Small is cool – why gas guzzlers are heading south

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People without cars used to be viewed as pariahs – even in large American cities so, doubtless, even those without cars (perhaps those who cannot afford to buy one right now) may well look to find the best car rental rates.

The pitying looks directed at commuters in cities like Los Angeles testify to the fact that non-drivers are seen as an underclass. But signs are that Americans are emulating what can be called the London example. There, drivers are being discouraged through transport infrastructure, congestion charges, environmental awareness and some (albeit effective) “gimmicks” such as mayor Boris Johnson’s rent-a-bike scheme.

infomatique / Foter / CC BY-SA


Owning a car in a city like London is very expensive – that, of course, is part of the plan to deter people from using one! Greater use of public transport frees up the roads and delivers faster journey times. The difficulty in finding parking spaces and the sheer hassle of driving a car round a large city is also a major obstacle. Other European cities, like Rome and Paris, are famous for their traffic, one-way streets and excitable drivers. Cities in Eastern European countries – Sofia and Bucharest being examples – may have infrastructural problems that make driving dangerous.

danorbit. / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Obviously, however, there are cases when people need to use a car even if they don’t wish to own one on a permanent basis. The parents of – for example – three schoolchildren will need to drop them off at school. Try struggling with a large shopping trip with young children when you don’t have a car.

If there is a pattern, however, it’s that the “monster” vehicles driven by Americans are becoming unfashionable. These gas guzzlers are extremely difficult to park and monumentally environmentally-unfriendly. The smaller cars, especially the “smart” cars as they are called, are more malleable and consume less gas. Another demographic shift favoring small cars is the urbanization of America; more people are living in cities than in suburban/rural areas.

Here in Van Nuys / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND



A love affair that is tapering off…

So the signs are that some Americans are scaling back their passion for cars. Driving was at its most popular in 2007. Since then, average annual vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has declined by 0.5%, while average annual population growth has been 0.8%.  Younger Americans, in particular, (aged 16 to 34), seem to be turning to other means to get around. In the first decade of the new millennium they cut their per capita VMT by 24%, opting to walk more or take public transport. So are people giving up on their cars? Or at least is their love affair with big cars really coming to an end? Perhaps it’s true to say that car ownership is no longer as obligatory as it was for those in big cities.

If you don’t want to run a car on a permanent basis, then renting a car often gives the opportunity to step up to a posher model, if only for a week or so. You just need to find a firm that offers you the best car rental rates.

Yet small cars – the ones that may not impress your fellow drivers – are not necessarily as impracticable as they seem. You are unlikely to find even a small car that cannot accommodate a strapping six-footer. The key question is bulk; you may run into problems only if a heavyweight driver sits next to a bulky passenger!

canonsnapper / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Smart at heart

For years, many people assumed that small cars were of inferior quality because of their vulnerability in case of an accident. Many car-makers shunned the production of small cars because of slender profits. Yet, since 2009, Detroit’s automakers, for example, have introduced small cars that were not just inexpensive but well-designed – with tech features like Bluetooth-enabled sound systems filtered down from pricier models. And while smaller cars per se may be less durable – particularly in the case of accidents – all cars are getting safer with each passing year.

Boosts in small-car sales have generally been short-lived in the past. This was because of a fall in gas prices. But it would seem that demographic changes, environmental concerns and the sheer convenience of driving a small car around American cities all mean that the shift is here to stay. So why not rent out a smaller car and watch the drivers of those huge elongated monstrosities look on enviously as you nab that tiny parking space!






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