The Exciting Small Car Phenomenon

High-dollar exotics aren't the only exciting things in show rooms these days.
By Zach Bowman  

2011 Chevrolet Cruze

We’ve had the opportunity to drive some budget-friendly transportation lately. Low-cost rides like the Ford Fiesta and the Kia Soul are following in the footsteps of Scion by offering up plenty of style and amenities without the hefty price tag. The result is a new definition of what it means to be a bottom of the barrel commuter these days. Gone are the times when paying for a base Pinto got you, well, nothing. In the early days, even picking up power brakes would cost you extra, let alone high-tech gadgetry like power windows, power locks or A/C. What’s more, that same econobox on the lot wasn’t what was drawing crowds to dealerships across the land, but it looks like that’s changing, too.

2010 Nissan Cube

2011 Mazda 2

Each of the new small cars we named above come with a laundry list of great standard features that don’t impact your wallet one single cent. While we’d love to think all the new goodies are simply manufacturers’ ways of showing us they love us, the truth is it makes good financial sense to plop great standard features in base rides. For starters, being able to boast the same creature comforts as more expensive models is a serious sales tool for dealerships once the cars hit the street. After all, what sounds better than being able to tell a potential buyer that your product comes with all the same goodies as a car costing thousands of dollars more? Not much.
The good news for manufacturers is that those electronic bits cost essentially the same as their manual counterparts. When an automaker decides to make every car come standard with power windows, it can also save some cash on the assembly line. If every car gets the same goods, there’s no worry about the logistics of which cars get what parts. In the end, everybody wins. Consumers feel like they’re getting the most out of every dollar they spend and manufacturers get to supply a great, functional product that costs approximately the same as cars that aren’t as well appointed.
Dealers and manufacturers alike are aware of the positive perception all this fancy equipment can have on the brand overall, and many of these low-cost rides are becoming halo cars in their own right. That is, buyers may come into the showroom to see what the fuss is all about on the new low-end model, say for example the new Chevrolet Cruze, and leave with something completely different, like the Equinox. Either way, inexpensive compacts are drawing potential buyers into the showroom in a way they never have in the past. 
Manufacturers have typically relied on high-dollar, high-horsepower models to draw the masses in off the street, even if Mom and Dad had no intention of letting Junior behind the wheel of a big-block beast. This new turn towards relying genuinely interesting, well-appointed and inexpensive vehicles to do the trick means that kids may actually get to drive the cars they put up on their bedroom walls one day. What’s more, it’ll be a smart decision when they do.
We’re not exactly sure where this dime store halo effect originated, but it can’t be a bad thing for anyone involved. Manufacturers get to design and build exciting vehicles that more than a select few will be able to enjoy and dealers get the pleasure of watching car after car roll off their lots. At the end of the line is the consumer, who is conceivably supplied with a vehicle they’ll enjoy driving day-in and day-out because it’s more interesting than the vanilla econobox next to them. Win-win indeed.

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