By Warren Brown
Sunday, April 25, 2010; F01
SAN FRANCISCO Global automobile manufacturers are betting that an America whipped by recession, upset by unpredictable fuel prices and humbled by the costly collapse of things too big to fail is ready, at long last, to accept high-quality, fuel-efficient small cars at prices that redefine "economy."
It is a multibillion-dollar wager fraught with risks in a U.S. market long worshipful of all things big, and tolerant of things small and efficient only when high fuel prices make their existence necessary.
Global car companies now sense a cultural shift in the American psyche, prompted largely by the environmental and economic problems affecting the rest of the world. Worldwide demand by governments and consumers for more environmentally responsible automobiles is pushing automakers to rethink how they design, develop and manufacture cars in a capital-intensive industry.
Car companies can no longer afford to develop one kind of vehicle for Europe, another for Asia and another for North America. Through rapid advances in technology and electronic communications, they've now made their once-delusional talk of "global cars" and "global platforms" everyday reality.
That development has been accompanied by the collapse of false corporate dichotomies, such as "GM of Europe" and "Ford/North America." There is now one GM and one Ford. Chrysler, by comparison, has become a division of one Fiat, based in Italy.
Emerging from those myriad changes is a formula that, global car executives believe, can make small cars both easier to sell and more profitable in America. Witness, for example, this week's subject automobile -- the 2011 Ford Fiesta.
Born in 1976 in response to growing European demand for small cars, prompted by fear of fuel shortages and rising fuel taxes, the Fiesta made its way to North America in 1978, where one of those forces -- fuel shortages -- was at play. The Fiesta arrived here a weak, meek little thing and left in 1980 pretty much the same way it came.
But it continued on sale in Europe and many other parts of the world, where consumers rebelled against the notion that "small" should mean weak and meek. They demanded safety, style, road performance and more technology. Moreover, in economies where consumers also were expected to carry some of the costs of cleaner, more efficient automobiles, people demonstrated a willingness to pay for all those things in a small car. Ford, GM, and their many European and Asian rivals gave the people what they wanted.
For the longest time, however, most car companies refused to do the same thing in America. They feared it would be a waste of time, effort and money to try to sell premium small cars in a country awash in cheap gasoline and largely desirous of big wheels and houses.
Germany's BMW thought otherwise and introduced its still-hot-selling Mini Cooper in the United States in 2000. Global automobile executives took note. Among them were Ford officials, who reasoned that if they could sell millions of Fiesta cars overseas (an estimated 12 million have been sold since the first-generation Fiesta in 1976), they might now find success for the reinvigorated sixth-generation Fiesta in the U.S.A.
After driving all versions of the new Fiesta, which rolls into U.S. showrooms in June, I think they're right . . . for the simplest of reasons: They have given to the new Fiesta the same attention normally given to their premium large cars and trucks. The result is a little front-wheel-drive car, offered in four basic trim levels, that kicks tailpipe and takes names.
Mine is not irrational exuberance. I am not saying that this new Fiesta will somehow roll over the Mini Cooper or best other hot little numbers on their way from Germany, South Korea and Japan. I am saying that, for the first time in 30 years, Ford has become a genuine contender, a potential champion, in the small-car fights in its home market.
Here's a quick-list justification of my confidence:
-- Overall build quality -- fit, finish and interior-materials quality -- is easily among best in class.
-- Overall safety is class-leading.
-- Exterior design is distinctive and attractive.
-- It's a driver. Its 1.6-liter in-line four-cylinder engine won't thrill speed freaks. But this car is lots of fun to drive for those of us who want to arrive with a thrill on our faces, minus a traffic ticket.
Brown is a special correspondent.