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Automakers snazz up small cars to lure wary buyers

The small cars premiering at the Geneva Motor Show last week were not the boxy fuel-savers of yesteryear.

European automakers have downsized SUVs and put all the luxury they can into premium subcompacts as they seek to dazzle consumers back into confidence after years of crisis.

European manufacturers are facing one of their toughest seasons yet. Unemployment and austerity measures have made consumers in Europe skittish, factories are idle, and yet there is little automakers can do to close plants without upsetting politicians at home.

Their response, on view at the Geneva auto show on Tuesday, is to come on strong with small cars that pack value, with less of an emphasis on alternative powertrains such as electric and hybrid autos that have dominated recent editions of the Geneva event.

“Three years ago everybody was caught with their pants down and they are worried that it could happen again if the euro collapses or China stops buying,” said Frank Rinderknecht, CEO of Rinspeed, a Swiss design company that specializes in developing new concepts for the automotive industry.

Even the premium makers have put the emphasis on their smaller cars. Mercedes is looking for younger buyers ― read under 50 ― for the new A-Class. Audi rolled out the third-generation in its A3 series, which 15 years ago was the first compact in the premium market. And Volvo launched its V40, a five-door hatchback that adds a compact design to the company’s lineup of saloons, station wagons and SUVs.

From the mass-market producers, Ford premiered the B-Max, a family-friendly subcompact, while Fiat launched its 500L, a larger version of the tiny 500 city car that is being made in Serbia. Toyota has put a little snarl on the hybrid version of its best-selling Yaris to give it a more aggressive look.

Meanwhile Peugeot is turning automotive convention on its head by making the new 208 smaller than its predecessor.

The launches are a far cry from the days when small cars were spartan money-savers. While remaining easy on fuel consumption and light on emissions, these models are tooled with the latest safety features and touches of luxury to spruce up the compact and subcompact segments that comprise some 80 percent of the European market.

“Remember when smaller cars used to be cheap and cheerful? Now the consumers want the finest quality, the finest fuel efficiency, safety and design,” said Ford CEO Alan Mulally.

The problem for European mass market automakers is that consumer demand has shriveled under the pressure of the sovereign debt crisis: this year sales are expected shrink nearly 5 percent to 12.9 million units, according to the Center for Automotive Research. (AP)
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