With a majority of automakers snubbing the upcoming auto show in Detroit, there’s not likely to be much to talk about in terms of new product beyond the next-generation Ford Mustang. But there are interesting things happening elsewhere on the planet if we’re using interesting as a polite euphemism for strange.
General Motors’ joint operation in China, SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile Co., is releasing a poverty-tier convertible that makes the long-dead Chrysler Sebring look positively decadent by comparison. Based on the Wuling Hongguang Mini EV – a boxy microcar that only measures 114.8 inches in length – the Cabrio will be a limited production convertible requiring Chinese customers to participate in a lottery.
While Tesla’s Model 3 sedan is supposedly taking the world by storm, some hot competition has been reported in China. The Hongguang MINI EV has eclipsed the offspring of Elon Musk to become the country’s best-selling electric vehicle. Though at just 28,800 yuan ($4,200), it hardly seems a fair comparison. Tesla’s minimalist sedan is larger and costs roughly 10 times what SAIC Motor, General Motors, and Liuzhou Wuling Motors decided the MINI EV was worth.
That’s right, it took the combined strength of three automakers to birth this baby and we’re wondering what it would take to get you to drive one home if they were offered here.
Anyone with an interest in odd cars probably has at least a passing fascination with Japanese kei cars. As a member of that small subset of enthusiasts, I have a long-held fantasy that involves owning a Suzuki Alto Works, Daihatsu Mira Turbo, Honda Today, or Honda Acty. But the closest North America ever got was the i-MiEV, which Mitsubishi stretched a few inches to comply with U.S. crash ratings — nullifying its official status as a kei.
Sure, most kei cars are utter garbage from a driving perspective, but their utilitarian quirkiness and microscopic road-presence are difficult to replicate on anything other than a moped. They’re also stupidly affordable, which is one of the reasons they’ve persisted in Japan.
However, that’s beginning to change now that their home country has begun taxing them into extinction. The miniature breed, brought to life specifically so budget-minded motorists can have a vehicle and always find parking, lost roughly 25 percent of its yearly volume since Japan targeted them in 2014 — resulting in a sudden annual deficit of nearly 550,000 pint-sized vehicles.
Our friend Mr. Baruth is on a bit of a motorcycle kick lately and, while he’s not quite ready to cruise the interstate highways on a Honda Gold Wing, he recently described the Wing as “one of those brilliant products that both defines a market segment and then comes to utterly dominate it.”
The same could be said for another two-wheeler, though one that couldn’t be more different from the Gold Wing. I’m talking about the Vespa scooter: Introduced in war torn Europe in 1946 and used as basic transportation by Italians rebuilding their country, the Vespa scooter became a bit of a fashion statement by the 1960s (and an essential accessory for the Mod craze in England). It’s been adopted by the developing world as basic transport in the decades since then, and is once again becoming a fashion statement in the 21st century. Virtually every motor scooter made in the last 70 years has followed the Vespa’s template.
This post, however, isn’t about a Vespa scooter. It’s about a Vespa car.
Reports last week that the Scion iQ is not long for this world came just weeks after Toyota USA issued a sales release showing that iQ volume was chopped in half in 2014.
One year earlier, Toyota’s sales report showed iQ sales falling 54% from 2012 levels.
• iQ sales decline every month
• Scion sales down 66% from 2006 high
More specifically, U.S. sales of the iQ tumbled in each of the last 24 months. Only once, in December 2012, the iQ’s first opportunity at posting a year-over-year improvement, did it do so, surging 32% compared with its first month on the market.
If you have a pulse and a willful ignorance of the local speed limit, you’re probably not interested in the Chevrolet Spark. If you’re a media-savvy hipster who’s on Facebook sixteen hours a day, you’re probably not interested in the Spark, either. If you’re a techno-geek or an eco-geek, you’re probably still not interested in the Chevrolet Spark.
If you need something to get you from point Alpha to point Beta and aren’t willing to pay too much, you might be interested in the Spark. But only after all the alternatives have been removed from your short-list as being too sensible. And even then, a lobotomy might be required to help you make up your mind.
That’s a shame, because the Spark isn’t really that bad.
Automotive enthusiasm is a hugely diverse phenomenon, and for plenty of hobbyists, the smaller the car the better. The NY Times recently caught up with a few such microcar mavens at the Microcar/Minicar World Meet, and helped shed some light on the miniaturist automotive subculture. Sure, some might call driving a Goggomobile pickup the length of Route 66 without ever exceeding 30 MPH a bit…eccentric, but the passion that these microcar maniacs exude is undeniable.New York Times Video - Embed Player
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