High gas prices and concerns about the environment are sending American car and truck buyers toward a consumer psychology that has never found much traction in the United States: minimalism. But attitudes could change if new generations of buyers decide that they can make a social and fashion statement with a single automotive purchase of a small, cheap car.
With all the news about rising gasoline prices and mounting worries over global warming, one might get the impression that the country is headed toward the era of the minimalist car buyer.
That's the kind of consumer who is absolutely thrilled to be able to get from point A to B in a cheap car at the lowest possible cost and with the fewest possible emissions, driving to the rescue of the economy and the environment in the process.
Some consumers say they look for cheap cars that offer reliable transportation, no more, no less, when looking to purchase a vehicle. If the feds were to push some form of corporate average fuel economy standards impracticably high, nearly everyone could end up a minimalist. Short of that, minimalism could hold its historic ground and even gain some traction.
Since the industry's very beginnings, automakers have pursued the minimalist buyer with vehicles as varied as the Model T, the early Volkswagen Beetle and the short-lived Crosleys and Henry Js of the 1950s. Before offering a broader range of flashier products, GM's Saturn division successfully tapped into this market for more than a decade.
Less is more, as the saying goes. And now, for a new generation of environmentally hip consumers, less is green and cool as well.
It's hard to define minimalist precisely, but it has generally meant small and cheap cars. It's also a way of describing basic, plain-vanilla transportation. But today minimalism has gone upscale, and, in the case of the smart car from Mercedes-Benz, it is more minimal than ever.
The super-small smart car (with a lower-case s to make sure no one misses the point) is due out in the United States in 2008 and weighs a third as much as a 4,750-pound Buick Enclave cross-over SUV and about 1,000 pounds less than the Mini Cooper, the reigning small car standard-bearer.
Except for their size, neither the Mini Cooper nor the smart car bears much resemblance to austere, almost primitive cheap cars from the past like the hapless Yugo or the endearing Volkswagen Beetle.
The Mini Cooper, for example, has standard features like variable power assisted steering and options like navigation systems and heated seats. To Yugo drivers, any warmth emanating from the seat cushions would surely have meant something was seriously amiss.
Those old minimalist, cheap cars often had a tough time of it. After a strong run in the 1960s, the obsolescent VW Beetle fell victim to new U.S. and Japanese competitors like the Ford Pinto and the Toyota Corolla.
Renault made a valiant but ill-fated effort to gain a foothold in the U.S. market with its altogether respectable but still minimalist Alliance model in the 1980s.
"Minimalist cars have come and gone," said Bob Casey, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford, an auto museum in Dearborn, Mich. "Most of them haven't done all that well." Consumers are often tempted to buy a cheap used car instead.
In 1987, lowering the prevailing cheap car bar, the Yugo came to these shores with a $3990 price tag and the then respectable 29 miles per gallon highway. That's not counting the two to three liters of slivovitz that you had to consume before daring to drive one.
A long pull of Yugoslavia's traditional plum brandy would have been especially welcome to drivers after 1989. That was the year a strong wind sent a Yugo driven by 24-year-old Leslie Ann Pluhar flying off Michigan's Mackinac Bridge and into the treacherous straits below. It was the first time a vehicle had been blown off the then three-decade-old suspension bridge.
Few events could have better captured the American consumer's long-standing ambivalence about automobile minimalism. And it's still an open question as to whether most U.S. consumers are ready for it now.
"Most Americans will buy the biggest car they can afford," Casey said. Automakers aren't thrilled with low small car profit margins either, he said. As a result, their small cars tend to get larger. "That has tended to happen with all the compact cars," he said.
Arlene Brunner, president of Automotive Insight Inc., based in Bonita Springs, Fla., doubts that many truly minimalist car owners really exist.
"People say, 'I only want basic transportation, I want the price to be low, and I want good gas mileage.'" said Brunner, who did market research for the smart car, "But then you ask them what they are going to buy, and it's not that kind of car."
Brunner says small cars like the smart car don't typically attract minimalists. "They are attractive to people who usually have three cars already in the household. They are looking for a toy, something that would be cool to take to the train station or drive around town."
An interest in basic transportation doesn't always translate into a desire for extremely small cars either. Much of the time, consumers buy new cars with a specific purpose in mind.
"Essentially, I view a vehicle as a tool," said Larry Peplin, a commercial photographer and owner of Peplin Photographic in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich. "It's an important part of my business since I have to travel so much."
He now hauls his equipment around in a seven-year-old VW Passat station wagon, but may choose a crossover like a Ford Edge as his next purchase. A Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent or Chevrolet Aveo wouldn't meet his needs.
Brunner says the true minimalists typically buy cheap used cars, although she acknowledges that Saturn buyers, "a small percentage of the market," may have turned to that model in the past because "they did not want to buy someone else's problems."
Marketing studies suggest that it's raw economic necessity, not consumer preference, that drives many people to buy simple, small cars.
Claritas, the San Diego-based market research firm, has found that vehicles like the basically minimalist, small car Kia Rio, starting at about $10,700, are a good fit for "young singles and single parents" making $22,000 a year. Similarly, small cars like the Hyundai Accent, starting at $10,415, would suit urban retirees earning about $26,000 a year.
But the Claritas data also points to signs that the market may be changing. More upscale minimalist offerings are well suited to young, environmentally conscious consumers. The Mini Cooper, for example, is emblematic of what Claritas calls the "Bohemian Mix." This group consists of "young mobile urbanites" making a median household income of $51,000 a year and representing more than 2 million households nationally.
Of course, starting at $18,050, the roughly 2,500-pound Mini is somewhat more minimalist in size than in price. The smart car starts at under $12,000, but that figure is still at least $1,000 more than the base prices for the larger Hyundai Accent and the Kia Rio.
Richard E. Ipsen, CEO of DiversiForm in Beaverton, Ore., helps dealerships target their communications to specific buyer segments and manage customer relationships. He believes many young consumers want to drive a classy car that's easy on the environment. "To them, classy means something with a little bit of a 'euro' trend, something with a Starbucks, gelato and 'green' feel all combined into one vehicle."
"Starbucks is not the cheapest coffee in the world, and a minimalist car doesn't need to be the cheapest car," he said.