One would think 2008′s economic meltdown followed by subsequent gas spikes would have sent car shoppers straight to dealerships to trade in their big trucks and SUVs for the smaller rides European drivers choose. And to some degree, that assumption would be correct.
But not in 2012.
In 2008, Americans saw gas prices hit $4 per gallon for the first time. But according to data gathered from research company AutoPacific, Americans are accustomed to it now. Additionally, Americans are back to buying the same-sized vehicles as they did before high gas prices and the Great Recession. Improved technology and a resurgent economy are the primary drivers for this.
Take, for instance, a pre-recession 2007 Chevrolet TrailBlazer. In five-passenger guise with its most-efficient engine, a 4.2-liter six-cylinder capable of producing 291 horsepower, it could only muster an EPA-estimated 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway. While down significantly on power, a similarly sized 2013 Chevrolet Equinox with its base 172-horsepower four-cylinder is capable of 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway. Even its most fuel-consuming guise, optioned with a 301-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 and all-wheel drive still allows it to muster 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway—better than any similar TrailBlazer model. The same can be said for the much larger Chevrolet Traverse that both out-powers and gets better fuel economy than the seven-passenger TrailBlazer EXT.
Both the Equinox and Traverse are lighter than the vehicles they replaced, mostly due to switching from heavier, more truck-like construction to unibody architecture like most passenger cars. Direct fuel-injection has also made engines get better fuel economy. This has given buyers the ability to buy vehicles that are close in size to older models without having to sacrifice for fuel economy like they used to. Traditional truck and full-size van sales are up, too.
But what about compact and subcompact cars?
While compacts and subcompacts are picking up steam, they’re doing very little to offset the move towards bigger cars. Additionally, what we call a compact car today isn’t really all that small. A 2012 Honda Civic has nearly identical interior dimensions to a 1997 Accord sedan. Subcompact cars like the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris are similar in size to compact cars of just a decade ago, making our classifications somewhat of a misnomer.
After several years of talk about downsizing cars, making them smaller and more like what’s seen in Europe, it’s possible to see now that that’s simply not happening. What is, though, is that our technology is getting to the point where automakers are able to build the sorts of vehicles shoppers want without having to compromise on fuel economy.