By on May 9, 2008

wheel.jpgThe Wall Street Journal [WSJ] reveals the not-so-surprising fact that U.S. car buyers are trading down to smaller vehicles in the name of fuel economy– but they still want iPoditude, hands-free schmoozing and thermal butt management. Small car market share is climbing, from about 14 percent (2004) to over 19 percent (year to date). At the same time, the average small car price is heading upwards by some $2k – $3k. Ford Marketing Maven Jim Farley says around 30 percent of Foci are now top spec. Hang on. Does this mean that there's, you know, money in small cars? Yes! So "auto makers accustomed to building eight-cylinder cars loaded with options while sparsely equipping four-cylinder vehicles [not naming any names yet] have to adjust their production. GM President Fritz Henderson [there you go] said Wednesday that the company is trying to find more plant capacity to build more cars." Too bad GM can't convert all those truck factories to small car production. Who saw that one coming? To illustrate the premium compact trend, the WSJ brings us the ethnically-correct case study of Hugo Chau. Mr. Chau traded his 2005 Mercedes for a Sync-ed-up Ford Focus and said: "I really wanted a car that has the features and is nice to drive… The Mercedes was more like a toy, and this is something I can drive every day." What Merc was that, then? An SLR?  

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48 Comments on “Small Cars Make Money? Who’d a Thunk It?...”


  • avatar
    menno

    Yes, I am seeing this on the streets. Up-spec smaller cars.

    Except for those folks in McMansions. The local Kia dealer is now only stocking the lowest priced lines of every vehicle (though he has plenty of 2007 higher spec variants still available).

    Believe it or not, our town is the one town in the United States where several of the top ten car sellers are actually Kia. And I’m in northwestern Michigan.

    Yeah, I was shocked, too. Until I took stock and looked at Michigan’s economy (and the fact that pretty much all of the car parts manufacturing “3rd tier” plants have closed and virtually stuck their managerial middle finger up into the air towards the ex-workers, and the jobs all went to Mexico, China and “anywhere but Michigan”).

    So people take crap jobs and but cheap new cars, abandon Detroit (which abandoned them).

  • avatar
    SunnyvaleCA

    So, after taking a $20,000 depreciation hit in 2 years, Mr. Chau is now saving $2,000/year in gasoline. I knew that car-buying was mostly an emotional process, but this really takes the cake.

  • avatar
    jthorner

    Mr. Chau’s new Focus is probably going to depreciate less than his 2005 MBZ would have continued to over the next five years, so he isn’t a complete economic fool. The purchase in 2005 may qualify as a bad decision, but getting out while the vehicle is still worth something isn’t all bad. Who knows, maybe he was on a three year lease with the ’05 and his time was already up.

  • avatar
    mel23

    I assume the Cobalt qualifies as a small car. If GM needs more capacity to build these things, why do they have $500 on the hood?

  • avatar
    oboylepr

    I assume the Cobalt qualifies as a small car. If GM needs more capacity to build these things, why do they have $500 on the hood?

    They don’t need capacity to build Cobalts but to build small cars. The Cobalt was designed to compete with Civics and Corollas. A task at which it has failed miserably.

  • avatar
    DearS

    Small cars are of course not a shameful choice, like many bigger car buyers seems to look on them. Bigger or more expensive does not make a person more than anyone. It seems circumstances result in it being easier to own a small vehicle in society not become a target or atleast feel ok being targeted.

    I wonder if this is just a trend and lower specs cars will result in future majority and lower profits. Also like other countries I hope small cars don’t end up costing an arm and a leg. I do not want to drive a nano. Although that is a bit of change and probably noting to worry about. Inflation is a bitch though and I think a big part of Americas future.

  • avatar
    improvement_needed

    now if only they (big 3) could actually build a high quality small car…

    in terms of new car quality (and desirability), still have some catching up to do…
    corolla, civic, jetta/rabbit, mazda 3, elantra, impreza, etc… are pretty nice…

    please, please, please though – keep the wheel size at 16 inches (or 15, or even 14)… – just wasting gas driving a 140 hp car with 18 inch rims…

  • avatar

    That Astra is a high quality small car sold by GM but nobody is buying it. With a year’s supply on the ground it might recieve some steep discounts soon and perhaps turn into the small car deal of the century like GM’s Saab 9-2X experiment and LS1/LS2 GTO debacle.

  • avatar
    alexdykes

    What are we considering small these days? Even the small cars are so bloated compared to 10 years ago. The day GM creates a Mini fighter (with Mini quality) I’ll buy it.

  • avatar

    I would like a Ford Focus coupe. I think Ford should send over their European convertible version plus a hardtop coupe version to increase its status as a good compact car rather than just an economy car. Just because people want fuel-efficient cars doesn’t mean they want cheap ones.

    Without decontenting, I figure Ford might be able to make a profit off of the Focus.

  • avatar

    It may sound weird, but a BMW 3-series is a small car (1.5 inches longer than a Honda Civic). BMW might yet find a market for the 320i or 320d here in the U.S. if this trend continues. Those of us who were around in the ’70’s gas crunches have already watched this movie twice, so it comes as no surprise that people will take a huge depreciation hit in order to get cars that get better fuel mileage.

    When gas goes to $5.00/gallon, we’ll see a lot more of this kind of emotional trading and GM can introduce the X-car all over again.

    The fact that GM and Ford did not see this coming is simply astonishing; war starts in the Middle East using borrowed money, the world gets jittery over the supply of oil and the dollar takes a dive. Doh!

  • avatar
    timd38

    After dealing as a supplier to the Big 2.8, they did something no else could do, they sold me a Honda.

    I bought an Acura TSX and at first wondered why I did it. Well 8 moths later, I found out why Honda’s are considered “boring”. They really don’t do anything wrong. It is a nice small car with all the features and then some, of larger more expensive cars and I get 29mpg.

    So do think Honda is making money selling this car for $28K? They sure are, but GM, Ford and Chrysler can not figure out how to build small cars at a profit? I am tired of hearing them complain while they continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

    Ask anyone that has bought a “new” Focus and the first thing they say is “I got a really good deal”, not that “I got a really good car”. Ford did a great job with the Focus in 2000 when it came out, but never did anything to improve it until it was tooooo late and had to put a bunch of money on the hood of a car that they already claim they don’t make money on.

  • avatar

    I spoke to a Ford dealer here at a local Trade Show this week, he said that Ford would be bringing over a Focus diesel within two years! He also said in the first few years Focus had several problems, especially the first two years here in North America, he also claimed that the present Model(2008) got 50 miles per gallon? Not sure this is correct but thats what he was advertising at the Show!

  • avatar

    I believe I’ve mentioned this before – but this is an authentic comment, from a GM executive to me, when we were discussing Honda’s lineup of small vehicles shown at a car show some years ago.

    “At GM building those cars would be a career dead-ender. It’s not macho.”

    And there’s your explanation for why GM “can’t figure out how to make a profit building small cars.” There’s a reason why Lutz the Magnificent had “a massive V-16 engine on display in his office,” while pretending to have been fighting for EVs against his engineers in a Newsweek interview.

    I absolutely love the heading of that interview: The Man Who Revived the Electric Car.

    You can’t make this stuff up. (Well, Newsweek could, but you get my drift.)

    http://www.newsweek.com/id/81580

  • avatar
    UnclePete

    I have seen so many new Focuses (Foci?) on the road in the past 2 months during my commute I swear they are just self-generating from the weeds at the side of the road. Last night, I even saw the rara avis of small cars, a brand new Pontiac G5 with the 30-day new car plates and all. I’ve never even seen one at a BPG dealer, much less on the road.

    I do think it is funny that people want all the tchotchkes on their new small cars. It just seems the more options you throw in, the more weight and less mileage you get. (For me in my commuting car it is all about getting the best mileage.)

  • avatar
    dwford

    It’s amazing to watch people talk themselves up the options ladder on a Focus. They start out with a regular SE, decide they need SYNC, oh then that Deluxe Package looks nice, oooh cool ambient lighting, oh it has a roof, ok I’ll take it. A $17k Focus turns into a $19k Focus real quick and the customers love it.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    The fact that GM and Ford did not see this coming is simply astonishing; war starts in the Middle East using borrowed money, the world gets jittery over the supply of oil and the dollar takes a dive. Doh!…..

    What is even more astonishing is that the morons in our government – you know the ones with the hands on the power levers – did not see that they were engineering America’s economic downfall. As for Detroit, why they kept on the trucks is because they sold well, actually had a decent reputation, and the profit margin was high. The only “look forward” was by GM who thought that if they could give their most profitable people movers (think Tahoe) a significant boost in mileage (Tahoe Hybrid) then the buyers would stay. Yet the hybrid trucks languish on the lots. What would would be interesting to see is what yesterday’s Tahoe shopper chose to buy in lieu of the Tahoe hybrid. I am willing to bet whatever vehicle that is, it probably does not get significantly better economy than the hybrid. The full size class of SUV’s is now no longer the fashion statement in the suburban school drop off circle, no matter what the mileage it may return.

  • avatar

    What is even more astonishing is that the morons in our government – you know the ones with the hands on the power levers – did not see that they were engineering America’s economic downfall.

    Particularly astonishing, since lil’ ol’ me going to work everyday here in Columbus, Ohio predicted all this from the beginning.

    John

  • avatar

    Did they not see it or did they want it to happen?

    http://www.zeitgeistmovie.com/

  • avatar
    jthorner

    Yep, I’m feeling like a real trend-setter for buying my TSX in 2006 with Navigation, Blue-tooth and all the other goodies for about $29k. It is everything the Cimarron should have been, but wasn’t. Take a garden variety 4 cylinder small family sedan, option it up and sell it at a nice dealership with a squeaky clean service department that you almost never visit. When Honda sells stripper Accords for slightly more than half of what I paid you gotta figure they made some money on me, and I don’t mind.

    I love Stein’s quote: “At GM building those cars would be a career dead-ender. It’s not macho.” Arrogance and idiocy do not make good bedfellows.

    John

  • avatar

    jthorner – your TSX is an excellent example of a great small car which has received only lukewarm reception from “enthusiasts”. It doesn’t have a turbo V6 option so cannot scream onto the cover of Car and Driver, yet it is screwed together well, handles competently, has an upscale interior and also represents fuel-efficient transportation.

    Now if Honda will only make one in RWD, they’d have the real modern-day 2002…

  • avatar
    50merc

    “What is even more astonishing is that the morons in our government – you know the ones with the hands on the power levers – did not see that they were engineering America’s economic downfall.” The alleged “morons” include both Democratic and Republican presidents and Congresses. The need to better prepare for oil price shocks was apparent at least as early as 1973. And Iran, directly and through its proxies, has been at war with the US since 1979. So why is it so difficult to sacrifice in the present for gain in the future? Well, it’s human nature. And in democracies, leaders cannot pull their followers along faster than public opinion allows. Churchill was alone and ostracized in the 30’s for warning about Hitler.

    “GM, Ford and Chrysler can not figure out how to build small cars at a profit?” Nor could you on a $20,000 wholesale price, if you assigned (for example) $13,000 of indirect costs (for administration, pensions, insurance, equipment depreciation, etc.) to each vehicle and had, say, $8,000 of direct costs in labor and parts.

  • avatar
    M1EK

    Yes, but making a small car for $21K that sells for $20K is better than making a small car for $18K that you can’t sell for more than $14K after incentives. That’s what you guys still refuse to get – in the latter case, you lose less money – maybe less enough combined with the higher-profit vehicles to actually make a go of it in the long-run.

    Building shitty Cobalts, on the other hand, only prevents the next generation of potential higher-profit vehicle-buyers from ever considering your nameplate – and you STILL lose money. People don’t try that awful car and then say “well, I guess I’d better move up to a Malibu”; they go over and buy a Civic or a Corolla.

  • avatar
    mel23

    And in democracies, leaders cannot pull their followers along faster than public opinion allows.

    While very true, the opinion of a poorly educated public, especially as regards history, is easily manipulated given a compliant corporate-driven media (and I include the NPR farce). Witness the drumbeat for attacking Iran so soon after the wildly successful Iraq foray.

  • avatar
    Skooter

    On the TSX-“They really don’t do anything wrong. It is a nice small car with all the features and then some, of larger more expensive cars and I get 29mpg.”

    Wow- Now I really feel like a genius since I purchased a 2006 Chevy Impala LT instead of a TSX- for a biiger vehicle and $6,000 less! Oh yes, I get the same mileage with 2 more cylinders and 6 more horsepower! Hooray for me!

  • avatar
    dastanley

    So when are we gonna see the blinged out Focus with the fake Rolls-Royce grill and gold quad tail pipes for “performance”? Yo yo yo!

  • avatar
    Geotpf

    I really like my 2006 Scion xA. Toyota quality, small but hatchback versatility (with the rear seats down, you’d be amazed how much stuff you can fit in such a small vehicle), fairly loaded but not ridiculously so. (I mean, it has a great stereo, power windows and door locks and mirrors, side airbags, and ABS, but it doesn’t have a nav system.)

    And, buying a small car isn’t all fuel economy. Ease of parking and good handling are major factors as well. In some ways, it’s safer than a bigger vehicle, in the fact that you take up less of the lane and can get out of the way easier, so situations that would be accidents in a bigger vehicle are merely near-misses in mine.

  • avatar

    Skooter: For many buyers it’s really not about size when it comes to cars. I much prefer driving a GTI/Mazda3 sized automobile than a Passat-sized one, even though I drive 30kms one way to work daily on the highway.

    It’s about the little touches (side blinkers – a great safety feature ignored in NA; hidden mufflers; wheels that fill the arches properly; front and rear IRS; a manual transmission; supportive seats; steering feel, excellent brakes; toys – auto lights, wipers, Xenons, sunroof, Bluetooth, auto climate ctrl, the carpet in the trunk and how carefully it’s made to cover all gaps; steering wheel audio controls, etc).

  • avatar
    improvement_needed

    Dinu: Well put!!!

    especially the small touches.
    my base vw jetta was purchased for 18k 3 years ago with:
    electronic stability control
    4 wheel disc brakes with abs
    6 airbags
    3 12 volt outlets
    cruise control
    10 speaker stereo
    auto down on ALL 4 windows!!
    power / heated outside mirrors
    side blinkers
    tilt/telescopic steering wheel
    rear-HVAC vents (floor and upper)
    Full Size spare
    Overhead sunglasses holder
    center armrest: extend-able and tilt-able
    small AC vent in center console and glovebox
    footwell lighting
    alarm system
    remote door locks and trunk
    etc…

  • avatar
    timd38

    Skooter: I used to agree with that position and bought a Lincoln LS that I still have because it has no resale value, just like the Impala. The LS had a V8, rear wheel drive, great handling and was good looking. The BMW had a inline six, less horsepower, less interior space and cost more money, I should have bought the BMW, just like you should have bought the TSX when you go to get another car and find out that the Impala has no resale value.

    The Impala may be rated at 28 on the highway, but the TSX actually gets it.

  • avatar
    improvement_needed

    timd38:

    nothing wrong with keeping a vehicle until you run it into the ground…

  • avatar
    jthorner

    “The Impala may be rated at 28 on the highway, but the TSX actually gets it.”

    I recently made a Banzai! trip from California to Texas and back in my auto trany (yes I’m ashamed!) TSX with two adults and a full load of luggage. There are serious mountain ranges between here and there and most of the highways had 75-80 MPH speed limits. Much of the time I was doing 80 or higher. Total round trip fuel economy was 31.4 MPG.

  • avatar
    tac

    back in ’03, ’04 you could find dealer’s September ads for “focus hatchbacks $7,800, 23 at this price” (similarly for rangers). a big reason was they sold a lot of gas guzzler trucks (especially the 100k tax write off 6000lb loophole deals) and had to offset them with efficient models. during those times, they had to achieve economy standards by total average of vehicles sold. now they cooked the latest economy laws to be “economy standards achieved by model mix offered”. that means all they have to do is offer product mix (regardless of volume sold) for an average economy and game the system (eg: offering a escort and a mercury tracer as 2 efficient offsets to 2 guzzlers). lets go back to the old system and bring the prices back down and give our children a better chance of the same place we enjoyed.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    “What is even more astonishing is that the morons in our government – you know the ones with the hands on the power levers – did not see that they were engineering America’s economic downfall.” The alleged “morons” include both Democratic and Republican presidents and Congresses.….

    That is correct, my statement did not mention party as there is plenty of blame to go around. It would be easy to comment on the state of the economy during the last two administrations and who, on the surface, did a “better” job but when push comes to shove, energy and its related issues were ignored equally by both parties.

    Skooter: I used to agree with that position and bought a Lincoln LS that I still have because it has no resale value, just like the Impala. The LS had a V8, rear wheel drive, great handling and was good looking. The BMW had a inline six, less horsepower, less interior space and cost more money, I should have bought the BMW, just like you should have bought the TSX when you go to get another car and find out that the Impala has no resale value.…

    The TSX would be the choice for purchasing new, especially if you like to trade. Used? That Lincoln is a great deal, and a pretty good car, too. I actually thought that the LS, following on the LSC era indicated that Lincoln was going somewhere. I was wrong, big time on that. The Navigator era killed any hope of that. And Improvement_Needed, you are absolutely correct, there is nothing wrong with keeping a car until it is toast. I really laugh when I hear people talk about how reliable their (insert your favorite car here) is. They then follow up with how they trade every three years. Even the much maligned GM product can do that, even if it includes two warranty stops. Reliability and durability, while related, are NOT the same thing.

  • avatar

    Now isn’t it time for the Ford Mondeo to come back to the US (as is please)? And that is not that small of a car.

    It kills me that because of pissing contests between regional operations, the US automakers claim not to have viable small cars when they are making them across the pond.

  • avatar
    Skooter

    “The Impala may be rated at 28 on the highway, but the TSX actually gets it.”

    Actually, 2006 Impala is rated at 31 highway(22 city). It is a daily driver that mixes city and highway use and consistently averages 23-26 mpg with 40,000 miles on the odometer. Since I never purchased the Acura, I don’t know what mileage it gets. But I doubt that a federal EPA label is biased toward Chevy. Oh, and I doubt the BS story of the auto trans TSX going up mountains with thousands of pounds of cargo averaging 30+ mpg.

  • avatar
    Skooter

    And in case you are wondering about the Impala’s reliability. In service dept for 1 warranty repair to re-surface front rotors. Total down time 3 hrs. Knock on wood.

  • avatar
    Busbodger

    I’m not sure why Skooter would doubt the big mileage claims of the TSX owner. I drive a ’97 VW Cabrio and last weekend with two adults, two kids and a trunk full of luggage (two heavy tool bags to fix some stuff at the in-laws’ house, overnight bags, and a computer) we got 33 mpg going over two TN mountains and 65/55 mph roads the whole way with the a/c on.

    I always see 29+ around town during the week and 34-35 mpg on the highway no matter how full the car is.

    Yes, I might sacrifice a FEW mpg (3-4) for a larger Chevy on the highway but I still will live with the smaller high city mpg for day to day use b/c that is where 90% of my car’s lifetime will be used.

    Like one of the other commenters said, the clever little details really make some of the imports desirable for all purpose use. Alot different from a low spec Hyundai from 15 years ago that I owned whose only “extra” was a sunroof. I can certainly live with a low spec car for short distance use though.

  • avatar
    timd38

    My 06 Corvette, purchased new in 2005, broke before I got it home from the dealer and was towed in every week I owned it until GM finally agreed to replace it, so my opinion on GM reliability is biased.

    When I bought my Acura I used the same criteria that the big 2.8 claim to use. Total cost. Total cost over 5 years including depreciation makes Honda and Toyota big winners.

    Isn’t it amazing that the average transaction price for a Civic and Corolla are much higher than a Focus and Cobalt. I beleive it is becasue the big 2.8 have a done a great job of confirming that they can’t build nice small cars.

  • avatar
    ronin

    Automakers have been cranking out high priced trim levels on economy cars for a few decades now.

    I don’t the issue is so much that it is difficult to make a profit on smaller cars. I think the issue is that it is difficult to make a PROFIT.

    In other words, the margin on full-farkled pickups and SUVs was likely over $10,000 per UNIT. The per unit margin for a $15,000 car is nowhere near.

    Which only means that the makers routinely bloated their profits with the bloated prices of bloated vehicle.

    Now that heyday is gone, hence their lamenting. Now they need to return to solid business practices to still do well on narrower margins. I guess that actually working hard to sell product is not so macho.

  • avatar
    Busbodger

    It’s not that they CAN’T make nice small cars, but that they won’t. Look at their European webpages. They CAN, but won’t b/c they want us to buy their large high margin vehicles.

    Of course they know their customers well. Alot of the diehard GM and Ford customers I know automatically label small vehicles as “shitboxes” b/c these people don’t like small cars. More power to them and their 18 mpg mid-sized car. Maybe they haven’t spent any time in a GOOD compact.

    I’ll take my compact and pocket the $20K lower operating costs over 200K miles, thanks…

    Hoping the Astra is still around when I need to buy my next car. Am not going into debt prematurely to “save” GM thanks.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    tac: “back in ‘03, ‘04 you could find dealer’s September ads for “focus hatchbacks $7,800, 23 at this price” (similarly for rangers). a big reason was they sold a lot of gas guzzler trucks (especially the 100k tax write off 6000lb loophole deals) and had to offset them with efficient models…”
    I wondered what happened to all those incredibly cheap small car deals and why they never came back. The cheapest ’08 Focus I’ve seen advertised is $10k. Of course, the ’08s now come standard with A/C (the previous generation base models didn’t) which is some compensation. At least there’s still stripped (no A/C) 4-door Aveos for $8500.

  • avatar
    Whuffo

    What they don’t seem to understand is that there’s a significant number of potential customers that are interested in moving to a vehicle that offers higher gas mileage – but not if that means driving in the penalty box.

    Luxury doesn’t have to mean LARGE; it’s quite possible to have a very, very nice car that’s smaller and is more economical because of it.

    The profit margin wouldn’t be as high on these vehicles – but the rewards would be great for the manufacturer who hits the mark. If any of the auto companies would stop with the market research that asks “which of these current vehicles do you prefer” and start asking “what kind of vehicle do you want” they’d have a good starting point. Those aren’t the same question and you’d think they’d understand the difference by now…

  • avatar
    dhanson865

    If any of the auto companies would stop with the market research that asks “which of these current vehicles do you prefer” and start asking “what kind of vehicle do you want” they’d have a good starting point. Those aren’t the same question and you’d think they’d understand the difference by now…

    QOTD material right there. Quoted for Truth.

  • avatar
    jthorner

    “my base vw jetta was purchased for 18k 3 years ago with:… ”

    VW is very well positioned to take advantage of this trend if they can get their act together.

  • avatar
    brettc

    VW definitely could do very well with current fuel prices. Even if they decide to keep TDI production lower (because people just go by pump prices and can’t do simple math), they have plenty of efficient small displacement gas engines.

    The sad thing is that they seem to think that most of these engines are to “too small” for the US. The Rabbit and Jetta aren’t very desireable in terms of economy. 30 MPG is pretty crappy compared to what they could be getting. The 1.6 litre FSI engine listed on vw.co.uk gets 42.2 MPG combined. I don’t see why they continue to put a 2.5 litre engine in those cars. Maybe they’ll catch on eventually though.

    I bought my Jetta TDI in 2003 because I knew at some point, fuel prices would go up. The only time I need a truck is to get stuff from Lowe’s or Home Depot. For those occasions, I rent a truck for $20. It baffles me that so many people bought a pickup when they need to use its full capacity a few times per year. But as I mentioned above, a lot of people are pretty dull, so I guess I answered my own question.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    When people ask me about my current car, Mazda6s, I first mention how much fun it is to drive then the gas mileage that I get (23 mpg in mixed driving, 28 to 30 mpg on long trips, since purchase 41,000 miles ago), and finally what a good deal I got on it by buying in December and doing a little leg work to find a left over one that I liked. When people would ask me about my previous car, a Saturn, the first thing I would mention was the deal that I got, and then I would just kinda’ mumble “okay” as far as the car itself.

    Personally, I think Company’s like Mazda have a good idea in selling cars like the Mazdaspeed3 that have standard features out the tail pipe. As gas prices continue to rise, a well appointed car that gets fair to good gas mileage will be the hot selling comodity for the middle class buyer that used to buy an SUV or full size sedan. There will also be a big market for the “penalty box” compact for kids just out of college, lower middle income folks, or people who like to own a basic daily driver and a toy for weekend fun.

  • avatar
    Geotpf

    brettc : MPG in the UK is not the same as MPG in the US, because an Imperial gallon is 1.2 American gallons. So, 42.2 / 1.2 = 35.2 MPG in US gallons. Still better than the bigger American engines, but not by as much.

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