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Small is beautiful


The Suzuki Aerio SX seems out of place on American roads. It’s the kind of tiny bug one sees inching through traffic in the Third World; indeed, I saw many such Suzukis in India during a recent trip.

Why won’t Americans buy small cars? I found the Aerio quite comfortable for my 6-foot-plus frame, but a similarly sized neighbor looked at it doubtfully. "I couldn’t fit into that," he said, climbing into his more heroically proportioned Acura MDX.

Since our carmakers are increasingly reluctant to even make small cars, the Japanese and Germans get to own this small but (at least for them) profitable market. Since 1993, reports Fortune, what’s known as the Big Three have forfeited market share worth $35 billion to their overseas competitors.

Detroit dismisses the small-car market, but it certainly exists. In 2002, 2 million small cars were sold here, about 14 percent of the U.S. market. What’s more, approximately 30 percent of small-car purchasers are first-time new-vehicle buyers, which means they’re potential brand loyalists. How many people do you know who say, "I always buy Hondas?"

The Aerio SX ("Sport Crossover"), introduced last year, represents a shrewd marketing move, since it’s both a small car and a trendy crossover vehicle with vague SUV cues. All-wheel drive is available as a $1,000 option if you really want it, and ABS brakes are $500. With the four-speed automatic, the Aerio SX will feel somewhat underpowered, but it also will deliver 26 miles per gallon in town and 31 on the highway.

OK, so the 2-liter, 145-horsepower engine is a bit sluggish (especially when connected to the QuadGrip all-wheel-drive system), but it is also a fairly good value at $15,000. The Aerio comes in a single-loaded trim, with air, power windows and locks, a CD player, remote entry and more. In this category, the equally upright Toyota ECHO at $10,245 is perhaps an even better value, but it comes as a stripper.

The best thing about the Japan-built Aerio is its roominess. Here’s a pint-sized vehicle, 13 feet long and weighing just 2,600 pounds, but it can accommodate five with relative comfort. The upright stance creates great headroom, and the rear seats fold to create ample load space through the back hatch. Don’t laugh, but it will carry more people and cargo with more versatility than the Hummer H2.

From here to there

I spoke recently at a fascinating conference at the University of Michigan. The topic, "Mobility in a Sustainable World: A Complex Systems Approach."

From Allen Hammond of the World Resources Institute, I learned that 12 million Chinese are moving from rural to urban areas every year, creating new mega-cities that will be mirrored in Latin America and elsewhere. The world’s burgeoning population, slated to surpass 9 billion by 2050, is then likely to consume three times today’s energy use. In the same period, the number of people living in the world’s poorest countries will triple.

India has just 1,800 miles of paved road for its billion people, said George Eads of Charles River Associates, quoting from the influential Sustainable Mobility report. Eads sees an overwhelming switch to private cars in places like India and China, straining already tenuous road networks. He spoke approvingly of a scheme in Singapore that strictly limits the auto population, with ownership licenses sold via auction. But such systems invariably favor the rich.

Conference organizer Tom Gladwin noted recent work that estimates the planet is 120 percent over carrying capacity, and that we’d need the equivalent of five more Earths to sustainably provide all 6 billion of us with a U.S. standard of living — a sobering thought when contemplating the Herculean task of moving the next generations from here to there.

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