Who You Callin' Mini? Small Cars Go Big Time

Cruising around on America’s SUV-flooded highways, it’s not hard to see that size really does matter in a set of wheels.

But the popularity of BMW’s sexy little Mini Cooper (search) — especially in cities, where they get great mileage and fit perfectly into those tight parking spots — has inspired other auto manufacturers to see if their own snug-yet-sophisticated offerings suit America's bigger-is-better motorists.

“The Mini has shown carmakers that small cars can do well in the U.S., if they are properly conceived and properly marketed,” said Joe DeMatio, senior editor at Automobile Magazine (search). “They have to have character, personality and performance."

The basic, almost-12-foot Mini starts at around $17,500 — though choosing other models or additional options can push the price as high as $30,000. The striking coupe manages to look both vintage and new at the same time, with a toy-like quality that dazzles pedestrians and other car owners. It also handles like a sports car, with good pickup and agility, is fuel-efficient and comes equipped with state-of-the-art safety features.

“I love it. It is such a great ride — it’s fun, it’s sporty, it’s zippy,” said Gennie Murphy, 33, of New York City, who bought a shiny red Mini Cooper S with her husband. “I find it amusing how easy it is to park. It’s the perfect urban vehicle.”

The response to the Mini has other carmakers scrambling to follow suit. In the first half of 2006, Daimler Chrysler's Mercedes-Benz will roll out a compact, 13-foot SUV version of its Smart (search) city coupe called the Smart Formore (search), starting at about $20,000.

Nissan is also rumored to be considering launching a pint-size SUV here in 2006 called the Cube — which has had success overseas, particularly in Japan. Toyota’s version, the 13-foot, $15,000 Scion XB (search), has already had quite a ride in the U.S. since it was introduced this summer.

GM’s Pontiac plans to introduce the sporty little Solstice (search) in the fall of 2005, an adorable-yet-sleek roadster with an asking price of about $20,000 (which places it well below the price range for standard sports cars), and a body that’s only about a foot longer than the Mini.

And though Honda has been hush-hush on details of its own forthcoming high-end compact auto, the company does admit it will introduce a mini car, smaller than its Civic, in 2006.

“It is an entry-level, subcompact sporty model under the Civic,” Honda spokesman Chris Naughton said.

It’s anybody’s guess how all these little cars will do in the U.S., especially since they'll be up against the cult of the SUV.

Small cars have long been the norm in Europe, Asia and elsewhere in the world, because of exorbitant gas prices and narrower streets. In this country, they did well in the 1970s and ‘80s among drivers wanting efficiency and economy. Then came the sport utility craze, which dwarfed the compact-car market more than ever.

In the late '90s, the new VW Bug paved the way for a different kind of niche small car — one that has oomph while still being economical. But until the classic, eye-catching Mini captured many drivers' hearts, little autos (sports cars aside) were generally nothing more than cheap starter-cars — wimpy even — and certainly nothing to flaunt.

“Small cars were economy cars in the past — this is all I could afford, but what I really wanted was a (Honda) Accord or a (Toyota) Camry,” DeMatio said. “But now people are buying them because they’re desirable on their own merit.”

Murphy is one such driver. First drawn to the Mini's “chic” design, she has also been won over by its efficiency, convenience and road performance. And she likes the fact that it combines some of the best features of small cars with those of large ones.

“It’s powerful but it’s little,” she said. “It’s got all the aspects of a big car … But the gas mileage is amazing. When we did the test drive, I thought it was stylistically brilliant.”

Not everyone has bought into the Mini culture, however. Many American motorists still swear by their hulking SUVs.

“I’m hating Mini Coopers,” said Sarah Trafford, 23, a 5-foot-11 Washington, D.C., graduate student. “When I get in them, I have to be all hunched over. They’re massively uncomfortable and unpleasant to ride around in.”

John Finn, 57, of Bath, Mich., is leery of the safety of compacts — high-end or not — when surrounded by sport utilities on the highway. He said he wouldn’t let his children drive anything but SUVs when they were teenagers.

“I don’t like them (compact cars) because I think it’s more dangerous than ever on the road when you’re in a small car and everything else looks three times as big as you,” he said. “When a 3- or 4-ton SUV hits a little car like that, the little car is going to lose every time.”

Trafford said small cars just mean more vehicles on the road — and thus, more pollution. She doesn’t think compacts like the Mini make sense in the U.S.

“We’re not Europe, so let’s try to stop being Europe,” she said. “Let’s be proud of our heritage — we’re big and happy. Why don’t we just have big cars?”