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
At 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
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.
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
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
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
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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