Smart fortwo coupe
Smart fortwo coupé. Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge.

by Grant Yoxon

Despite the proliferation of sport utility vehicles and pick-up trucks on Canadian roads these days, it might come as a surprise to you that the best selling car in Canada is a compact – the Honda Civic.

Pick-ups and sport utilities are still popular – the Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra is the best selling vehicle in Canada, but the Civic is number two on the list.

It’s a statistic that has not gone unnoticed by auto manufacturers who can sometimes spot an opportunity years away.

The success of new and unusual compact models like the Toyota Matrix, Pontiac Vibe, Suzuki Aerio and Honda Element have sparked the interest of auto manufacturers in the sales potential of small cars. And up-market compacts like BMW’s Mini have shown the profit potential as well.

The number and variety of compacts available to buyers has been growing for some time. Along with the new tall compacts have come the addition of five-door hatches – like the Mazda Protegé5, Toyota Echo hatchback, Hyundai Elantra GT and Ford Focus five-door – to existing lines.

In the past few years, small car buyers had very limited choice in the sub-compact segment – the Toyota Echo, Hyundai Elantra and Kia Rio have been the only choices. But things have begun to change in this class too with the introduction of GM’s Korean-built Chevrolet Aveo. Suzuki is also selling a version of the Aveo, called the Swift+.

If recent announcements and auto show reveals are any indication, the small car market is about to get even better, particularly for Canadians.

Why Canada? Canadians have always bought small cars in greater numbers, relatively speaking, than US buyers. And gasoline is more expensive here too.

But my guess is that manufacturers have spotted the beginnings of a change in attitude in North America and are preparing to expand the choices across the continent. Canada, with its greater affinity for the small car represents a good test market for new ideas and marketing strategies in North America.

Here then, is an overview of what Canadians can expect in small cars over the next few years.

Smart fortwo cabrio
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Smart fortwo. Mercedes-Benz announced this week at the Canadian International Auto Show that it will start selling the diminutive (it’s only 8 feet – 2.5 metres – long) Smart fortwo cdi in Canada later this year. The fortwo cdi is a two-seater available in either coupé or cabrio version. Equipped with an in-line 3-cylinder, 0.8 litre state-of-the art common rail diesel engine that delivers 40 hp and 74 lb-ft of torque, with an electronically governed top speed of 120 km/h, it consumes a scant 3.5 litres of diesel fuel per 100 km. Despite its size, it will have a great deal of standard features – exclusive in its class – including electronic stability program, brake assist and ABS. While prices have not been confirmed, the base model coupé will start from $16,000 and the base model cabrio will start at less than $20,000.

2005 Pontiac Wave
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Pontiac Wave and Chevrolet Optra5. At the Montreal Auto Show last week, General Motors revealed two new additions to its Korean-built line-up. The Optra5 is a hatchback version of the Canada-only Optra sedan from GM Daewoo. Available in base ($16,190) and LS ($18,140) models, the Optra5 features a 2.0 litre DOHC, 16-valve 4-cylinder engine with 119 horsepower. The Wave is Pontiac’s version of the Aveo, but unlike the Aveo, will be sold only in Canada.. Offered in both 4-door sedan and 4-door hatchback models, the Wave houses a 1.6 litre DOHC 4 cylinder engine generating 103 horsepower mated with a 4-speed automatic. Expect pricing similar to the Aveo’s $13,480 – $14,670 range.

Subaru Impreza. Also at the Montreal auto show, Subaru announced a new Canada-only model – the Impreza 2.5 TS sedan. It goes on sale in February with a base retail price of $22,995. Currently the TS is only offered as a wagon.

2005 Pontiac Pursuit
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Chevrolet Cobalt/Pontiac Pursuit. GM introduced the Chevrolet Cobalt at the Los Angeles auto show in December. Based on the Delta platform which it shares with the Saturn Ion and available in both sedan and coupe, the Cobalt will replace the Cavalier, and compete with compacts like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra and Mazda3. Unlike the Cavalier, the Cobalt won’t be GM’s entry level vehicle, which shifts to the Aveo. Pricing data has not been released.

Canada get’s a Pontiac version – the Pursuit – which will not be available in the US. The Pursuit will debut as a sedan in 2005 and a coupe will come the following year.

2006 Pontiac Solstice
2006 Pontiac solstice. click image to enlarge

Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Curve/Chevrolet Nomad. GM unveiled the production version of its 2002 concept Pontiac Solstice at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month, along with two concept vehicles based on the same platform. The Solstice is a compact two-seater sports car, with rear-wheel drive, powered by a 170 horsepower, 2.4 litre 4-cylinder engine. Although a Pontiac, the Solstice will be built at Saturn’s Wilmington, Delaware plant. Also likely to see production is the Saturn Curve, a concept two-plus-two, sports coupe based on a longer wheel-base version of the “Kappa” architecture that underpins the Solstice. Less certain to see production, although it had many admirers, is the Chevrolet Nomad, a two-door sport wagon with obvious retro cues to the original ’54 Chevy Nomad concept car. This Nomad is powered by a 250 hp, turbocharged 2.2 litre 4-cylinder. The silver-blue interior was stunning. The Solstice goes on sale in late 2005 as a 2006 model.

Maybe, maybe not…

Mazda MX Micro Sport
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Mazda MX-Micro Sport. Shorter, but taller than the Mazda3, the MX-Micro Sport is a compact car with a big interior. The MX-Micro Sport, which is sold in Japan as the Mazda2, is equipped with Mazda’s 148 horsepower 2.0-liter four cylinder engine and a six-speed manual transmission. During its introduction at the Detroit auto show, Mazda officials said the MX-Micro Sport will be launched into a key automotive market during 2004, but apparently not Canada. The car was shown at the Toronto auto show to “conduct market research.” If it does come to Canada, it will likely be the next generation model.

Suzuki Reno
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Suzuki Reno. Suzuki unveiled its third new model in less than a year at the Detroit auto show. The Reno is a compact cross-over vehicle with better than basic features including integrated steering wheel controls, 8-speaker audio system, power door locks, heated mirrors and available leather seating. The Reno will have a US starting price of $13,000. Availability in Canada is not certain. There was no announcement, as many expected, at the Toronto auto show.

Nissan Cube/C-Note. Nissan Motor Company president and CEO, Carlos Ghosn, unveiled two concept vehicles at the Montreal auto show, saying that one of them could see production and sale in Canada. “We know that there is a strong demand for more compact and affordable vehicles in Canada,” Ghosn said.

Nissan C-Note
Nissan C-Note. Click image to enlarge

“We already sell the Sentra compact sedan here, but we also see an opportunity to offer a new kind of compact car in the future – smaller than the Sentra, but with premium interior comfort and roominess, improved gas mileage and Nissan-brand design and performance.” The Nissan Cube, which is sold in Japan as the Nissan Town Box, is a multi-purpose vehicle, with a spacious and functional interior. The Cube features a compact, lightweight e-4WD system that has been engineered around a front-wheel-drive configuration and uses an electric motor to drive the rear wheels only when 4WD capability is needed. The C-Note debuted at the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show. It is Nissan’s proposal for a new compact car with up-scale quality and finishing. A high roof and high entry and exit level combine for comfortable passenger seating.

Dodge Slingshot
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Dodge Slingshot. A lightweight, entry-level sports car, the concept Dodge Slingshot features a rear-mounted 100 hp, three-cylinder engine, five-speed transmission and four-wheel disc brakes. Revealed in Detroit, the Slingshot is a longshot for production, but DaimlerChrysler could be persuaded to build something like it if the market turns away from the big cars and big SUVs that Chrysler Group is betting on.

Sport Diminutilities

2005 Nissan X-Trail
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Nissan X-Trail. Revealed at the Toronto auto show was Nissan’s new compact SUV. New to Canada, that is, because the X-Trail has been a big seller in markets outside of North America for five years. The X-Trail is powered by a 165 hp 2.5 litre engine. Unique features include a washable cargo floor, warm/cool storage box, dent-resistant front fenders, and ski pass-through. Leather seating, extra large sunroof, alloy wheels and 6-disc CD changer will be available options when the X-Trail goes on sale this Spring. No information yet on pricing. The X-Trail won’t be sold in the U.S.

Hyundai Tucson
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Hyundai Tucson. Hyundai also showed a new compact SUV in Toronto that will compete against the X-Trail and current sport diminutilities, the Toyota RAV-4, Honda CRV and Mitsubishi Outlander. Unlike the X-Trail, the Tucson will be sold across North America and debuted ealier this month at the Chicago auto show. Tucson buyers can select from two engines. The base model GL features Hyundai’s 2.0 litre DOHC 4-cylinder engine fitted with Continuously Variable Valve Timing (CVVT) matched to a 5-speed manual transmission or available Shiftronic automatic transmission. Hyundai’s 2.7 litre DOHC V6 is standard on the GLS and LX models and it is matched to the Shiftronic automatic transmission. Four-wheel-drive is available with either engine. The Tucson is equipped with a total of six airbags; driver and passenger front airbags, driver and passenger side-impact airbags and side curtain airbags for both front and rear seat occupants.

Ford Bronco
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Ford Bronco. Another concept that likely won’t see production in its current form, the Ford Bronco concept is smaller than the Ford Escape. While the concept, shown at the Detroit auto show is intended as a showcase for drivetrain technologies – in this case Ford of Europe’s 2.0 litre, 16-valve turbo diesel engine, a new “powershift” six-speed transmission and Ford’s new “fully-intelligent 4-wheel drive system” that will replace the Control Trac II system on the 2005 Escape – it does show that designers are thinking smaller, even with SUVs.

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