When we talk about cars, we tend to think of what I like to call superlative cars. Models focused on delivering the best at performance, luxury, off-road capabilities, and/or fuel efficiency. I’ve already written about superlative cars on this other Chronicle, although for different reasons. We spend so much time on those cars that we usually forget how interesting the other end can be.
Small cars are interesting feats of engineering. They make miracles out of tiny dimensions and powertrain to provide efficient transportation as a whole. In other words, they cater to the needs of single people and small families using as few resources as possible. However, though they’ve improved a lot over the years, they’re still underappreciated. The following paragraphs analyze that.
What is the background here?
One of the earliest examples of car design with size restriction is the Japanese kei category. It helped the local society recover from the Second World War by providing cheap transportation for everyday use. A later example is the coupé, whose name is literally the French word for “cut”: that body style was born as a shorter version of then-popular sedans, initially focused on utilitarian uses.
Later, the oil crisis of the 1970s would favor whatever made cars use less fuel, so the compact and light body of hatchbacks made them popular especially in North America, which has been famous for large cars and trucks. The next big investment would come in the 1990s as a result of European makers’ concern with the increasing number of cars on the narrow streets of their main cities.
Now, what arguments are there?
Minicars are ideal for tough conditions. They provide transportation when it’s necessary to save fuel, they can be driven and parked almost everywhere, and they can be as affordable as the local regulation allows. On the other hand, it’s possible to attract wealthy buyers by making them stylish, refined and, above all, customizable: the Smart ForTwo, for example, offers countless accessories.
Analyzing all that, you may notice that kei cars and hatchbacks came at times of economic distress while coupés and minicars were developed with the need for easier everyday use. The few attempts to make them faster, fancier and/or simply more attractive have never truly prospered so far. Why is that? Because we don’t actually want those cars; we’ll only consume them if we’re forced to.
Why are we talking about them again?
You guessed it right — we need them once again. In order to spend less fuel or, even better, drop it altogether, automakers have been encouraged to invest in minicars because they’re the easiest starting point. Making them effective and affordable enough will make this new concept sell better than ever and this, in turn, will pave the way to take it to segments whose buyers are more resistant.
Renault, for example, would’ve never started its Z.E. lineup by its large sedans or minivans; its highest bets were the Kangoo, due to its commercial purpose, and the Twizy. The latter is a two-seat minicar which only has the four wheels and the driving position with regular cars; even the tandem seat arrangement is different and focused on making the car as rational and efficient as possible.
How is today’s scenario?
Of course, there have been many developments over the eight years since the Twizy’s unveiling. Regulations have become so tough regarding emissions that the only way to keep complying with them is by completely embracing electric propulsion. Parallel to that, major cities aren’t getting any less populous, so it’s necessary to figure new mobility ideas and make sure both trends won’t clash.
More recently, if you’ve read this Chronicle, you’ll remember that the current health crisis is forcing people to rethink transportation as a whole. Small cars have become necessary and we have the means to make individual ownership feasible, but that’ll only happen if people actually buy them. Minicars are tiny and efficient, but that’s not enough: they need to become pleasant to use, too.
How should modern minicars be?
The Twizy already masters customization. Smart has given the fortwo several powertrain options, including one made by Brabus. Now, Polish entrepreneur Eyal Avramovich will set yet another standard with the Leia Gabriel LUV soon: it’ll be the smallest luxury car in the world. Basically, a typical modern minicar with opulent style, powerful engine and a cabin filled with upscale materials.
In short, initiatives like those will ultimately give minicars as many options as the traditional ones have today. Their purchase will require fewer concessions from people, so they’re likely to sell more around the world and regardless of necessity. The only way for society to truly make use of their advantages is by normalizing them, rather than seeing them as an exotic interpretation of cars.