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Small car sales defying conventional wisdom

Samir Shabo fills up his tank Mobil gas statiChicago. Gasoline prices are climbing as rising economic growth boosts oil prices

Samir Shabo fills up his tank at a Mobil gas station in Chicago. Gasoline prices are climbing as rising economic growth boosts oil prices and temporary refinery outages crimp gasoline supplies. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Updated: February 8, 2013 12:58PM

Sales of some of the smallest cars barely budged or fell last month despite the steady rise in gas prices.

It could be a sign that one of the axioms of the car business may be weakening: Sales of tiny cars rise in tandem with angst at the pump.

Mercedes-Benz's Smart car, the two-seater that is the smallest car on sale in the U.S., saw sales fall 3 percent in January to a mere 481 cars. Toyota's four-seat Scion iQ, the next smallest, fell 21.1 percent to only 295 cars.

For cars that are slightly larger, sales are better. Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit subcompact sales were down, but Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Spark and Fiat 500 all had good sales gains, according to Autodata. As overall auto sales rose 14.1(PERCENT) last month, the "lower small" segment was up only 6.1(PERCENT).

Yet self-serve regular gas averaged $3.46 a gallon nationwide as this month began, up 17 cents from $3.29 a gallon on Jan. 1, according to AAA's price tracker.

High gas prices don't necessarily mean buyers will gravitate to the smallest cars as they have in the past, says Jessica Caldwell, senior sales analyst for Reasons:

- Gas price increases aren't as shocking. Motorists fled gas guzzlers when gas prices soared to a record $4.11 a gallon in July 2008. But drivers have become accustomed to gyrating gas prices. The cost might go up, but consumers expect it to fall again in a matter of weeks.

- The smallest cars don't necessarily have the best gas mileage. The Smart car may be the smallest car on the road, but at 36 mpg on average, it isn't that much more efficient than a much larger Ford Focus SFE, the extra-gas-saving edition of the compact, at an average 33 mpg.

"When it comes to these smaller cars, you are compromising on size but getting little or nothing when it comes to savings on fuel," Caldwell says.

Automakers certainly aren't giving up on the smallest segments. Despite mini sales of its iQ, Toyota is keeping it in the lineup, says Bill Fay, group vice president. He says it is one of the models for which Toyota has "moderate" expectations, so low sales are no surprise. The iQ is "another way for Scion to experiment."

Smart isn't leaving the market either. While the ForTwo's sales were down slightly last month, they were solidly up last year and the brand showed a concept at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month indicating the design direction for the next ForTwo.

Americans have never really warmed up to the smallest cars, as people have in Europe or Asia, says Bruce Weiner, a collector who is selling his minicar collection Feb. 15 in Madison, Ga. People are bigger today, and, "We want to be a little more comfortable." Plus, despite assurances that the smallest cars are as safe as any car on the road, they aren't, Weiner says.

"Physics override all laws," Weiner says. "I wouldn't want to be in a Smart car or little Fiat because chances are that I'm going to be hit by a pickup."

Weiner, whose collection of minicars grew to 350 at one point, drives a truck.

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