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Subcompact versus compact sales

With gas prices on the rise, U.S. consumers are turning to fuel-efficient compact vehicles, according to a study conducted by GfK Automotive. Surprisingly, demand for subcompact vehicles has remained relatively low despite an uptick in pump prices.

According to GfK Automotive, compact vehicles accounted for 18.1 percent of what it refers to as "six-month demand" in May of 2011. That compares to just 3.6 percent for subcompact vehicles. GfK Automotive found that there's a strong correlation between surges in gas prices and increased demand for subcompact and compact vehicles. However, when given the choice between a subcompact with a fuel economy rating of 40 miles per gallon highway and a compact that returns identical numbers, U.S. consumers strongly favor the roomier vehicle.

Doug Scott, senior vice president of consulting at GfK Automotive, says that:
While consumers are looking at smaller vehicles due to high gas prices, they aren't willing to go all the way down to a subcompact car. Consumers are discovering that newer compact cars offer the comfort features before only reserved to larger cars, combined with the fuel economy that was only available in much smaller cars.
Guess sometimes size does matter!

[Source: GfK Automotive]
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Size Does Matter - Pain at the Pump Driving Sales of Smaller Vehicles

NEW YORK, June 21, 2011 – As the price of gas remains high, consumers are increasingly looking for more cost-effective and fuel-efficient vehicles, with compact cars rapidly gaining in demand. Researchers from GfK Custom Research North America's Automotive sector found that, while demand for compact cars is high, that same demand doesn't carry over into smaller sub-compact cars or Alternative Energy Vehicles (AEVs), including hybrid and electric vehicles.

In May, 2011, compact car accounted for 18.1 percent of six-month light vehicle demand compared to 3.6 percent for subcompact cars. AEV demand currently represents only 9.4 percent of light vehicle demand.

GfK's Automotive Intentions and Purchases Study found a strong relationship between surges in gas prices over the past four years, and increases in demand for sub-compact and compact vehicles. But why aren't consumers rushing to alternative engine vehicles in these times? GfK's researchers find that AEV demand is hindered by three major obstacles – lower familiarity, higher purchase prices, and lack of convenience.

"For the average consumer looking to purchase a new vehicle, especially during these times of rising gas prices, they see more value in smaller vehicles with traditional gas engines – some of which approach 40 mpg - rather than hybrids or even electric vehicles," said Doug Scott, senior vice president, consulting, GfK Automotive. "However, while consumers are looking at smaller vehicles due to high gas prices, they aren't willing to go all the way down to a subcompact car. Consumers are discovering that newer compact cars offer the comfort features before only reserved to larger cars, combined with the fuel economy that was only available in much smaller cars.

GfK also identified the factors that automakers must overcome to move buyers towards purchasing AEVs. Demand for compact cars remains higher than AEVs since consumers prefer compact cars over AEVs because of cost, convenience, and familiarity.

"There are certain emotional benefits that AEV drivers feel that automakers need to communicate to a wider audience of potential customers," said Scott. "The feeling of pride associated with owning a vehicle that is environmentally friendly has resonated with consumers inclined towards "green" behaviors, and automakers must develop their marketing strategies to communicate both the tangible benefits, while also addressing the obstacles consumers face with purchasing AEVs."

About GfK's Automotive Intentions and Purchases Study

The GfK Automotive Intentions and Purchases Study is the longest-running continuous pre-purchase tracking instrument in the automotive category. Established in the early 1980s, it has become the industry standard for gauging what specific makes and models consumers want, and when they intend to make their purchase. The Automotive Intentions and Purchases Study (AIP) is a monthly and quarterly tracking study that monitors consumer demand for new cars and trucks in the US market. The AIP Study is continuously in the field, using a blended panel of online sample sources. GfK receives approximately 200,000 completed surveys each quarter, which includes 90,000 new vehicle intenders. The AIP Study has been conducted continuously since 1982.

About GfK's Barometer of Automotive Awareness and Imagery Study

The GfK Barometer of Automotive Awareness and Imagery Study (Image Barometer) is a comprehensive look at key measures of automotive brand equity on a segment-by-segment basis. The Image Barometer process probes into the deep structure of automotive consumers' attitudes, opinions and perceptions of all the vehicles within each carefully defined segment. Each sample is comprised of a representative cross-section of new US vehicle intenders identified in the GfK Automotive Intentions and Purchases Study, balanced to reflect the make/model composition of the segment it represents.

Quarterly sample sizes are 450 for make segments and 300 for model segments. The Image Barometer has been conducted continuously since 1982.

About GfK Automotive

For over 25 years, GfK Automotive has been the preeminent provider of product, brand and consumer research and consulting to the global automotive industry. Counting every major European and North American carmaker among its client base, GfK Automotive research consultants deliver integrated information and insights to the automotive community.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 33 Comments
      Marco Polo
      • 3 Months Ago
      The reality is 'fantastic fuel economy' may be of interest to a small sector of the car buying public, but most buyers are far more interested in other aspects of automobile appeal. This means that auto-manufacturers can see where the profit is, and as you know, auto-makers are businesses not altruistic institutions!
      Bryan Lund
      • 3 Months Ago
      Yes, the compact size is the smallest size of car I would be comfortable driving. I drive a 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS and any smaller car would be uncomfortable...unless it's a manual-trannied 2012 Mazda 2 or 2012 Kia Rio hatchback. Just kidding. Sort of. Mitsubishi and Nissan are starting work on their collaborative Global Small Car and I will take more than just a meander-us glance at that pup when it comes off the assembly line and reaches an inland Pacific NW dealer near me. Of course, that car is a subcompact...but if the bodystyle is irresistible I will give it an eagle-eye look or two even though it its own silly self is dinky.
      Spec
      • 3 Months Ago
      It is amazing how short-sighted people are. A typical car lasts 10 to 15 years. And these people are making decisions based on monthly day to day fluctuations in gas prices. People need to realize that we have to start thinking ahead.
        • 3 Months Ago
        @Spec
        My look at the data says that the gas price has not affected the purchase of compacts or subcompacts at all. It would be cool to plot this to show the correlation between price and sales. I suspect it is kind of low.
          • 3 Months Ago
          And I just noticed there really isn't a spike due to cash for clunkers.
        • 3 Months Ago
        @Spec
        Exactly! Fuel prices have been on a roller coaster for the last 40 years, yet people are surprised and indignant whenever gas prices rise. I could understand if it's 1975, but we haven't had stable fuel prices since the 70s. How easily people forget.
      mylexicon
      • 3 Months Ago
      There is no reason to buy a subcompact in the US. Unlike Euro subcompacts US subcompacts make the same mpg as compacts, but they offer less space and fewer features. If we got the Euro engines, subcompacts would be more attractive b/c economy would improve.
        Guillaume Séguin
        • 3 Months Ago
        @mylexicon
        totally right there; My Euro-sub-compact (a mighty Clio 1.2) has integrated satnav, alloys, climate, cruise, leather bits... they can get you a certain level of comfort making city drives pretty enjoyable
      EV Now
      • 3 Months Ago
      Hmmm .... isn't the operative phrase "40 miles per gallon highway and a compact that returns identical numbers". If a Compact and SUV have identical MPGs, people will prefer SUVs - esp. if they aren't told how much more the SUV would cost.
      tantareanujellob
      • 3 Months Ago
      They missed the point completely. Subcompacts today are actually bigger than the compacts from 10 or 20 years ago. All the subcompacts sold today have the interior volume compacts and many compact cars have the interior volume of a midsize. FAIL again autoblog.
        bvz
        • 3 Months Ago
        @tantareanujellob
        Huh? The article was about a study that shows U.S. drivers are purchasing current compacts at a higher rate than current subcompacts. The article (and perhaps the study) postulate that that is because, in the U.S., subcompacts don't offer any higher fuel economy over compacts. The article's point had nothing to do with whether cars are increasing in size over time. Cars could now all be made of banana ice cream floats and scaled up to 200 times their former size but it would have no relevance to the point they were trying to make. What point, exactly, was it that they "failed" at getting across?
        Kai F. Lahmann
        • 3 Months Ago
        @tantareanujellob
        That's wrong for US cars. Yes, in Europe you had a 3,6m first generation VW Golf called "compact class" in the 1970s. But a US "compact" of that time was the Ford Maverick - having between 4,5 and 5m. And that one was already downsized over the Falcon... This also has the effect of everything in the USA being sized for cars having _at least_ the size of a modern Chevy Impala.
      bvz
      • 3 Months Ago
      I, personally, would be more interested in a subcompact but for the only reason that parking is tight where I live. Every extra inch is one more spot I won't be able to fit into. If that were not a major constraint on my day to day life, I can only think of one reason why I would prefer the subcompact. Price. Otherwise, the mileage is the same (in the U.S.). The quality of materials is higher. They are roomier and safer. There is more length to fit interesting styling into. They tend to handle just as well if not better. But then again, for me, parking is a premium and for that reason I personally would choose the subcompact the next time I purchase a car. But that is not the norm in here in the U.S.
      Eliot Lemoncelli
      • 3 Months Ago
      . In this scenario the larger car will always win. Price and body style may make a difference but we don't know that- all we have to go on is MPG and class size and given that the larger car will always win. Price or differences in fuel economy would make this a far more interesting question. Once customers have to weigh size of vehicle, fuel economy and price all in one then we get an accurate picture of what the customer wants. Given two cars of identical price and fuel economy, class an body style come into play. At 25k and 40mpg, I'd much rather have a Ford Focus hatchback then a Smart Car. The Ford gets equal or better gas mileage, and I still have room to pick up my teammate and throw our hockey gear in the back for a day at the rink.
        emperor koku
        • 3 Months Ago
        @Eliot Lemoncelli
        One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the real-world fuel economy is usually different, even though they post similar EPA numbers. For example, many reviews are getting 26-28 combined mpg in the Focus, while getting 31-33 in the Fiesta, in spite of virtually identical EPA numbers. Not a world-shattering difference, but something to keep in mind.
          • 3 Months Ago
          @emperor koku
          I have a 2008 Focus and very often get above the EPA numbers by driving it easy. When I get on it, of course, the mileage suffers. But on a long stroll that car easily gets into the upper 30 mpgs. I've seen it get over 40 around 70 mph.
      • 3 Months Ago
      Why in the world would I buy a subcompact car that gets 35-37mpg when I could just as easily buy a higher-safety rated and higher resale-valued compact car that ALSO gets 35-37mpg. Consider for example the Chevy Cruze and Hyundai Elantra, both are compact and get 40+mpg! This is beyond even a Smart car. This trend is very easy to understand.
        bscmth
        • 3 Months Ago
        Precisely!!! There is no advantage to buying a subcompact car. Price might be one, but that is more relavent in an emerging market where buyers are more price sensitive. Perhaps if you live in a highly congested urban area, but not all people in NY or places like it even buy a car.
        Chris M
        • 3 Months Ago
        It's surprising how many cars are smaller than a Prius, yet have worse fuel economy. The Leaf is even bigger, and yet gets even better fuel economy! With the introduction of plug-ins, we'll start seeing even large cars getting better fuel economy than some sub-compacts! Or course, a sub-compact plug-in would get the best fuel economy...
          2 Wheeled Menace
          • 3 Months Ago
          @Chris M
          David, i don't agree. Look at the Honda CRX and Geo Metros as examples of a small cars that can be streamlined to return excellent fuel economy. Those cars could get 50mpg+ highway.. that was before hybrids, variable valve timing, direct injection, direct ignition, etc.
          • 3 Months Ago
          @Chris M
          I said it is easier in a bigger car. I did not say streamlining is impossible in a small car. Whatever you do there are design compromises, and if you go for heavy streamlining in a small package you tend to impact accomodation. I am thinking of the VW Polo vs the Ford Fiesta here, where the latter compromises rear accomodation by the back sloping away quite sharply. That has not stopped the Polo getting excellent mileage though, but they have had to excel in other areas to make up for the boxy shape. At the extreme you have the Smart car, where due to the very compact packaging there is almost no flexibility to streamline.
          • 3 Months Ago
          @Chris M
          Streamlining is a lot easier in a slightly larger car. Many of the really small ones suffer on highways.
        2 Wheeled Menace
        • 3 Months Ago
        What sucks is that manufacturers often don't put their high tech engines into the smaller cars, making them quite a bit more efficient than their larger counterparts. In the 90's it was the other way around. You got the highest tech motors in the smaller cars, and the low tech motors in the big cars. Look around and you will see this trend. They don't want to sell the smallest cars in thelr ineups because they just can't make the same profit margin on them. But lower weight, smaller size, and better aerodynamics would make the subcompact cars get fantastic efficiency if the same motors were in the engine bay.
      Ziv
      • 3 Months Ago
      GM has the Volt and the Cruze, plus 40 other cars, some of them built by Nissan, Acura, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Dodge and you can drive them all at the Fed Ex Field just outside Washington DC today and tomorrow. It is really interesting to drive the Volt then the Cruze, both are excellent cars and surprisingly to me, the Cruze measured up to the Maxima. Driving the Volt on a 1 mile course around the stadium in CS mode was really interesting as well. The Volt isn't a small compact, but it does have relatively limited back seat space, which is too bad, but its boot is enormous. And it drives much quicker than it 8.6 second 0-60 would make you think. I gather its 0-40 is much better than its 0-60 vs. its compact competition. That having been said, the biggest thrill of the day is getting to take 2 laps around a track in a 2011 Corvette Grand Sport with the driving coach telling me, "Stand on the gas until I tell you to hit the brakes." That was a RUSH!
      Captain Spadaro
      • 3 Months Ago
      File this under '**** we already knew but for some reason needed a study to tell us'.
      2 Wheeled Menace
      • 3 Months Ago
      It's nice to not have to contortion your way into a car. Narrowness is the real problem. This is why i'm excited about cars like the Scion IQ. It's supposedly going to be wider than the Yaris. I think the trick is to not jam as many doors and seats as possible into a tiny little car, more so make a 2-3 person car comfortable. That would make subcompacts a lot more palatable.
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