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The shrinking American car (batteries included)

By Kirsten Dirksen
May 20, 2010
File under: Alternative Transportation, Auto Industry, Electric

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The arrival of the Smart car on the U.S. market has helped Americans re-think whether bigger is better when it comes to their vehicles, but it’s only the beginning of the miniaturizing of the American market

It’s not just fuel economy that has driven an interest in smaller cars, but the changing demographics in America. “Even as fuel prices have stabilized, we’ve continued to see growth in the small-car markets”, explains Ford marketing manager Chantel Lenard. “There are two reasons driving that. One is the demographics of the baby boomers. As they’re getting older and their kids are leaving the household, they’re downsizing. On the other end of the spectrum, we see the millennials, the young people coming into the segment. They don’t need a bigger vehicle, so they’re buying on the basis of affordability.”

While most buyers of small are looking at compacts and subcompacts, there’s an even smaller category that is growing fast: The microcar

Here are a few you may start seeing out on the streets:

Smart enough for a New York Giant

shrinking-car-2.jpgAt 8 feet 10 inches the Smart ForTwo is the smallest thing on the American auto market, but even big names like Bill Cosby, Miley Cyrus and George Clooney have climbed inside this popular two-seater.

New York Giants linebacker Danny Clark tucks his 6-foot-2, 245-pound frame into a 1,600-pound Smart. He’s done the “S.U.V. thing” and made the switch to be different and more eco-friendly, hence his new moniker the “Green Giant”.

While his teammates joke that they’re going to “pick his car up and put it in the back of their pickup trucks”, he’s not worried about safety. “It’s built like a little rubber ball, like a little cage,” he told the New York Times. “The windshield actually pops out instead of going in. I definitely did my research.”

Cary Grant’s Isetta and a car big enough for one + shopping bag

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1955 BMW Isetta 250, BMW Museum, Munich Germany.

The Smart may seem small to those of us accostumed to SUVs, but it’s much larger than the smallest car ever manufactured, the Peel P50. Designed for “one adult and a shopping bag”, it sold for just £199 (about 300 dollars) in 1963 and weighed just 130 pounds.

The most famous microcar was probably the 7-and-a-half foot long Isetta, owned by the likes of Cary Grant and Elvis Presley (both over 6 feet). When it was launched in Europe in the 1953, it caused a splash among autobuyers with its bubble windows and a front end that opened for entry (there were no doors).

Today, the Isetta and the Peel are still popular collector’s items, but the real news in tiny cars is electric.

Clooney’s Tango

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George Clooney helped boost the allure of micro-electrics when he became the first owner of the tiny commute car, the Tango, back in 2005. Launched commercially in 2008, it boasted an acceleration of 0 to 60 in just 4 seconds.

At just 39 inches wide it’s narrow enough to legally to ride side-by-side with other vehicles in traffic lanes (though lane-splitting is only legal in some states like California).

It’s thinner than some motorcycles, but has space for two passengers one behind the other. With a range of 150 miles (with lithium ion batteries), it’s sufficient for most commutes though it’s $108,000 price tag makes it out of range for most.

Austin Power’s NmG

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Made famous in the Austin Powers in Goldmember film, the 3-wheeled Myers Motors NmG (“No more Gas”) is nearly as thin (48 inches), but with a much lower pricetag of $30,000. Its narrow frame allows it the added benefits that it can occupy motorcycle parking and as Bryce Lathrop, a sales rep from Seattle’s Green Car Company, explained to us during a test drive, “it can jump to the head of the line at the ferry”

The original NmG (originally the Corbin Sparrow) was a PEV (Personal Electric Vehicle), made for just one person, but in late 2010, Myers Motors is releasing their two-seater option, the Duo (“Doesn’t Use Oil”).

The tilting SMERA

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The SMERA is not just small and super-narrow (just 34 inches wide), but it’s got a lot of power to pull the corners. According to according to manufacturer Lumeneo, its 15-kilowatt electric motor can produce 737 pound-feet of torque: what Autobloggreen calls “a figure that would give the little-bitty 992-pound pod a power-to-weight ratio of something approximating Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime”. They add dubiously, “We’ll believe it when it forces our eyeballs back into our skulls”.

It goes 0 to 60 in just 8 seconds and has an automatic tilt for curves (to give it the feel of a motorcycle). With a max speed of 80mph and a battery range of 93 miles, it’s expected to hit the European market in 2011.

An iPod on wheels

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It’s an electric incarnation of the VW Beetle or what its designer Peter Arnell calls an “iPod on wheels”. Chrysler’s Peapod is a fun, funky mini-EV designed for the iPhone/iPod generation. You can use your iPod as a key: simply dock it to start the engine (though the option to use a key is available). Your iPhone becomes not only the cars’ entertainment system, but a navigation system and source of efficiency tips.

Technically, since it’s limited to 35 mph zones, it’s not a full-car, but a NEV, though Arnell has launched a campaign to rename the classification “mobi” in an effort to appear more youthful.

Check out tiny videos of some micro-EVs in action


Miles EV: An electric car for for the exurbs. It’s small, but fits 4. In this video, we caught 3 teenagers who use it as their “town car” in their Northern California town.



Myers Motors NmG: A rep from the Green Car Company showed us how he fits his over-six-foot frame into a single-occupancy NmG.



Kurrent: a ride around the suburbs of Seattle in a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle.



GEM car on the streets of San Francisco loaded with about 5 bicycles.



A Zap Zebra mini electric truck being hotrodded at Thunderstruck Motors EV shop.

Kirsten is a co-founder of faircompanies.com, a news/blog/video site focused on environmental sustainability, and is an experienced tv producer, shooter and editor for MTV, Oxgyen, Sundance Channel and Travel Channel.


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8  Comments
  1. Maddox
    May 30, 2010 9am UTC

    These cars look great, the one things that I wonder about (other than price) is safety. If you are in one of these micro-cars and you get into an accident with an SUV are you pretty much toast?

  2. Troy
    July 21, 2010 4am UTC

    They’re a fantastic investment! Such the trend in Europe… We have a used car search engine and they’re all over our European sites. Here are some prices in the U.S. http://cars.trovit.com/used-cars/smart-fortwo

  3. Jessica
    April 7, 2011 11am UTC

    You know, I was going to agree with Maddox but as I started writing my comment I realized that it is no different than owning a motorcycle. Motorcycles have less protection than these cars. I was going to say that I’d never risk driving in one of these “mini” cars but I ride a motorcycle so I guess it wouldn’t be much different. Everyone takes their own risks. But I do agree that these are not as safe as a full size vehicle, and neither are motorcycles.

  4. Kenny
    April 7, 2011 1pm UTC

    Back in the early 70′s we drove the Fiat 500 or locally called the chinque cento which was a 500cc motorcycle engine with a 3 speed transmission. Great fuel mileage and could fit 5 adults to boot. Wish I could have brought one home to USA but politics made it so it would never happen.

  5. Bob Jacobson
    April 7, 2011 4pm UTC

    I can’t figure out why the idea of a small enclosed 3 or 4 wheeled vehicle having a small engine (comparable to that of a larger motorcycle) isn’t available in the US. It could get excellent gasoline mileage, so it would be inexpensive to drive and wouldn’t have the high price, limited range and long charging time of an electric vehicle. There are “trikes” on the highways; why can’t we enclose one and mass-produce it? I’m looking for a small, enclosed, stable vehicle I can afford and be able to drive 500 miles at a stretch if I need to. Something like this should be a “no-brainer”!

  6. Steve
    April 8, 2011 1am UTC

    The Smart cars is one thing but when you get down to something as limited and small as the iPad on wheels, there are scooters with fiberglass bodies which get 3 wheels, fiberglass bodies, 40 to 45 miles per hour and 80 MPG for around $1000 that fulfill the need more efficently. By the time you consider the cost of battery replacement and charging, the gas scooter is a much better investment even without considering the inital purchase price. Also consider that the scooter battery will need to be replaced every couple of years at a cost of about $50 while the iPod on wheels will need new batteries in about the same length of time at a cost of several hundred dollars.

  7. Satchell
    November 17, 2011 2am UTC

    Smack-dab what I was looikng for-ty!

  8. ihoqvkki
    November 22, 2011 10am UTC

    Uy2FxR jqpjgxxmqhji

 
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