Domestics to Claw Back Small Car Shoppers

By: Anthony Fontanelle

With the realization that shoppers are shifting from huge vehicles to compacts, domestic automakers plan to claw back into the small car market.

American automakers have long put emphasis on the manufacture of big vehicles such as pickups and sport utilities. Now that shoppers entertained a change of heart, domestics also plan to sing a new tune to win over customers. In the hope that the new strategy will gain shoppers, domestics are launching tuneful small cars. This is Detroit's effort to make yet another comeback.

Just as the vehicle needs to achieve ultimate precision handling and improved ride quality, domestics also need efficient small cars to cater to the escalating and demanding needs of auto shoppers. This is an effort to wipe away sales doldrums and improve their standing in the American auto market.

Ford Motor Co. will be setting free the revamped Focus which is engineered to wow more customers. Early next year, General Motors Corp. will show a glimpse into its future compacts by flaunting the Saturn Astra to dealerships. Additionally, more compacts are on the way.

Industry analysts say the improved offerings are much better than the chintzy small cars of the past, but Detroit still has a long way to go to unseat the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, which together control almost 30 percent of the small car market, The Detroit News reported. To note, foreign automakers have 76 percent of the American small car market.

"It's a segment that we've been out of, so we need to have really good products in it," Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally told The Associated Press in a recent interview. He said his five adult children are a perfect example of Ford's challenges in the compact market. "We missed a whole generation of Ford products," he said. "We knew the trucks and the SUVs, No. 1 in the world, but they grew up with Civics and Accords."

His children, he said, love the new Ford vehicles, but the company has some huge challenges getting people to believe it's making quality cars again. "The thing is consideration and awareness that we even have them," Mulally said.

Ford and GM research reflects that small-car shoppers will no longer tolerate flimsy seats, cheap plastic dashboards, noisy engines and bumpy rides, the report continued. They also want sleek body styles and performance comparable to larger cars all in a fuel-efficient package.

"People who go into a small car want expressive design and they want a level of refinement in the interior," said Jill Lajdziak, Saturn general manager. "We've got to make sure that our small cars are delivering what they want. They don't want to compromise."

But experts in the industry said small cars manufactured by the domestics will still find it hard to penetrate the market dominated by the Civic and Corolla.

The new Focus, while vastly improved, looks like the tired old model, said Erich Merkle, vice president of auto industry forecasting for consulting company IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids. "There's a tremendous level of refinement in the new Focus," Merkle said. "I just don't think the sheet metal does it justice. It doesn't look different enough from the predecessor to get people to see that it's different from the other car."

"We have been really focusing on dynamite, stylish, neat, comfortable, well-crafted smaller cars," Mulally concluded. "With the fuel prices staying up in the United States and the changing tastes with global warming and energy security, then all of a sudden, I think we're going to start to come together. You're going to see all of the neatness of those smaller cars that are very fuel efficient. We're going to see that in the United States, and I want to be on the leading edge of that."

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