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VIDEO: Cruze Turbo introduced, just one of many mini choices

Updated: January 14, 2014 2:18PM

Small cars are nothing new to the Chicago Auto Show. Even at the 1960 show, a selection of compact cars was all the rage. Those compacts look pretty big by today’s standards, and the U.S. has lagged behind the rest of the world in adopting the small car.

Perhaps it was originally our wide-open spaces and cheaper fuel, but now the necessary factors have aligned for a new mini-car craze. Pressure on consumer wallets is not the only fuel-related angle. Manufacturers are facing ever-increasing fuel economy requirements at home and abroad, so buyers are finding more choices than ever.

Since the rest of the world has been enjoying fine small cars for some time, many of the new U.S. offerings are based on existing overseas products, tweaked for American preferences, which are always changing.

Americans may have once excused the micro machine for a lack of refinement, but today’s offerings are not the econoboxes of yore. These diminutive vehicles are no longer mainly the choice of entry-level buyers, but of both new and seasoned buyers looking for a quality machine with available amenities previously expected only in the larger classes.

Looking at 2012 sales figures, small cars were some of the largest gainers. Smart, which has had a difficult time finding acceptance with their quirky Fortwo, saw a 92 percent sales increase for the year. Fiat, after a lackluster launch in mid-2011, saw their petite 500 end a successful year with a 59 percent year-over-year increase in December sales. And Toyota’s Scion division saw a 49 percent better sales year with help from their city-sized iQ.

Japanese automakers are some of the most seasoned small car veterans. At last month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Honda Motor Company’s president and CEO Takanobu Ito said, “I believe that small cars will be our future.” He said small cars are key in plans to nearly double total global Honda sales by 2017.

Getting small at Honda isn’t limited to cars, as Ito’s Detroit comments preceded the introduction of the Urban SUV Concept. Based on the Honda Fit, it is a full nine inches shorter than the Honda CR-V, and scheduled for production in 2014.

Detroit also saw the introduction of the 2013 Nissan Versa Note, a new hatchback version of the Versa sedan, one of the best-selling subcompacts. Arriving in showrooms this summer, the Versa Note will offer class-leading cargo room, and 40 miles per gallon when equipped with the continuously variable transmission.

Chevrolet found itself with a hit on its hands when it introduced the subcompact Sonic to replace the Aveo, then followed up last year with the even smaller Spark mini car. The 2013 Spark is one of the more versatile tiny cars with a five-door hatchback configuration. Powered by a 1.25-liter engine, the Spark is rated up to 38 miles per gallon highway by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Diminutive dimensions are the natural choice for an electric vehicle, as the lower mass means it will be less of an impact on the already limited range; even development of gasoline cars is seeing a major emphasis on weight reduction to increase fuel mileage.

At the Los Angeles Auto Show in November, Chevrolet announced the Spark EV, an all-electric powered Spark going on sale this summer as a 2014 model. Since the electric Spark is an adaptation of an existing gasoline-powered car it’s significant as so far the other electric-only highway worthy vehicles available from major automakers at present, the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i, are purpose-built models.

Another already small car launching an electric version is the Fiat 500e. Last month the EPA rated the Fiat 500e at 108 highway MPGe (how far a vehicle can travel on the electric equivalent of a gallon of gas), which is the highest of any electric vehicle on the U.S. market. With an EPA tested 87 miles of driving range, Fiat said it leads its class of EVs from high-volume manufacturers. The 2013 Fiat 500e starts its rollout in the second quarter of this year.

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