With one sub-microcar already here, the Smart, and other microcars either on sale or on the near horizon, it’s time to ask this question: Is this a safety problem waiting to happen?
The physics, alone is daunting. It is pretty common knowledge that a large mass will easily overcome and overpower a smaller mass, given the same kinetic energy and resting place.
In other words, a large vehicle will clobber a smaller vehicle traveling at the same speed if they attempt to stop at the same spot.
Yet, Smart, Honda, Toyota and Scion, make sub-microcars and microcars, while Ford, Chevrolet and Fiat/Chrysler are or will be introducing their own microcars by 2013.
The sticky part, though, is the existing fleet of cars, crossovers, SUVs, pickups, dump trucks, Class 8 and 9 trucks and more that are or will be using the same roads as the submicro and microcars; the size disparity is mind-boggling.
Here’s an eye-opening comparison with one of Toyota’s smallest sedans, the 2010 Corolla XLE whose 102-inch wheelbase is as long as the longest microcar, while its 2,800-pound curb weight is between 600 and 1,000 pounds more than the oncoming wave of microcars.
The question now becomes what would happen if this subcompact and microcar were involved in, how shall we say this delicately, a fender-bender; a real wreck, a rolling disaster?
The answer is evident. Despite all of their advanced technology, simple physics shows us the micro would be a rolling smudge or large metal ball or mess of car kibble. There are no two ways around it.
But the market is headed down the microcar primrose path at almost breakneck speed, most likely to meet the tougher mileage rules due to slam into place about 2013.
Tiny motorcars give the automakers an edge, in spite of the fact that some of their subcompacts get the same or better overall mileage.
Take the 2010 Toyota Prius Hybrid. Overall mileage for this vehicle — you cannot really even out the in-town versus highway because in-town it is relying more heavily on its battery pack and regenerative braking — is still around 40, while some of the micros get between 35 and 42. It’s a little disappointing.
The question becomes, then, why put your neck on the line in a car that’s small enough to fit in your living room? Maybe the answer is that lots of people like to be early adopters or see these vehicles as their contribution to the “greening” of the planet or as a way of cutting their carbon footprint.
There is a market because Detroit does not part with its money easily today.
Still, it’s not hard to imagine this scene, you’re sitting in a Smart car and turning left across traffic, when an oncoming Sports Ute, whose front end is higher than your roof, just doesn’t see you turning. Who do you think wins this road argument? Hint: it’s not likely to be the Smart.
Yes, the Mercedes-owned Smarts are loaded with tiny, but comprehensive safety features, but, just look at the size mismatch — even an old Suzuki Samurai (also known as the Chevy Tracker) would be hard-pressed not to grind the Smart into car kibble in the middle of the intersection.
That’s why some automotive industry leaders, such as Ford’s President and CEO Alan Mulalley, have put a hard cap on just how low they will go. In Ford’s case, the smallest car they plan to offer in North America is the (a new incarnation of an old name). Mulally has already said the submicro Ka will not appear in this market.
This isn’t to say the Ka, under another monicker, won’t appear here. Indeed, the Ka is actually the sleek . Fiat, now a 20 percent owner of Chrysler, is planning to bring the 500 to this market under the name in by 2012. Given its size, will there be an ouch in the future?
With this as background, we’ve drawn up a list of microcars that should have you thinking about safety asking one question: would they win an argument with a Toyota Corolla, let alone a Chevrolet Tahoe.
So, without further ado, here’s our a list to think micros to think about:
- The Smart, of course, heads any list. Sales have been – how can we put this gently – disappointing, but then again, the Smart isn’t anything other than an urbo-commuter (or large paperweight, take your pick) that’s meant for city driving. Its limitations outweigh its advantages. Let’s see, it is about 9 feet long, carries two and is equipped with a three-cylinder, 1-liter engine that, even if you were heading down hill with a tailwind, will still take you 12.8 seconds to reach 60. Some might say it is a nimble little machine that will stay out of trouble thanks to quick steering, but, the market seems to have spoken as buyers have stayed away from this one in droves.
- Chevrolet is promising a smaller car than its already micro-sized, Suzuki-based Aveo, the Spark. It is sharp-looking and it will be powered by a 1.3-liter class four. From the start it has more power than the Smart, plus another two doors, and a little more length, so it is more practical, but it is also small. In reality, this urbo-car, that only tips the scales at a little over 2,000 pounds, will be under 12-feet long. This car will likely be purchased by people who want you to know just how green they are and how they’ve cut their carbon footprints. Most drivers will also think they can avoid accidents because of their small overall footprint. But, with all due respect, accidents still happen and the Spark is not the biggest vehicle in the class of 2011. So be careful if you are thinking about it. To its credit, it was reportedly designed by GMDAT, the remnant of GM’s investment in South Korea’s Daewoo company. (GMDAT is responsible for much of the new Malibu design and some of the highly popular front end styling that sets Chevy apart today, so it is apparent GM believes it made a good investment.) And, just for your information, the all-electric Volt, carries the same designator as the Spark, it is a “B-class car,” as are all the, however, Volt is likely to cost about twice the Spark.
- The Fiat 500 will likely appear here in Chrysler guise as Fiat takes on more design responsibility for Detroit’s number three. A long and distinguished name in Italy and Europe, the 500 is another of the sleek-looking microcars that weighs in at about 2,200 pounds. It is powered by a smallish four — 1.4 liters. Of course, the power-to-weight ratio is fantastic, but, physics enters the picture again.
Traveling at 60 mph, you cover roughly 90 feet per second. Do you have he reflexes to snap a microcar left or right as a larger vehicle bears down on you? Well, maybe you do or maybe you don’t. If you don’t, it’s SUV kibble time for the larger vehicle again (the big versus small argument).
- The is a microcar that is making more of a mark on the highways around here as gas prices start up again. The reason is that it is nicely styled and gets good mileage, and includes such innovations as opera-style seating (higher in the rear for better sight lines). If it were matched in cruncher with a Tahoe it would be like a wrestler standing on the ropes and throwing a body slam on the Aveo — ouch.
- The major imports, too, have their share of cars that seem to fit more like an overcoat than a car. The microcars include and . The Fit, is powered by a 1.4-liter four, available with automatic or standard transmissions, is a nice little car – emphasizing the little – that’s a hatchback which means you have even less body behind you in an accident that might turn your car into an accordion. Even in an cruncher with its larger sibling, the Civic
- Toyota’s Scion Division is slated to be going smaller with its xD – same size class as the others and same thrill class for you and your insurance agent, let alone other drivers who may not be able to see you at all because you’re below their line of view.
Unfortunately, the only way to combat rising prices is going for the small end of the market, but, as Ford’s Mulally noted, the Fiesta’s about as small as he’s willing to sell. And, after looking at the six microcars named, we’d tend to agree.
Historically hysterical fact, when Subaru wanted to bring over its submicro 960 in 1968, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Department of Transportation pitched a fit because it was only a two seater with about a 900cc two-cylinder engine. It was basically a rolling overcoat and it was banned from this market (little-remembered fact). Like the old saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same as microcars appear in showrooms everywhere. We’ll keep our compacts, thank you. At least they’ll do better in a three-car tag team matchup with a midsized and an SUV.