The price of oil is at its lowest in recent memory, which is throwing the global economy into a tailspin. Meanwhile, truck sales are so hot that luxury truck models have been outselling luxury cars since late 2015.
Investors might be worried about stock prices, but it appears that consumers no longer fret about a trip to the gas pump. When gas prices are low, car shoppers are less intent on maximizing every mile per gallon. Even if compact and subcompact cars are more efficient, better equipped, and safer than ever, some buyers are easily convinced to trade up when times of crisis appear to be over.
Fans of small and midsize cars don't need to worry; new vehicle sales are still strong overall, and there's no chance those segments will disappear. Hybrid technology and other fuel-saving measures continue to be a significant goal of auto manufacturers' research and development, even as small, efficient models are pulled from the market. Let's take a look at some small cars that have recently been culled from their manufacturers' lineups, as well as some upcoming changes that indicate a shift in focus toward larger vehicles.
The Honda Insight compact hybrid, launched in 2009 as a 2010 model, was an attempt to challenge the Toyota Prius' reign over the hybrid market. The Insight's drivetrain, a 1.3-liter four-cylinder gas engine paired to an electric motor and a continuously variable transmission, was shared among other hybrid models in the Honda lineup. This setup produced 98 horsepower and earned EPA ratings of 41 mpg city, 44 mpg highway.
As it approached the end of its lifecycle, the base Insight undercut the base Prius (and every other hybrid available) by more than $5,000, but couldn't match the Prius' fuel economy estimates. In 2014, Honda announced that the Insight had failed to meet sales expectations and wouldn't live to see another year. According to news reports from January of 2009, gas prices were so low that some experts speculated we were seeing the bottom of the market. Though there was some inevitable fluctuation, by January of 2015, gas prices were similar to the averages from six years before. Maybe this hurt the Honda Insight's chances, or maybe the Insight just arrived too late to take down the almighty Prius.
Toyota RAV4 EV
Toyota canceled the RAV4 EV SUV in late 2014 with little fanfare. A fully electric version of the brand's popular RAV4, the RAV4 EV was notable for a few reasons. It was the only electric SUV available in the United States at the time, and it was made possible thanks to Toyota's partnership with Tesla Motors. It's also a little-known fact that this was Toyota's second attempt at an electric RAV4 (the first made its debut in 1997, and fewer than 1500 examples were sold).
The RAV4 EV was powered by a Tesla-supplied lithium-ion battery pack that made 154 horsepower and could travel up to 103 miles on a charge, but steep prices made these specs seem much less impressive than they actually are. While news reports about the RAV4 EV's cancelation said the model only existed to meet California emissions requirements, that still fails to fully explain why it never caught on with its intended audience (especially after the massive cash incentives that were offered). Toyota, for its part, says not he RAV4 EV's website that the brand remains committed to developing next-generation high-mileage and zero-emission vehicles. Plus, Toyota introduced the RAV4 Hybrid for 2016, and it’s currently doing well in our compact SUV rankings.
Honda Civic Hybrid
The decision to cancel the Honda Insight's might have been obvious due to its slow sales. But to many casual observers, the Honda Civic Hybrid probably seemed like a strong contender.
The Civic Hybrid was brought to the United States in early 2002, and helped make the case for reliable hybrid vehicles that weren't conspicuous. It was possible to get the fuel economy of a green car without joining a club of strangely-shaped cars whose owners were mocked as much as they were praised.
When Honda made the decision in 2015 to ax its low-volume compressed natural gas models, low gasoline prices were explicitly cited as a reason. Unfortunately, the Civic Hybrid was also put on the chopping block. The regular Civic sedan body came powered by a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine, which paired to an electric motor for 110 horsepower and EPA ratings of 44 mpg city, 47 mpg highway. The Civic Hybrid provided reliable and safe hybrid transportation to the masses for three generations, making it the longest-running model on this list.
Scion has a stable of small, affordable cars, but Toyota, Scion’s parent company, recently announced an end to the brand. For the most part, though, Scion's models will just be sold under the Toyota name --except the short-lived Scion iQ, that is.
Scion announced in January of 2015 that the iQ's production would be coming to an end after just four years. The iQ, a tiny hatch with seating for four, made 94 horsepower from its 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine, and achieved EPA estimates of 36 mpg city and 37 mpg highway. Scion prides itself on bringing compact, affordable, reasonably efficient cars to the masses. If the iQ -- its smallest, cheapest, most fuel-thrifty offering -- failed to gain traction, what could be the problem? To Scion's credit, they've chalked the iQ up to a learning experience, saying that they learned from consumer feedback that the iQ was too small, and should have actually gotten better fuel economy for its size. To Toyota's credit, they've since chalked Scion itself up to a learning experience.
In January of 2016, Fiat Chrysler announced new priorities for the Chrysler brand: namely, that attention would be directed away from Chrysler-branded cars and toward Jeep SUVs and Ram pickup trucks. The Chrysler 200, a small sedan that's just entering its sixth model year, will be discontinued in favor of building more of the larger and more profitable vehicles that just so happen to be enjoying a surge in popularity.
The Chrysler 200 is a midsize sedan with seating for five, and it's one of the few in its category that offers all-wheel drive. Both the base engine (a 184-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder) and the optional upgrade (a 295-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6) get below-average fuel economy for the category. Chrysler's spokespeople say that as gas prices fall, small passenger cars will be less of a priority in general, even though the company recently spent more than a billion dollars to upgrade the production plant that makes the 200. The manufacturing investments can be repurposed, but the Chrysler brand lineup will be left barren. Chrysler has said that it is seeking partners to continue the production of the 200, but at press time, the future of the 200 was still up in the air.
The Dart, a small five-passenger sedan, earns praise for its affordability and its handling chops, but experts say the base engine is underpowered. The base 2.0-liter four-cylinder provides 160 horsepower, and although it delivers only average fuel economy for its segment, it's currently the most efficient vehicle in Dodge's lineup. The Dart's optional engine upgrades produce more power while sacrificing only a few miles per gallon, but none are noteworthy or truly competitive in this area. In other words, Dodge wasn't marketing the Dart to fuel-conscious customers in the first place; the Dart just happened to be the best they had.
A lineup comprised entirely of large people-movers and traditional American muscle cars may be more appropriate for Dodge's current image, but it's hard to see the brand making such a move if decision-makers (and their customers) were really concerned about prices at the gas pump.