Honey I Shrunk The Cars: Climate As Style Changer


The time is right to extrapolate from Lloyd's post on Seth Godin's "Small Is The New Big," with climate science denialist walls a-crumbling and Detroit-based car makers fumbling. Subtitle this one The Next Big Thing Has A Shorter Wheel Base. Small cars are about to become fashionable, and not just because CAFE standards may change.US consumers will want to "do something" about climate change, to visibly redeem themselves. They are absolutely going to buy great looking small cars and flaunt them the way many people flaunt SUV’s as symbols of power and wealth. That's the zone where marketing does its magic. The result will be demand growth for smaller cars and trucks. The politics are interesting too. By taking personal responsibility for climate, consumers can show that government need not mandate re-designs.

This conjecture seems oddly reminiscent of 1983; the year Chrysler's Lee Iacocca first brought the minivan to the US. If you had been globetrotting years before that date, you'd indeed have seen relatively small minivans. In their Infinite Wisdom Detroit "knew," until 1983, that Americans didn't want minivans. Within a year of Chrysler's introduction, there were US mini-van model designs galore, scaled up to meet the appetite for "big". Rinse and repeat with the Jeep, and SUVs become the "next big, big thing"

Twenty some years later, conventional wisdom is that Americans won't buy small cars in large numbers because they're too dangerous or just not befitting 'the American lifestyle,' (which presumes to be primarily suburban or rural in character). But change is afoot. We think, a combination of energy sercurity awareness and climate guilt now favor small car purchases, starting in America's cities, where trailer pulling and four wheel drive are largely unnecessary. College graduates will be wanting what for their first new car: an SUV? Doubt it.

Déjà vue, the late 70's, when Japanese makers unexpectedly won over large numbers of US consumers with attractive, smaller, high quality, cars. Detroit had to race to offer comparable models. Their first response? Buy time with lobbyists, sent to Washington to push for an import car tax.

Our supposed blossoming of 'conspicuous conservation' in transportation, a large scale trend foreshadowed by broad popularity of the Prius, will allow TV pundits to ask: "Who'd have thought that US citizens would be driving cars that look European?" Like the 67 HP Peugeot 107, the "City Car" pictured above. Perhaps the more important question is, will Detroit be ready?

Style is the focus of this post. But, if we could be permitted one technical footnote it would be this. For decades, North Americans have responded to more horsepower piled on year after year. We surely liked it; but, we don't need it. A hundred HP is more than enough for even a mid-size car. In victory over energy tyrants, and over the climate tyrany produced by our own excess, small is the next big thing.

Aside: we looked for a photo of a handsome male stylishly posed by small car but could find none. Nominations welcomed.

Image credit: Pugeot.