Drivers Have Embraced Small Cars – Will Minicars Be Next?

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General Motors

Chevy Spark

Given the popularity of small SUVs and subcompacts like the Chevy Sonic, today’s drivers appear to be buying the idea that downsizing can equate to an upgraded ride. Now that smaller vehicles are viewed as acceptable—smart, even—automakers are exploring the possibility that drivers may want to downshift further, from small to downright tiny.

The new J.D. Power and Associates study on Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout (APEAL) indicates that 27% of new-car buyers purchased a vehicle that was smaller than the car they had previously been driving. For the most part, they were happy they did so, according to J.D. Power’s David Sargent:

“Although larger models continue to attain higher APEAL Study scores than smaller models, as they typically provide higher performance, have more pleasing styling, are more comfortable and include more features, owners who down find that today’s compact models are not the ‘econoboxes’ that they may have once feared. For example, most compact vehicles are more substantial than in the past and perform much better on the road. They also have many of the features and appointments that were previously found only on larger models. Vehicle owners who down[size] are often finding that they are actually upgrading when they buy a new vehicle.”

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Perhaps surprisingly, Chevrolet models received the highest scores in three categories of the study. Though the automaker’s brand received below average scores overall in the study, the Chevy Volt, Avalanche, and Sonic were tops in their individual segments.

The Sonic not only won J.D. Power’s subcompact APEAL crown, it was also recently named by Edmunds as the “Rookie of the Year” thus far in 2012 after selling over 42,000 units in six months—more than double the number sold by the #2 newcomer, the Hyundai Veloster. The Sonic, a freshly designed vehicle that replaced the Chevy Aveo, is blowing its predecessor away, according to Edmunds:

“The Sonic instantly shot to the head of the subcompact class, approaching sales of 8,000 units in some months, far surpassing any sales the Aveo had ever tallied.”

Seeing that “small” is working for Chevy in the form of the Sonic, the automaker hopes that “tiny” will also work out well, in the form of the new minicar, the Spark. The Spark is roughly 14 inches smaller in length than its hatchback sister Sonic (144.7 inches vs. 159 inches), with less room inside (volume of 31.2 square feet vs. 47.7 square feet for the Sonic). Starting at just under $13,000, the Spark’s sticker price is about $2,000 less than the Sonic. The tiny car gets better mileage too, rated at 32 mpg in the city and 38 highway, compared to the Sonic’s 26/35.

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But is slightly better fuel efficiency, as well as a $2,000 difference in price, enough to entice drivers into purchasing a Spark? A Detroit News story explores just that topic. For the most part, analysts aren’t sold on the idea that a large segment of Americans will buy microcars such as the Spark:

“For a few thousand dollars more, consumers can step up to something like a Honda Civic or Ford Fiesta, which are much more practical for most drivers,” [Kelley Blue Book’s Alec] Gutierrez said in an email. “This will be the most significant hurdle preventing microcars from capturing additional market share in the U.S.”

For a few thousand more than the Spark, there are not only vehicles out there that are bigger, but models that get the same or better mileage. Civic models with MSRPs under $16K, for instance, get an EPA rating of 39 mpg on the highway.

Chevy and other automakers also have to deal with at least the perception, if not the reality, that minicars drive like glorified golf carts. The headline in the Wall Street Journal for a review of the Scion iQ, Toyota‘s minicar that starts at a not-so-mini price ($16K), pretty much said it all: “Slow, Whiny, Tiny—But Great to Park.”

(MORE: Size Matters: Now Automakers Are Bragging About How Small Their Engines Are)

The Spark has generally merited better (but still far-from-stellar) reviews in the press. Motor Trend noted that “the 83-horsepower engine moves the car adequately, and offers plenty of power for first-time drivers,” though “at highway speeds, there’s plenty of wind and road noise,” and “the ultra-light car feels fairly tossable.”

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.