(Photo: STAN HONDA AFP/Getty Images)
USA TODAY - Sales of some of the smallest cars barely budged or fell last month despite the steady rise in gas prices.
It could be a sign that one of the axioms of the car business may be weakening: sales of tiny cars rise in tandem with driver angst at the pump.
Mercedes-Benz's Smart car, the two-seater that is the smallest car on sale in the U.S., saw sales fall 3% in January to a mere 481 cars. Toyota, whose four-seat Scion iQ is the next smallest, fell 21.1% to only 295 cars.
For cars that are slightly larger, sales are better. Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit subcompact sales were down, but Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Spark and Fiat 500 all saw good sales gains, according to Autodata. As overall auto sales rose 14.1% last month, the "lower small" segment was up only 6.1%.
Yet self-serve regular gas averaged $3.46 a gallon nationwide as this month began, up 17 cents from $3.29 a gallon on Jan. 1, according to AAA's daily price tracker.
High gas prices don't necessarily mean buyers will gravitate to the smallest cars as they have in the past, says Jessica Caldwell, senior sales analyst for Edmunds.com. Reasons:
Gas price increases aren't as shocking. Motorists fled their gas guzzlers when gas price soared to a record $4.11 a gallon in July 2008. But drivers have become accustomed to gyrating gas prices. The cost of gas might go up, but consumers have come to expect it to fall again in a matter of weeks.
The smallest cars don't necessarily have the best gas mileage.
The Smart car may be the smallest car on the road, but at 36 miles per gallon on average, it isn't that much more efficient than a much larger Ford Focus SFE, the extra gas-saving edition of the compact, at an average 33 mpg. "When it comes to these smaller, cars, you are compromising on size but getting little or nothing when it comes to savings on fuel," Caldwell says.
Automakers certainly aren't giving up on the smallest segments. Despite mini sales of its iQ, Toyota is keeping it in the lineup, says Group Vice President Bill Fay. He says it is one of the models for which Toyota has "moderate" expectations, so low sales are no surprise. The iQ is "another way for Scion to experiment."
Likewise, Smart isn't leaving the market either. While the ForTwo's sales were down slightly last month, they were solidly up last year and the brand showed a concept at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month indicating the design direction for the next ForTwo.
Americans have never really warmed up to the smallest of car, like they have in Europe or Asia, says Bruce Weiner, a collector who is selling off his minicar collection Feb. 15 in Madison, Ga.. People are bigger today than in the past, and "we want to be a little more confortable." Plus, despite assurances that the smallest cars are as safe as any car on the road, they aren't, Weiner says.
"Physics override all laws," Weiner says. "I wouldn't want to be in a Smart car or little Fiat because chances are that I'm going to be hit by a pickup truck."
Weiner, whose collection of minicars grew to 350 at one point, drives a truck.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)