Small cars are a tough sell in America, where trucks and SUVs reign supreme.
Many auto-makers have given up on the segment and several more chose to never dabble in it to begin with. Some models broke the mold, pried open the market’s mandibles and left a lasting impact on the industry. Here are a few of the small cars American motorists loved.
Ford Model T (1908)
Staying true to its economy status, the Ford Model T was smaller than many of the more expensive cars sold during the same era. Keeping its dimensions on the short side made it cheaper to build while improving fuel efficiency, which made it cheaper to operate. Some Model T variants had a footprint equal to a modern-day Fiat 500s.
Volkswagen Beetle (1949)
Beetle production started in 1938, but the first example didn’t officially arrive in America until January of 1949. It looked like a UFO as it disembarked in New York City. Ben Pon, the importer who became Volkswagen’s first American dealer, had a difficult time finding a business partner.
The struggle was short-lived. Volkswagen’s records indicate about 35,000 examples of the Beetle roamed American roads in the mid-1950s. That figure convinced the company’s German decision-makers to establish Volkswagen of America in 1955.
Clever ad campaigns, a well-organized dealer network and parts warehouses on either coast fueled the Beetle’s success. Sales climbed as the model enjoyed a near-monopoly on the small, imported car segment in America. In 1970, the Beetle alone outsold the entire AMC brand.
Nash Rambler (1950)
Nash Motors believed building a small car would help it stand out from its rivals in Detroit. The model, which received the Rambler nameplate, needed to comfortably seat five passengers in a body appreciably smaller than what the competition offered. The line-up ultimately grew to include a convertible, a sedan, a station wagon and a delivery van.
Crosley tried, in vain, to get American motorists hooked on small cars at about the same time. The Rambler was considerably more popular because it remained usable and, importantly, comfortable. It’s remembered as America’s first successful compact car.
Nash Metropolitan (1953)
Nash bucked the American automotive industry’s shift towards ever-bigger cars and instead looked at expanding with smaller models families could use as a second or even third car. The Pininfarina-designed Metropolitan shared its 42hp, 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine with the Austin A40. Assembly took place in Austin’s Longbridge, England, factory. British motorists knew it as the Austin Metropolitan.
Motor Trend concluded the Metropolitan was “a scaled-down version of everything good in Nash,” though other magazines criticized the lack of an opening trunk. The line-up included a two-door hardtop and a two-door convertible. Nash, Hudson and, later, American Motors Corporation collectively sold 94,986 examples of the Metropolitan. Production ended in 1961.
MG Midget (1961)
MG’s attempt at making an impact on the American market with sedans like the Magnette was a magnificent failure. Its roadsters, however, struck a chord with young motorists seeking a fun, easy-going ride that didn’t break the bank. The Midget became a mainstay of the MG line-up in the US for nearly two decades. It cost $1939 (about $15,900) in 1961, the year it reached American showrooms.
BMW 1600-2 (1966)
The 1600-2 singlehandedly made BMW a household name in America. It was smaller than the four-door New Class models it shared some of its mechanical components with and it was much nimbler to drive. At the time, only the Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT came close in terms of performance, handling and amenities. American motorists had never experienced anything like it.
The 1600-2 morphed into the 2002 when it received a bigger 2.0-liter engine. Its legacy lived on in the original 3 Series, which joined BMW’s American line-up in time for the 1977 model year.
Volkswagen Squareback (1966)
The Beetle was not a spacious car by any conventional means of measurement. Volkswagen of America launched the Type 3, colloquially known as the Squareback, in 1966 to reel in buyers who needed a proper trunk. It never attained the Beetle’s superhero-like level popularity but it fulfilled its mission well. Volkswagen considered it a good job well done.
Toyota Corolla (1968)
The Corolla was one of Toyota’s first serious attempts at securing a steady foothold in the US. Its US$1686 price tag ($12,000 in today's money) made it cheaper than an entry-level Volkswagen Beetle and positioned it as one of the best value buys in America. Over time, it also earned a reputation for efficiency and reliability which it continues to enjoy today.
Nearly 50 years after its US introduction, the Corolla is consistently one of the best-selling cars in America. Last year, Toyota sold 346,999 examples of it.
Ford Pinto (1971)
The Pinto was on the bleeding edge of Ford’s downsizing strategy in the early 1970s. It was an answer to popular small cars built by Volkswagen and Toyota. And, somewhat astonishingly, it was extremely well received. It became America’s best-selling car in 1974, a year after the Arab oil embargo rocked the nation to its core. Ford sold 360,688 units. It fell to the number four spot the following year behind the Chevrolet Chevelle, the Ford Granada and the Oldsmobile Cutlass.
The Pinto supplied its platform to the Mustang II, for better or worse. Americans loved it. The love affair turned sour once motorists discovered its susceptibility to burst into flames in a rear-end collision. It inspired even more dislike when people learned Ford executives knew about the issue but decided paying off victims was cheaper than implementing a fix.
Honda Civic (1973)
While the Beetle dominated America’s import segment in the 1960s, the award went to the original Honda Civic in the 1970s. It arrived in showrooms shortly before the Arab oil embargo dried up gas stations across the nation, sending motorists into a frenzied search for a fuel-sipping form of transportation. Honda’s then-newest model was just the ticket. It was modern, well-built, affordable and, above all, incredibly efficient. And, unlike the Pinto, it was fire proof.
Foreign car brands secured an unheard of 15.8-percent share of the American new car market in 1975 thanks in part to the embargo. Some, like Volkswagen, stumbled when Detroit’s car-makers finally got their act together but Honda never released its grip. Americans bought 335,445 examples of the Civic last year and the model stands proud as the country’s sixth best-selling car.
Honda Accord (1976)
With the first-generation Accord, Honda tried emulating the Civic’s success in a different segment of the market. Again, the company emphasized practicality, efficiency, and build quality to win over buyers. The formula worked as intended and it ultimately propelled the Accord to the top of the sales charts.
Though always bigger than the Civic, the original Accord sedan took the form of a reasonably compact model that stretched 175 inches from bumper to bumper; that’s about on par with a modern-day Civic Coupe. The model has grown by 15 inches since its inception.
Ford Ranger (1983)
Ford introduced the Ranger in 1983 as its entry-level pickup truck. It came with either a four-cylinder, a V6 or, initially, a naturally-aspirated diesel engine. The Ranger never overstepped on the F-150’s turf because the two models competed in distinctly different segments but it brought Ford a considerable amount of business over two generations. The nameplate made a return to American soil in 2018, the truck being made in Michigan; 94,755 examples were sold in 2021.
Volkswagen Rabbit GTI (1983)
Americans didn’t get the original GTI until 1983 and they knew it as the Rabbit, not the Golf. It came with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine tuned to deliver 90hp through a close-ratio five-speed manual transmission. The American-spec Rabbit was heavier than a comparable European-spec Golf so the GTI used a lot of market-specific parts, including many of its suspension components. Driving enthusiasts experienced the GTI on twisty roads with near-superstitious awe.
Mazda Miata (1989)
Mazda introduced the original MX-5/Miata at precisely the right time. The MG B got the bullet in 1980, Pininfarina stopped selling the Fiat Spider in 1985 and Alfa Romeo’s own Spider, though brilliant as ever, was undeniably showing its age. Launched in 1989, the Miata breathed much-needed new life into the roadster segment and became a colossal success almost overnight.
Handling and looks were only part of its appeal. It was affordable, too. In 1990, its first full year on the market, the Miata started at $13,800, which represents around $28,000 today. Factor in inflation and the Miata is actually cheaper now than it was when it was new: prices currently start at $26,830.
Mercedes-Benz 190 (W201, 1982)
Although not small in the commonly accepted sense of the term, the 190 was more compact than any Mercedes-Benz model in the early 1980s by a wide margin. Strong initial sales in key markets like Dallas, Los Angeles and New York City showed luxury buyers were ready to downsize provided they could still get a reasonably powerful engine. To that end, Mercedes offered the 190 with a five-cylinder diesel engine, a 16-valve four-cylinder and even a 2.6-liter straight-six plucked from the larger W124.
Porsche Boxster (1996)
When it considered downsizing, Porsche knew it could count on the American market for support. After all, Americans absorbed a sizable chunk of 914 production during the 1970s. The prediction was spot on, and the original Boxster became Porsche’s best-selling nameplate until the Cayenne made its debut in 2002. In hindsight, it’s also the model that saved the brand from ending up marooned in a sea of deep financial problems.
Mini Hardtop (2002)
Austin jettisoned the original Mini into the American market in 1960. It was far too small in every dimension and sales ended in 1967. Consequently, few Americans had ever seen a Mini at home until the model mutated into a full-fledged car manufacturer at the turn of the millennium.
The born-again, BMW-developed Mini wooed premium car buyers with its retro-inspired design and zippy handling. Strong demand from Americans, especially on the coasts, helped justify the brand’s initial expansion but sales are beginning to wane as buyers shift towards SUVs.
Mazda Mazda3 (2003)
The Mazda3 has been the enthusiast’s choice in the small economy car segment since the original model arrived in 2003. The current 3 builds on its predecessor’s strengths by offering quick, direct steering and sharp handling. It’s a shame, then, that Mazda chose not to offer a Mazdaspeed-badged model (pictured) this time around. We’ll see a brand-new Mazda3 next year and we’re crossing our fingers as we wait to find out if the vaunted hot hatch will return.
BMW 1 Series M Coupe (2011)
Most BMW dealerships sold out of the 1 Series M Coupe before deliveries began in 2011. The few remaining in the dealer inventories were priced well above MSRP. Demand exceeded BMW’s wildest expectations, convincing the company to build more than the 2700 examples it originally planned. 740 cars out of the 6309 units built were first registered in America but demand nonetheless outstripped supply. Today, used examples of the 1 Series M often sell for more than they did new. Look no further if you want a future classic. They cost from $57,000 today.
Ford Fiesta ST (2012)
Believe it or not, but small, fuel-efficient cars were the hottest segment of the American market in the early 2010s. Fuel prices steadily crept towards $4 a gallon and people were broke from the global financial crisis. Suddenly, it became genuinely easy to make a strong business case for bringing city-friendly models over from Europe. Ford’s Fiesta surfed that wave, and the ST variant proved an economy car didn’t necessarily need to feel like a penalty box. Its bang-for-the-buck proposition was difficult to beat.
Strong ST sales couldn’t keep the Fiesta afloat in America. In the wake of falling demand, Ford canceled US Fiesta sales in 2019. This marks the second time product planners abandon the segment in America. The original Fiesta lasted just over three years.