Looking for a big trend in the auto industry? You'd better think small.
The web site AutoTrader.com reports that some of the biggest recent gains in consumer interest have been around new 2012 small-car models from Chevrolet, Hyundai and Fiat -- as well as the redesigned Volkswagen Beetle.
"In the past, small cars didn't fare very well with American shoppers, as many of the available options were considered cheap and lacking in features," says Rick Wainschel, vice president of automotive insights at AutoTrader. "However, the small cars being produced today are exciting, fun to drive and fuel-efficient."
Small cars introduced in 2011, such as the Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Cruze, have already been selling well. And Chevrolet has just announced plans for an urban minicar called the Spark(above right) in 2013, which will have both gasoline and all-electric versions.
But here's a closer look at the 2012 small-car models that already are sparking consumer interest.
Next: Chevrolet Sonic
Chevrolet's lowest-priced small car, the Sonic, is a sportier-looking and better-performing replacement for the Aveo. And it has a distinction that will matter to many buyers: It is the only subcompact made in the USA under an agreement with the United Auto Workers.
Reviewers praise the Sonic as fun to drive and a worthy competitor to chief rivals Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit. You can get the Sonic in either sedan or hatchback versions, both of which were rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Next: Hyundai Veloster
The Veloster features the same two attributes that have powered Hyundai's recent U.S. success: eye-catching styling and high mileage ratings.
Reviewers praise its quirky exterior design and its comfortable, upscale-seeming interior. Though styled as a coupe, the Veloster has a full-size third door on the passenger side for access to the not-too-roomy back seat. The four-cylinder 148-horsepower engine is rated at 28 mpg in city driving, 40 highway. The downside: Test drivers say that with its focus on high MPG, the Veloster fails to offer a peppy, fun-to-drive experience (like, say, a Mini Cooper).
The Veloster has one price level -- $17,300 -- but can range up to $18,550 with options like navigation and rear-view safety camera. The Veloster does not yet have crash test ratings.
Next: Fiat 500
Fiat 500Fiat, now the majority owner of Chrysler, has brought in the popular 500 from Europe and is selling the model through some established Chrysler dealers.
Fun to look at and fun to drive -- at least around town and on curvy back roads -- the 500 shows its sharp handling on winding roads, although its 101-horsepower, four-cylinder engine (rated 30 mpg city, 38 highway) leaves it feeling a little underpowered.
I only gave it a quick test drive, but other reviewers say that in high-speed interstate driving, the ride is occasionally bumpy and there's some road noise -- making the 500 a better choice for owners who drive shorter distances.
Despite its small size, the 500 got a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Fiat 500 even has cute names for its different versions: The Pop starts at $15,500, the Sport at $17,500 and the Lounge at $19,500.
Next: Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen BeetleThe classic model has gotten another new look: Volkswagen gave the 2012 Beetle its first redesign since 1998. The top is now flatter and the hood longer -- this car is wider, lower and longer, as VW targets more male buyers. (About 60% of Beetle buyers have been women.)
In addition to new look, the Beetle has gotten a 200-horsepower four-cylinder turbocharged engine with strong acceleration -- another bid for male drivers. Reviewers (mostly male) have applauded the addition of this option and praise the power and handling.
The turbo is rated for 22 MPG city, 30 highway. List price on the Beetle ranges from $18,995 for the base model to $23,395 for the turbo version. The 2012 Beetle does not yet have crash test ratings.
Photos courtesty of the manufacturers
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