SAO PAULO — I’ve traveled the world in search of the future of the automobile.
My conclusion: Both the world and the car are getting smaller.
The global contraction largely is the work of modern communications, especially the Internet. The general contraction in the size of the automobile is caused by a more menacing reality.
At the 27th edition of the biennial Sao Paulo International Motor Show here, and at similar venues worldwide, global vehicle manufacturers seem to be bowing to a future of limited availability and higher costs for oil, as well as limited space and environmental tolerance for the operation of the thing we’ve come to know, love and hate as the automobile.
Like teenagers ashamed of admitting the truth that keeping up appearances is tougher than most of us care to acknowledge, the car companies are still putting on a show. For example, here in a country where the annual median household income sits at $4,500, there is a super-expensive, super-fuel-consumptive Bugatti Veyron coupe on display. There also is a Brazilian version of the Chevrolet Camaro, a hot car, at about $27,000, still priced beyond the reach of many Brazilian workers. Both are little more than eye candy.
The reality is in the legions of small cars that can be found all around the cavernous Sao Paulo exhibit center and in the subcompact and compact one-upmanship among Brazil’s car-industry leaders — Fiat, Volkswagen, General Motors and Ford.
All those companies are introducing new and improved small automobiles — such as the Onix subcompact from GM and a revised Fiesta subcompact from Ford. No one, not even Mercedes-Benz, is offering a full-size luxury sedan for serious consumer consideration.
Featured at the Mercedes-Benz pavilion are smaller (for Mercedes C- and E-Class models, affordable for barely 1 percent of Brazil’s population.
That being the case, it might be easy to dismiss the majority of the vehicles on display in Sao Paulo as indicative of those sold primarily in a developing country — an emerging economy.
That would be a serious misreading of the times. Certainly it’s true that Brazil’s is an emerging market. Economists here predict that as the country moves closer to an average annual household income of $10,000, its consumers will buy more cars and trucks.
Those vehicles will be better than the run of rebadged, stripped-of-content First World discards traditionally sold here. They will be, and are, based on the models shown here, Brazilian designed small cars replete with globally competitive safety, fuel efficiency and emissions controls. And many of them, such as the subcompact Chevrolet Onix, will be pretty.
But come back with me to the United States, where small-car sales have risen from barely 5 percent of the market to 18 percent in recent years, and where models such as this week’s subject vehicle, the 2013 Toyota Corolla LE, continue to command a loyal following.
People buy the Corolla in the United States for the same reason they buy the Fiat 500, Chevrolet Celta, Volkswagen Golf and Ford Fiesta in Brazil. Those are all tough, reliable little cars, comfortable for rough wear. They also are affordable in a rough economy, easy to fuel and live with in daily life.
To the extent that Corolla sales are declining in the United States, it is only because they are being clobbered by small-car newcomers such as the Hyundai Accent and Elantra, the Chevrolet Sonic, and various models from Hyundai’s partner, Kia Motors.
None of this means that big cars and big engines will entirely disappear. There will be enough of them left, especially in developed countries.
But here’s betting that big, consumptive automobiles have seen their day. There just isn’t enough fuel, land, or breathable air to keep them going, certainly not in the kind of super-congested urban areas that exist here — and in many places in Europe, Asia and the good ol’ USA.