When gas prices rise, knee-jerk consumerism means that sales of small cars increase in lockstep, right? Well, sometimes – but that's not always the case. Ward's Auto reports that sales of subcompact car sales in America are off despite fuel prices pushing and holding at $3.50 to $4.00 a gallon across the country. According to the report, the "Lower Small" segment has seen a 2.6-percent sales decline since October, while fuel prices have been on the rise. Despite their comparatively thirsty appetite for fuel, the industry publication notes that sales of large crossovers are up a whopping 61 percent over the same time period.

Part of the sales stories may center on the boom/bust cycle that comes as a result of new or aging models in each segment – the full-size CUV segment has received a raft of new models, including the refreshed Lambda triplets from General Motors, the Nissan Pathfinder and even derivatives like the new Sport model in the Ford Explorer family. Yet it isn't as if America's subcompact segment is stagnant – as Ward's points out, most of the players are two years old or less.

Sales losers in the first quarter of the year include the Mazda2 (pictured – down 51.9 percent), Toyota Yaris (-27.9 percent) and Hyundai Accent (-24.7), though other models including the Kia Rio and Chevrolet Sonic slipped as well. Conversely, the Nissan Versa and Ford Fiesta held their own, registering sales up 11.6 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively.

Part of subcompacts' sales problem may be due to the fact that those same automakers offer larger compact models whose fuel economy figures are comparable to that of their smaller counterparts. Further, pricing differences may not amount to all that much between the models – particularly in leasing situations where compact cars' typically command higher residual values.


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  • 148 Comments
      lne937s
      • 2 Years Ago
      I think this shows some bad marketing decisions on the part of many automakers. Most subcompacts have tried to go more upscale either in terms of being sporty, having an upscale interior, quirky styling, etc. So they are all trying to compete for a semi-premium subcompact market, where there is less price differentiation from the class up. Yes, this may only be a few grand more than the Versa, but it also ends up being very close in price to compact cars. Meanwhile, the Versa is clearly going for a cost/value proposition. It is the only true economy car, providing basic, solid transportation at a low price. And it has been the top selling subcompact for the past few years and is the only one with a meaningful increase in sales this year. The success of Dacia in Europe is similar. And with no real competition at that price point for subcompacts, and a new, more stylish and comfortable hatchback coming out with an even lower base price than the current hatchback, Versa sales are likely to grow even further.
      Jack
      • 2 Years Ago
      People hate high gas prices, but many of them have yet to see their pocketbooks hit bottom. They can still afford to not give up everything they want. Beside that, it's not as if subcompacts get incredibly better mileage. Many of them actually get the same or lower mileage than some larger, more expensive compact and mid-size cars. It's no surprise that subcompacts aren't selling so great.
      MAX
      • 2 Years Ago
      I fit fine in compacts, subcompacts not so much. I bet the new Fiat 500L stirs things up, it's a modern version of the first generation Scion xB. Amazing change in that Chevy and Ford are strong players in this market. Even Buick now has a strong entry.
      DraGuLa
      • 2 Years Ago
      Gas prices were on the rise over the stated period and sales dropped. Now gas prices are dropping (87 is 3.14 in my area of the SE), so I would expect incentives to rise on sub-compacts. So, if you\'re in the market, good for you!
      Grendal
      • 2 Years Ago
      The late great Greg Giraldo had the explanation for this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64BUF1vTiws Spoiler. He drops a few f-bombs and such.
      kingrat001
      • 2 Years Ago
      What's happened is the "Sticker Shock" of higher gas prices has gone away and a lot of people don't want to drive little, uncomfortable, and almost always, bad looking, little cars.
      Chris
      • 2 Years Ago
      For many, subcompacts are hard to justify in this market, especially when you have compacts and mid-size cars that offer comparable, or in some cases better, fuel economy, and a little more room and style. Subcompacts make the most sense for someone who is single, a high school/college student, live in a compact urban environment, or all of the above. They're the types of vehicles people opt for to meet their very basic transportation needs. If you have a family, a house in the suburbs, and like to take them on occasional road trips to the beach, or to visit Grandma and Grandpa, then suddenly mid-size sedan a lot better. Another factor to consider is income. Folks with a little disposable income are more likely to overlook this segment all together because they can afford to get into something that meets a few of their desires as well. With the exception of sports cars, really small cars have pretty much always been the cars people settled for, not wanted.
        kingrat001
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Chris
        I call tiny cars "Penalty Boxes" since a couple of my friends got divorced, and lost pretty much everything, and wound up driving horrible little cars. It was the penalty for marrying the wrong woman, and not getting a decent lawyer..
      BipDBo
      • 2 Years Ago
      Larger vehicles have seen big improvements in mpg, at least rated sticker mpg. People aren't as worried fuel consumption when looking at a large vehicle as they were when the only options were guzzlers like Suburbans and Expeditions. When comparing a subcompact car like a Fiesta to compact like the Focus, or even a large-midsize car like a Fusion, there really isn't a huge mpg difference, especially for the highway number, which is unfortunately the only number that most people look at, if they look at all.
      • 2 Years Ago
      [blocked]
      • 2 Years Ago
      [blocked]
      Mike Pulsifer
      • 2 Years Ago
      For those who buy subcompacts (including myself), it's not all about fuel efficiency. Small cars have their own additional benefits. They're far more nimble in parking lots, for one. They're easier to parallel park. For 95%+ of what I need a car for, it (FIAT 500 for me) does exactly what I need it to do without the things that bugged me about larger vehicles. For example, I just brought home a week and a half's worth of groceries in the back without folding the seats down. For the other 5%, there's delivery or renting that Lowe's truck for the hour and half. I truly believe that if people spent a few minutes more thinking about heir true needs, we'd be seeing A LOT more small cars on the road. Heck, seeing that new "small" Buick CUV on the road the other day made me smile. Another person that gets it.
        Dave
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Mike Pulsifer
        My Miata is nimble and easy to park. But I must admit that cargo space is lacking. ;)
          Mr E
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Dave
          What are you talking about? It's practically like a pick-up truck.... http://stuffonmymiata.blogspot.com/
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Dave
          [blocked]
          carguy1701
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Dave
          >Miata >unsafe What the **** are you smoking?
      Skicat
      • 2 Years Ago
      How about the fact that a significant audience for these vehicles (young first-time buyers) is drying up. Can't believe the number of young people who couldn't care less about DRIVING, much less about what kind of car they drive. Also, big cities are seeing car sharing take off, further compromising the sales market for these vehicles. Why buy, insure, maintain and park a car when you can rent one for a few hours whenever you need it?
        Zoom
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Skicat
        Don't forget those graduating college can barely afford to pay their student loans, let alone buy a new car.
        express2day
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Skicat
        I think it's more of an economics thing than a lack of interest thing.
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