Who killed the subcompact car?

GM sonics
© GM Sonics

A dozen years ago everybody was watching Who killed the electric car, a movie about how big oil and big car companies conspired to literally crush every single GM EV-1 on the road, and the Department of Energy website proudly announced that "Oil is the lifeblood of America's economy".

Now, according to Mike Colias and Christina Rogers of the Wall Street Journal, GM is killing its Chevrolet Sonic subcompact that it builds in Detroit.

The death of the Sonic is as symbolic as it is strategic. The car, which went on sale in 2011, was heralded as a hit because of features not typically seen on inexpensive small cars, such as heated seats...The Sonic is built at the Orion Assembly plant in suburban Detroit, which was saved from closure during GM’s 2009 bankruptcy through a $1 billion lifeline of grants and tax incentives from the state of Michigan, local municipalities and the federal government.

Like the agreements on fuel efficiency standards, the Sonic was part of the deal to save the company. But these days, with gas so cheap, consumers prefer to buy light trucks, AKA SUVs and pickups.

The company views consumer preference for SUVs over cars as “largely permanent” and is assessing “how we best deploy assets in critical passenger-car segments to ensure we’re getting a return,” GM finance chief Chuck Stevens told analysts last year.

Ford and Toyota are also moving away from cars and likely killing its Fiesta, because small cars are “definitely on an island that is sinking.” So who is really killing the subcompact, fuel-efficient little car?

The auto industry is responsible for marketing cars as virility symbols like this Mercedes ad which actually tells pedestrians to get the F-BEEP out of the road.

As we noted earlier, the auto industry is responsible for pressuring the government to reduce the fuel efficiency standards that they agreed to earlier. As Dante Ramos writes in the Boston Globe,

The flaw in the current US standards is that they command automakers to make more efficient cars — but don’t give American consumers much incentive to buy them. As a result, our interest in fuel-efficient cars fluctuates wildly with global oil prices. When gas hit $4 a gallon in 2008, and then the global economy crashed, Hummers looked an expensive way to get to the supermarket. When prices dropped, amnesia set in.

He calls for a big buck a gallon gas tax to put us back on the road to efficient cars. Don't read the comments, where everyone calls him either a fascist or a commie.

In almost every major country besides the United States, gasoline taxes are higher, giving consumers an incentive to choose more efficient vehicles. The typical vehicle engine may not be as zippy in the European Union, but, according to a recent New York Times report, their cars go about 10 miles farther per gallon than ours do.

Or maybe not; in Canada, gas prices are hitting C$ 1.34 per litre or US$ 3.96 per US gallon, yet sales of pickups and SUVs keep climbing, hitting 68 percent of sales last year. People with money want trucks, even at four bucks a gallon.

The fossil fuel industry loves selling fossil fuels and the car industry loves selling vehicles that burn them. Consumers evidently love them. The politicians love the money that comes from them and as Vaclav Smil notes, the world runs on them. And hey, as the Department of Energy proudly stated, Oil is the lifeblood of America's economy. Who killed the subcompact car? Everyone did.

Related Content on Treehugger.com