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Cars to Get Small, and Smaller

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After decades of adding bulk and power to their vehicles, the world's major automakers are making a u-turn toward small fuel-efficient cars.  Sub-compacts, sub-subcompacts, minicars, and even mini-mini cars are all in the works.

General Motors's next-generation Chevrolet small car paves the way for the company to create a new global architecture for cars with 40-mpg capabilities. Spy photographers captured the front-drive car in action, powered by a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine. Originally planned as the next-generation Cobalt subcompact due in 2010, it will now get is own name and be put forward as part of the company's worldwide eco-friendly positioning.

The design for the new high-mileage Chevy will be shared with five different body styles, including sedans, hatchbacks and minivans in markets as diverse as Korea, China and South America.  The diversity granted by the new architecture may help put GM on an equal footing with its international competitors down the line—but it raises the question of how quickly Toyota and others will move toward viable even smaller offerings.

Toyota is planning to bring its iQ mini model to America after introduction in Japan this November, and Europe next January. Japan has already proven itself as a receptive market for mini-mobiles, and Toyota says that the only thing standing between the iQ and similar success in the United States is meeting American safety standards. If all goes as planned, the iQ has the potential to give the Smart ForTwo—currently the littlest car sold in the U.S.—some serious competition in terms of fuel economy and versatility in the micro class.

For starters, the iQ is a four-passenger vehicle while the Smart only carries two. Some might quibble over the size of the iQ's backseat, and question whether the car can comfortably carry four American adults—Toyota actually told journalists it was a "three-and-a-half-seater," excusing a semi-functional rear seat.

The iQ is larger than the diminutive Smart, but not by much. Its wheelbase is a little more than five inches longer, and on the whole, the car is only about a foot longer than the Smart—11.4 inches to be exact. That said, its slightly larger size and some under-the-skin engineering wizardry will give the iQ better handling than its competitor, according to Hiroki Nakajima, the vehicle's chief engineer.

Nakajima also told Automotive News, an industry journal, that the iQ will have the best fuel economy of any Toyota other than the Prius. Although it's 33 inches shorter than the Toyota Yaris, Toyota claims the iQ has more interior space due to engineering advances such as smaller heating and air-conditioning units and high-tensile steel frames that allow thinner passenger seats. The iQ will also be priced close to the Yaris, which could make it a sub-$10,000 vehicle in base trim. The Smart starts about $2,000 higher.

Pushing the concept of small and low-cost to the extreme, a British design house recently unveiled a minicar that is about one-third smaller than the diminutive Daimler Smart ForTwo.  Last week, Gordon Murray Design's T.25 was unveiled—well, at least in the form of a napkin sketch. The product's goal is to deliver up to 75 mile-per-gallon fuel economy along with the capability of obtaining 80 miles per hour on a freeway.

Details are a bit thin at this stage, but Gordon Murray Design is shopping around its plans to auto companies in hopes of finding a company willing to license and build the car—according to Mohr Davidow Ventures, the Silicon Valley venture capital company providing the key financial backing. They estimate that the initial car—and other variations in the works—could be in production as early as 2011 or 12.

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Cars to Get Small, and Smaller