Toyota Motor Sales USA is benefiting from the emphasis on fuel economy, says Dick Kelley, Southeast public affairs manager. "Toyota has 13 vehicles getting in excess of 30 miles per gallon. Four-cylinder-equipped vehicles are where the growth is coming from. There are no regional differences. We've seen sales rise in small fuel-efficient vehicles across the U.S."
What about U.S. customers wanting to buy the most metal they can? That translates into looking for value and room, he says. "Couple that with our being a large nation with lots of very straight roads and it's a perfect combination that encourages folks to look for the most vehicle they can get. Tempering that is that the vehicle needs to be fuel efficient," he adds.
The view from the trenches – the showroom floor – is similar. Irma Elder, CEO of Elder Automotive Group in Troy, Michigan, says, "Americans love their cars. The Ford Mustang is hot. GM is bringing back the Chevrolet Camaro." Both are powerful, sporty cars.
"The average person is buying the cars that are the best for them; that are more sensible for gas economy. But they still like the sport utility vehicles. All the cars are better on fuel," Ms. Elder says.
Expensive vehicles such as Jaguar and Aston Martin are still selling, she notes. And that's in the depressed Detroit-area market. Elder Automotive has Ford, Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Saab dealerships. It is listed as the 10th-largest Hispanic-owned company on the Hispanic Business 500.
With small cars gaining market share – at the expense of trucks – let's get behind the somewhat smaller steering wheels. Hispanic Business drives vehicles on real-life roads, not test tracks. In addition to the fuel economy, we look at what readers prefer.
There are seven new entry-level small cars that merit attention: the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris, the bit bigger Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio siblings, the Dodge Caliber, which springs from the old Neon, and the Chevrolet HHR (a Cobalt
Of the three Japanese brands, the Fit is on the sportier side, the Yaris is more comfortable, and the Versa in between. For the Korean brands, Kia leans toward sporty while the Accent appeals to comfort. The Dodge Caliber has sporty inclinations and the Chevy HHR is a wagon.
The Honda Fit Sport demonstrates the wisdom of stepping up a model or two in the lineup. At $15,970 (base is $13,850) the interior is nicely finished. There are paddle shifters for the five-speed automatic transmission. The rear seats fold cunningly into the floor.
The 109 horsepower four-cylinder engine manages 0-60 miles per hour in 12.6 seconds, proving you can't have 33 miles per gallon on city streets and 38 on highways for free.
The Toyota Yaris produces 34/39 mpg from its 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that propels it to 60 mph in 12.5 seconds, similar to the Honda Fit. The ride is fairly comfortable and Yaris holds its own on curves, although the semibolstered seats permit lateral movement, unlike the Fit.
The Yaris Liftback starts at $11,050 with an S-series base price of $13,425. The base five-speed manual transmission puts the manual back in shifting. It's notchy and balky. Step up in the model lineup.
The 2007 Nissan Versa is the most powerful of the trio – 122 horsepower from a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine. It offers an optional continuously variable transmission (CVT). A four-speed automatic is available along with a six-speed manual. Versa has recorded 0-60 times of 10.5 seconds and gets 30/36 mpg. Base price is $12,450 and the CVT version goes for $15,450.
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