Commentary

Car buyers are practical, much more so than journalists.

I recall during a fuel crisis long ago we were doing stories about people who paddled canoes across the Potomac to save gasoline and read by candle to save electricity.

That’s what editors like: sensational nonsense. Typical consumers are more realistic.

Car buyers know the world is changing, but tiny cars, such as the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and even smaller DaimlerChrysler Smart, aren’t practical for most U.S. consumers. Sales in this segment were up 85% in 2006, but still totaled only 274,000 units.

What consumers are buying is smaller utilitarian vehicles. Ward’s classifies them as small or middle cross/utility vehicles. Combined sales in these two segments were almost 1.7 million units last year.

I have a new segment I’ll call SBPs: smaller but practical. Whatever we call them, they are a pivotal part of today’s vehicle market.

They usually carry high roofs and high seats, so they are easy to see out of. They also are short, about 170 ins. (432 cm) long, compared with 190 ins. (483 cm) for a Ford Explorer.

Usually, they are powered by a 4-cyl. engine, but a 6-cyl. sometimes is an option.

Most important is price. We’re talking $20,000.

Many of the new CUVs, such as the Ford Edge and Saturn Outlook, run $25,000 to $40,000, as do established models such as the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot.

The smaller ones, such as the Ford Escape and the Toyota RAV4 with a V-6, cost up to $27,000.

The SBP vehicles I’m writing about cost less, which probably is a major part of the appeal.

  • Chevy HHR: 101,298 sales last year; 176 ins. (447 cm) long, 4-cyl. engine; no all-wheel drive.
  • Chrysler PT Cruiser: 126,148 sales last year not including the convertible, 169 ins. (429 cm) long; available only with a 4-cyl. engine and no AWD.
  • Toyota Matrix: 115,061 sales and only 4-cyl. engine. There’s a new slicker one, to be renamed, too, coming by the end of this year. And the Pontiac Vibe, a sibling of the Matrix.

Among them:

The problem with conventional CUVs is they start out small and then grow. The old Toyota RAV4 was 167 ins. (424 cm) long, but the new one grew to 181 ins. (460 cm) and added a whopper 269-hp V-6 option.

At least the Honda CR-V, with 170,000 sales last year, remains strictly a 4-cyl.

Other vehicles that blur the line between CUV and SBP are the Honda Element, Dodge Caliber, new Kia Rondo, Nissan Rogue (coming this fall), Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage and Scion xB.

One of the few auto makers without a U.S. entry in the SBP class is Ford, and that’s a shame. Ford should cobble one from the Focus platform, just as GM tricked out the HHR from its small-car Cobalt architecture.

Ford easily could have turned its Focus wagon into an SBP by raising the roof, but it killed it. Instead, Ford reportedly is looking at importing a version of its popular European C-Max, a solution which promises to be much more expensive.

There is nothing sexy about these SBPs. Nothing headline-grabbing like hydrogen or hybrid-electric powertrains.

Practical Americans are flocking to these smaller, fuel-saving vehicles simply because they meet their needs.

Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and a former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.