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November 15, 2010

A forty-something dad from the Seattle area is attending his first Seattle Auto Show since 1975, when it was held at the Kingdome. In Jimmy’s company is his daughter, Molly, on the cusp of fifteen. Still a full year from driving, Molly wants her photograph taken in Hyundai’s $30K Genesis coupe, but mentions – when asked – that the newly introduced Mazda2 might be just the thing as she gets behind the wheel, a newly licensed driver.

In the pursuit of new drivers and, not incidentally, additional business, the almost inborn hesitancy on the part of Detroit, Europe and Asia to offer Americans truly small cars is almost gone. For fathers, such as Jimmy, considering a car purchase “all sorts of things are factored in…reliability, warranty, security; it’s especially important for daughters.” The pre-owned market might be a consideration, but having bought a new Mazda3 last year for Molly’s older sister, this dad seems set to pull the trigger on the smallest Mazda in the very near future.

Should Molly wander beyond the Mazda showroom while shopping, any number of carmakers will welcome her. And that welcome will showcase a growing number of available – and affordable – models, priced from $15K to approximately $18K. Fully established in the segment is Honda’s Fit. With appropriate efficiency from a Honda subcompact and amazing spaciousness (even when compared to larger compacts), the Fit is the target at which most subcompact entries aim.

While Ford’s F-Series enjoys an uptick in its own sales, those pickup profits are being aggressively funneled into marketing buys for Ford’s new, 40-mpg Fiesta. Rarely has a manufacturer had the resources – and then committed those resources – to the degree Ford Motor has with its newest subcompact. Given that a viral launch was initiated over a year before the sheetmetal hit the showroom, the Fiesta should prove to be a textbook example of attracting a new buyer to a new (for Americans) type of car. And Ford hasn’t been shy about its pricing, with well-equipped examples comfortably (or uncomfortably) topping $20K.

Sharing at least some of the same Fiesta architecture is the aforementioned Mazda2. Smaller – and lighter – than its Ford-sourced sibling, the Mazda2 makes more with less, offering a driver-oriented dynamic behind just over 100 horsepower. The Mazda2 also, importantly, boasts a base MSRP of under $15K.

Nissan’s entry-level Versa continues to enjoy its share of bargain shoppers, as does the upright Cube. More exciting – and more expensive – is Nissan new Juke, with a turbocharged four and supercharged styling. Priced in line with Ford’s Fiesta, the Juke stands out (beyond the sheetmetal) with available all-wheel drive, making it extremely well suited for Seattle’s moisture – and downtown Seattle’s hills.

Although not at the Seattle show, Chrysler’s scheduled to debut its newest import, the Fiat 500. With U.S. versions built in the Mexican plant where the discontinued PT Cruiser was once sourced, the new Fiat should offer what few subcompacts can: a low price for the consumer in line with a small profit for the manufacturer. And in tough economic times, who can argue with that?

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