Fuel Sippers Gaining on Heavyweights
"We definitely expect demand to exceed supply," Ford spokeswoman Angela Coletti said. Since last week, Ford's Escape hybrid Web site has seen traffic jump 140 percent -- partly because of a round of stories in the media, she said, and partly because of concern about rising gas prices.
Similarly, Toyota Motor Corp. has gotten some unexpected results with its new Scion brand, which rolled out nationwide this spring. Aimed at the very hip and very young -- some marketing targeted 9-year-olds -- Scion has connected instead with middle-aged commuters who like its low price and 30-plus-mpg fuel economy. The typical buyer of the Scion xA, a small hatchback, has been a 37-year-old male with a $60,000 salary, according to company figures.
The emergence of such new products could help sustain the trend sparked by higher gas prices. Drivers not only are facing pressure at the pump, for the first time in years they're also being drawn to fuel-efficient products that have either a technological twist, such as hybrids, or a powerful "cute" factor.
The path blazed by Volkswagen's New Beetle has been carried further by BMW AG's Mini Cooper, which last month offered the least in discounts or incentives -- none -- of any type of vehicle on the market, according to Edmunds.com. Car makers have more such offerings on the way, from the "smart" -- a European micro-car that DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes Car Group plans to debut in the United States in 2006 -- to concepts from Chrysler Group and General Motors Corp. that should roll out in the next couple of years.
Chrysler's proposed Dodge Slingshot looks like a sporty roadster but features a gas-sipping 3-cylinder engine. The combination of fun and economy is the key to the concept, Chrysler chief executive Dieter Zetsche said in an interview. As long as gas prices increase slowly and steadily, he said, buyers will continue to be motivated more by style than by practical concerns about the cost of filling the tank.
"The only reason we can employ 100,000 people in the U.S. is because we're selling dreams and emotion, not just steel and rubber," he said.
One car aimed squarely at both hearts and purse strings is the smart, which has been a huge hit in Europe since being introduced in 1998. Engineered by Mercedes with design help from The Swatch Group Ltd., the stylish Swiss watch-making company, smarts look like something from the world of Teletubbies. Two feet shorter than a Mini Cooper, the smart is so tiny that four can fit in an ordinary parking space. Many motorcycles have bigger engines; the smart's radiator is about the size of a school lunchbox. More important, a smart gets about 60 miles per gallon on the highway.
The increase in gas prices has created an explosion of interest in the smart in the United States. "The response has been absolutely overwhelming -- e-mail from consumers, request lines set up by advocate groups, fanatic or fan Web sites -- we've really been overwhelmed by it," said Scott Keogh, general manager of Smart USA.
Nonetheless, DaimlerChrysler has no plans to hurry the 2006 U.S. rollout because it wants to set up a network of dealers and service centers. "We're preparing the marketplace, speaking to our dealers. . . . 2006 is going to come extremely quickly," Keogh said.
In the meantime, two small import companies have won approval from the federal government to begin importing smarts and converting them for use on American roadways. J.K. Technologies LLC in Baltimore expects to have 400 on the way to U.S. customers by September. G&K Automotive Conversion of California has far grander plans, forming a partnership with ZAP, an alternative vehicle distributor, to market up to 15,000 smarts nationwide by 2005.
J.K. Technologies President Jonathan Weisheit said his first batch of 20 little cars, which he'll sell for about $20,000 apiece, is already being shipped across the Atlantic, and he couldn't be happier with the timing. The higher gas prices climb, the more people call him to get on the smart car waiting list.
"I'm not worried about gas prices," Weisheit said. "I'm going to be driving a smart."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company