our market flush with new small cars and trucks, it is expected that Ford will bring several economical import vehicles to our shores soon.
There is a “business” reason that more platforms are not shared with other countries which consumers may not be fully aware of. Vehicles are often built for the consumer needs of that region. A Chevrolet Suburban would not be ideal for the narrow garages of Tokyo or the cobblestone roads of old Europe. The Renault Twingo and Mitsubishi ‘I’ would not fare well on our large highways and American style traffic.
Also, consider that a very high portion of Americans still drive two to three ton pickup trucks, SUVs and vans which would boot these wee little cars as easily as Beckham kicks a ball (despite good crash test results – physics works in greater mass’ favor). Having compact vehicles in America is nothing new and can be popular to some, but up until now, these owners were a minority.
The runaway success of the Mini and Smart brands in our country has proven that we are accepting of small cars and may even embrace them. The little Toyota Prius with Honda’s Fit and Civic (and many other’s) popularity should serve as a lightning rod to our newly aroused appetite for fuel sippers.
Within the next few years, several automakers will spring new models onto our shores – it is inevitable. The question now becomes: What do these future, smaller new models have that is so special? What vehicles will be worth the extra expense of licensing with our government’s agencies?
We will know very soon. There are some fantastic machines just waiting to win your hearts and they are closer than ever – stayed tuned for more!