2008 smart fortwo (© smart USA)Click to enlarge picture

The success of the MINI Cooper may have been one of the factors to help convince Mercedes-Benz to import its tiny smart fortwo.

There's no doubt that car companies have dragged their feet on fuel economy. But tired conspiracy theories aren't behind their indifference. Americans have given economy more lip service than a Beverly Hills collagen clinic. For decades, when it came time to write the check, most car buyers didn't care about mpg.

In a recent J.D. Power and Associates study, 100,000 car shoppers were asked to rank their buying priorities. Guess where fuel economy finished? Eighth place. Reliability was No. 1, which makes sense. But even performance and "image" were cited as more important than economy. This at a time of near-record gas prices, and with the war in Iraq providing daily reminders of the need for energy independence.

Money talks, and carmakers listen. Given the choice between a fuel-sipping hatchback and the SUV with a brawny V8 engine and the latest gizmos, we know which way the money's been going. Automakers are capitalists after all, and they're happy to oblige. Especially when each SUV or luxury sedan earns them $5,000 or more in profit and the small economy car is often sold at a loss. Which are they more likely to build, market and promote?

Certainly the success of hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, and a sales slowdown for large pickups and SUVs, show that more people are paying attention to fuel economy. Technology can certainly do its part, from hybrids to the coming wave of clean diesels. Plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles are the next logical step, promising the gasoline equivalent of 100 mpg or more. But affordable, family-sized plug-in cars remain at least three to five years away.

The Smaller the Better?
In the meantime, the media obsession with hybrids and other hot technology has distracted everyone from the elephant in the room, or in this case the mouse: smaller cars. It's called downsizing, and it's still the simplest, most sensible way to save fuel and money. And unlike hybrids, diesels or other pricey technologies, small cars don't cost more up front, but less.

Is downsizing to a smaller car the answer to saving fuel and money?

Downsizing worked for a brief time in the '70s and early '80s when soaring gas prices and the first clean-air standards forced Detroit to switch from their land yachts to smaller cars. But over the next 25 years, the mileage of the nation's fleet has actually gone down. It's because cars have become vastly bigger, heavier and more powerful — including the SUVs that proliferated like overstuffed rabbits.

It's time to reverse the trend. Time to give small cars a chance.

Consider the Prius, the highest-mileage midsize sedan in America. It gets roughly 40-45 mpg in real-world driving. In Europe, the Prius's mileage doesn't impress anyone — part of the reason why across the pond, hybrid sales have fallen flat on their face. Powered by clean, modern four-cylinder diesels with a turbocharged kick, European compacts get 50 to 60 mpg in their sleep.

And it's not like the bad old days of Chevettes, Pintos or Renaults, when small cars were cheap, ugly, unreliable, unsafe or all of the above. Today's automotive tots are not only frugal and safe, the best of the breed are also stylish, sporty and fun to drive.

The list includes the MINI Cooper, VW GTI, Mazda3 and Honda Fit, with many more on the way. And while larger cars certainly have lower fatality rates overall, smaller, lighter cars will always handle better than big, heavy ones. They're more maneuverable in emergency situations and thus more likely to help avoid an accident in the first place.

Air Haulers
I've owned and loved trucks, and I understand that one size doesn't fit all. Hard-working folks in construction, farming and landscaping absolutely need their workhorse pickups. But there are simply too many fuel-chugging pickups on the road that are, 99 percent of the time, carrying nothing in those giant beds. Detroit engineers have a derisive word for them: air haulers.

We've all seen the solo commuters driving eight-passenger SUVs, stuck in traffic and getting 10 mpg. If you have a large family, or truly need a truck for towing, hauling or everyday life, great. But if that truck is part of a two- or three-car household, why not make one a high-mileage car for commuting or errands?

When people truly clamor for frugal small cars, carmakers will fight to the death for their business. When having the best fuel economy becomes a prime selling point, instead of languishing in eighth place, carmakers will have no choice but to outdo each other.

The MINI's smashing success helped convince Mercedes to finally import its tiny smart fortwo. At the North American International Auto Show 2008 in Detroit, Ford showed a striking subcompact car, the Verve, that it now intends to sell here in 2010. Both GM and Ford have committed to importing more of the fun-to-drive small cars that they always assumed wouldn't be popular here.

When it comes to the smartest way to conserve fuel, cut pollution and say goodbye to Middle East oil, perhaps comedian Steve Martin said it best: Let's get small.

A Michigan native raised and forged in Detroit and a former auto critic at the Detroit Free Press, Lawrence Ulrich now lives in Brooklyn, New York. His reviews and features appear regularly in The New York Times, Robb Report, Popular Science and Travel + Leisure Golf.

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