Car Trends: Small SUVs and Well-Equipped Compacts

Ford received a small bit of good news recently – sales of its Focus compact car (pictured above) were up 24 percent for the month of March 2008. Honda saw sales of its Fit subcompact increase as well, by more than 73 percent. Sales of the Nissan Altima and Honda Civic also were up, by 14 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

Those were among the few bright spots in auto sales over the past few months. Sales of trucks and SUVs tanked, as car buyers continued to migrate away from larger vehicles to smaller, more fuel-efficient sedans and coupes. It’s easy to understand why, with gas prices soaring into the stratosphere. And it naturally leaves some automakers (such as Honda and Toyota) in better positions than others.

This shift in car-buying patterns has automakers scrambling to rejigger their fleets, and some are doing that more successfully than others. Ford, for instance, actually posted a profit for the first quarter of 2008 (due in part to the fact that the company has trimmed its workforce substantially and has plans to shut down some shifts at truck plants). And all automakers are eyeing smaller, more efficient cars.

Ford, for instance, has plans to expand its fleet of small cars in 2009 with the addition of the new Fiesta, which Ford calls its first “global” small car. Recently unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show, the Fiesta will be powered by a range of fuel-efficient engines and bring “big car features to the small car segment,” according to Ford.

That’s a trend we’ll be seeing more of in the years to come, as automakers add luxury-oriented features like innovative sound systems to their smaller cars in an effort to attract new buyers. For instance, Ford has added its new Sync feature to some Focus trims, and upcoming trims of the Chevy Cobalt are expected to come equipped with audio systems that include USB ports, so drivers can plug portable thumb drives into their car stereos, adding a new functionality that will make it easier for drivers to take their favorite songs with them wherever they go.

Don’t expect automakers to completely abandon SUVs, but you can expect SUVs to become smaller and more efficient. Audi, for instance, just unveiled its new Q5 SUV at the Beijing Auto Show (although to us it looks more like a crossover vehicle or a hunky wagon than an SUV). Powered by a range of fuel-efficient engines and featuring permanent all-wheel-drive, the Q5 will measure about 15 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 5.4 feet high, giving it a smaller overall footprint than many other SUVs. Audi calls it “an SUV of all-new proportions,” and notes that it will be “sportier than any of its competitors.” Whether it will prove a hit with buyers seeking smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

2009 Cadillac Escalade Goes Green

GM calls it “responsibility without sacrifice,” and perhaps that’s the best way to describe the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, which recently made an appearance at the Dallas Auto Show. The quest for fuel efficiency has reached all the way to the top of automakers’ lineups, and even vehicles with long-standing reputations as gas guzzlers are cleaning up their acts, as the new Escalade Hybrid demonstrates. GM goes so far to call the Escalade Hybrid the world’s first large luxury hybrid SUV.

Like many hybrid vehicles, the Escalade Hybrid uses a two-mode hybrid system, which switches between an electric motor and a 332-horsepower, 6.0-liter V8 gas engine as the vehicle’s speed and power requirements vary. When the Escalade stops at a traffic light or slows in traffic, the gas engine shuts down and the SUV runs on the electric motor to conserve fuel. As the Escalade accelerates, it transitions to both the electric motor and gas engine, and under heavy acceleration or when full power is required, the SUV will run solely on the gas engine. This configuration results in a 45 percent improvement in fuel economy in the city, according to GM, although official mileage estimates from the EPA aren’t available yet.

Regenerative braking, which captures energy whenever the brakes are applied, keeps the on-board battery charged. The Escalade also comes equipped with Active Fuel Management, the first for a Cadillac. The system will shut down four of the engine’s eight cylinders, even at highway speeds, if they’re not required, improving fuel economy even more.

A full-color touch-screen Navigation Radio displays information about the hybrid system, and also displays the standard rear-view camera as well as controls for the Bose 5.1 surround-sound audio system and tri-zone automatic climate control. Nuance leather-covered seats and a power-assisted rear liftgate, which operates at the touch of a button, will be among the Escalade Hybrid’s other standard features.

The exterior design will retain the Escalade’s distinctive grille and chrome accents. Both two-wheel and four-wheel-drive trims will be available when the Escalade Hybrid goes on sale this summer.

New Electric Cars Power Up

With gas prices inching higher every week, and predictions of four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline in the not-too-distant future, it’s not surprising that drivers are starting to look for alternatives. Hybrids have been receiving lots of press lately, but electric cars have been making news as well.

Last month, Subaru displayed its R1e electric car (above) at the New York Auto Show, and announced that two R1e vehicles will join the New York Power Authority fleet as part of a U.S. testing program. About 40 of the electric vehicles are currently in use in Japan, and Subaru plans to test an additional 100 cars in Japan in 2009. No word yet if or when the cars will be available in U.S. showrooms.

The two-seat R1e employs the latest electric-motor technology, including a fast-charge lithium ion battery that can take quick or partial charges without a decrease in battery life. In fact, it can be charged to 80 percent capacity in just 15 minutes, or fully charged overnight. The R1e, which Subaru envisions as an urban car, has a range of up to 50 miles on a single charge and a top speed of 65 miles per hour.

The R1e joins a growing list of electric cars that are in various stages of development. California-based ZAP, for instance, recently announced that it expect to start selling its three-wheel Alias electric car sometime in 2009, and has started taking reservations on its website. (The company is charging a $5,000 reservation fee for the $32,500 car.) The automaker notes that the two-seater will have a range of 100 miles on a single charge, a top speed of around 100 miles per hour, and reasonably quick acceleration, jumping out from 0 to 60 in 7.7 seconds. It’s one of a number of electric cars, including the Xebra sedan and truck, the automaker hopes to eventually offer to car buyers.

Tesla recently started production of its electric-powered two-passenger Roadster, which will run for 220 miles on a charge, and accelerate from 0 to 60 in just 3.9 seconds. The entire 2008 production run has sold out, and the company is currently taking reservations for the 2009 model year. The automaker also plans to add a five-passenger sport sedan in 2010.

Finally, across the pond, U.K.-based Lightning Car Company has started taking reservations for its super-sleek, electric-powered GTS Roadster, which has a top speed of more than 130 miles per hour. A high-efficiency Hi-Pa electric drive, developed in Great Britain, powers the GTS. The powerplant also include NanoSafe batteries, which can be charged in about 10 minutes and deliver more power per unit than conventional lithium batteries, according to the automaker.

Features include an antilock braking system, traction control, regenerative braking, a satellite navigation system, and leather interior trim. You can reserve yours by visiting the automaker’s website and plunking down 15,000 pounds (just under $30,000 dollars). And may we suggest Electric Lightning Blue for the exterior color. It seems appropriate.

Mazda2 Heads List of World’s Top Cars

Following the announcement of the World Green Car at the New York Auto Show last month, World Car of the Year awards were handed out in a number of other categories, including World Design of the Year, World Performance Car, and the overall Car of the Year.

Top honors went to the Mazda2 (above), which was selected as the 2008 Car of the Year by a panel of 47 automotive journalists, out of an initial field of 39 entries. Completely redesigned for 2008, the Mazda2 made its debut at the Geneva Auto Show, and initially will be sold in the United Kingdom and Europe, as well as in Japan, where it’s known as the Mazda Demio. According to reports, the Mazda2 will be available in the U.S. in 2009 with some minor tweaking, although it will be rebadged as the Ford Fiesta.

The Mazda2 supermini car, similar in size to such cars as the Toyota Yaris, features a sporty, aerodynamic exterior design, a three-spoke steering wheel, white instrument gauges, and an all-new center console. It’s powered by 1.3-liter and 1.5-liter gas engines, as well as a turbocharged diesel, although U.S. powerplants have yet to be determined. The lightweight five-door hatchback has been designed to handle nimbly in traffic, thanks to electric power-assisted power steering and a short-throw gear shift. And despite its compact size, the Mazda provides plenty of storage spaces inside for all types of gear. Two trims are currently available — the TS2 and the Sport.

The top three finalists for the Car of the Year also included the Ford Mondeo and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, while the Cadillac CTS, the Volvo C30, and the Audi R8 were among the other contenders.

While the 2008 Audi R8 (above) didn’t take top honors, it was singled out by the awards committee as the World Design of the Year, as well as the World Performance Car of the Year. Not bad for a consolation prize.

Organized and conducted by automotive journalists from around the world, the World Car of the Year awards is a non-profit, non-affiliated program designed to select the world’s top cars using objective criteria. For more information, visit the World Car of the Year’s website at

Would you consider buying a Mazda2…er, a Ford Fiesta?