DETROIT — The American car buyers may still love their sports utility vehicles and pickup trucks, but there is an increasing emphasis on small cars as the industry faces new fuel economy requirements.
Those small cars — including near-term concepts that debuted at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit — are not just the same old econo-boxes, though. They have a new emphasis on style, both inside and out, that offers the opportunity for interior suppliers to bring new ideas and materials to the market.
"There's more in architecture, more with color and more in material choices that are much more bold that are going into the smaller cars," said Andreas Wlasak, vice president of industrial design for Faurecia SA, based in Nanterre, France.
"You almost see a polarization, in that there's nothing happening in the [midsize vehicle] field," he said in a Jan. 15 interview at the auto show. "Everything that is new is either happening in very cheap, very small cars or in the luxury premium side."
Pin the new interest in small cars for North America on fuel economy standards. The U.S. government will require automakers to reach a Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Since that standard is across a carmaker's entire fleet, the more people who buy small, fuel-efficient cars, the more breathing space the automakers will have to accommodate buyers who still want — or need — larger vehicles.
So rather than building a small car that meets basic requirements, carmakers want to build cars that will draw new buyers to them and boost sales.
"It really wasn't that long ago that you saw the small cars merely as a vehicle that gets you from point A to point B," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for industry consulting group LMC Automotive US Inc. in Troy, Mich. "That's been the major shift. It's not just [the automakers] saying, 'Here's a vehicle we can sell for that market.' They're now designing for buyers who want something new in that market."
Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. debuted its new Versa Note subcompact at the auto show, while Toyota Motor Co. showed a concept Corolla Furia to show the look of its next version of the Corolla compact.
Honda Motor Co. is bringing production of its Fit subcompact to North America at a new plant under construction now in Celaya, Mexico, which will allow the carmaker to begin making the car in the region, rather than importing it from assembly plants in Japan. The Celaya plant will also make a compact SUV based on the Fit platform; Honda showed a concept version of the crossover — the Urban SUV — at the Detroit show.
The European auto market has been ahead of the North American pack for several years in making cars that would fit into much smaller spaces, simply because of the logistics of living there.
"Here, the parking spot is twice the size as in Europe, so you can park a car and still open the doors. In Paris, you cannot," Wlaszak said.
But buyers there still wanted something that stands out — which has led to more acceptance for different textures, colors and materials in small cars. BMW AG's Mini, Volkswagen AG's Beetle and Fiat SpA's 500 have all broken through the small-car clutter with bright colors and designs, he pointed out.
"You definitely have a little more space to be creative in a smaller car," Schuster agreed. "You want [the car] to be more attractive to various age groups — especially the younger car buyer and buyers who are more inclined to look at something more interesting or with more style."
At the same time, even those small and midsize cars that do not get a colorful design theme are getting more attention in interiors. Improved manufacturing capabilities within the suppliers' plants are making it possible to provide cars with foam padding and soft-touch urethane or polyolefin skins at a competitive price.
"We're able to make them at lower cost with a higher throughput, and use a lot of robotic techniques — even in stitching, which allows us to automate something which used to be hand stitching," said Tom Pilette, vice president of product and process innovation at Magna International Inc. "That really allows us to bring those [details] down even into entry-level vehicles."
If smaller vehicles have the same quality trim as bigger, more expensive vehicles, people will be more likely to buy them, which will only help to ease the automaker's average fuel economy numbers.
"There's no question that while we may be in a bit of a larger-vehicle reprise right now, that will be short-lived and smaller cars are going to become more important," Schuster said. "In interiors, the amenities, the features, the materials used are going to be of focus and attention from buyers who don't want to feel like they're giving up some aspect of what they had before."