The price of gas in the United States crested $4 a gallon this summer, shaking the economy. In many parts of the world, however, $4 is a bargain. So what does a nice set of wheels look like in Europe, Australia or Japan? Drivers outside the U.S. enjoy some attractive, fun and practical cars we almost never get our hands on. Looking at the best cars sold elsewhere, we even start to feel a little left out. But as U.S. gas prices approach what's common elsewhere, the world is becoming smaller. Some of the best cars on foreign shores could help pave the way for what's next.
European Ford Focus
The U.S. gets a Focus. Europe gets a Focus. But the two cars don't have a single bolt in common. The European Focus has won more than 80 awards from the automotive press for quality and design. The U.S. Focus won a few...around eight years ago. The European Focus is available with a range of gasoline or diesel-burning engines topping out at 54 mpg. The U.S. Focus is available with only one engine with a fuel economy rating of 24/35 mpg. The European version is quite striking. Ours...a bit frumpy. Oh, and they get a convertible option, too. Why would one company bother to manufacturer two small cars, one mediocre and one award-winning?
U.S. Prospects: Ford has finally figured this one out...they're bringing the better Focus stateside for the 2010 model year.
In the U.S., if you want a fun, functional small car -- something cute that corners like it's on rails and drinks gasoline as often as Michael Phelps comes in last -- you buy a MINI. Or rather, you line up for one -- there are waiting lists for those things now.
In Europe, you have choices. Take the little Fiat 500. A four-seat, three-door hatchback that corners tighter than a remote-controlled toy car, the 500 was chosen as this year's European Car of the Year by a consortium of auto publications. It's incredibly personalized fun -- buyers can choose from 15 interior designs, 12 exterior colors, 9 kinds of wheels, and dozens of decals. Fiat says there are over half a million possible configurations for the car. There's even a high-performance model on the way. Oh, and the little car gets about 46 mpg U.S.
U.S. Prospects: Slim.
Alfa Romeo Mi.To
Sure, the 500 is MINI's cute competition. The Mi.To, on the other hand, is its heart-skips-a-beat gorgeous competition. Alfa's little MINI-slayer comes with a range of turbocharged four-cylinder engines putting out up to 155 horsepower -- an awfully high power-to-weight ratio for such a little car -- and high-performance versions are supposedly in the pipeline. The Mi.To even offers a feature previously found only on high-end performance cars: an active suspension system. A selector next to the shift level allows the driver to set the car's ride characteristics to D (Dynamic), N (Normal) or A (All-Weather). A convertible is said to be in the works.
U.S. Prospects: Alfa is negotiating a return to the U.S. market over the next few years. Officials have denied that a U.S. debut for the Mi.To is in the plans, but come on, this thing has a "DNA" selector...that name wasn't chosen for its Italian marketing potential.
Despite high gas prices, Pontiac has a hit on its hands with the G8. But the G8 isn't a Pontiac at all. It's a Holden Commodore. GM pulled its big muscle car over from the Australian market and glued Pontiac badges to it for an easy win. But the Commodore isn't Australia's best big car, and there's no reason it should be ours, either.
The newly redesigned Australian Ford Falcon is powered by a range of turbocharged V6 engines more fuel-efficient than Pontiac's big V8, but putting out similar power. It earns some of the highest safety ratings in the Australasian New Car Assessment Program. And its build quality is said to exceed anything Ford makes in the states. In fact, several Australian media sources have reported that Ford President Allan Mulally drove the new Flacon last year and told Australian Ford designers, "There is nothing like this in our company. I want one."
U.S. Prospects: None. Ford has announced plans to bring a number of its European models to our shores, but nothing from Down Under.
Japanese Market Honda Civic Type R
Honda produces a high-performance Civic for the U.S. market, the Civic Si. It makes a separate one for the Japanese market, the Type R. The two use roughly the same body, but the Japanese edition is tweaked for slightly better aerodynamics. The Si gets 197 horsepower from its 2.0 liter i-VTEC engine inline-four cylinder. The R gets 222 horsepower from an engine the same size and layout. The Type R also weighs less, thanks to the generous use of aluminum parts and adhesives in place of welding. The result is a faster Civic with sharper handling dynamics. Why is Honda making two high-performance Civic models, one of which clearly outperforms the other?
U.S. Prospects: Some rumors say the Civic Type R is coming stateside in 2010. But at this point nothing is official.
The Smart Fortwo has been a smash in the States. High gas prices are forcing Americans to rethink what we actually need from a car, and a tiny, European-style "city car" that sips gas, parks anywhere and can cost less than $12K just makes sense for many city-dwellers. The Aygo (Get it? "I go." There's even a concept high-performance version called the Aygo Crazy) is not much bigger than a Smart car, and needs only a 1-liter engine to get around. But it gets 57 mpg U.S. -- better than a Smart. And the Aygo actually does have a hint of a back seat.
U.S. Prospects: Toyota is surely aware of Smart's success, but nothing has been announced.
Volkswagen Golf TDI Hybrid
Americans know the Golf as the Rabbit. VW in Europe sells a hybrid version of the car -- a diesel hybrid. Diesel-powered cars get good gas mileage. Hybrids get good gas mileage. Put them together and what do you get? Prius-beating numbers -- over 70 mpg, according to some estimates.
U.S. Prospects: VW has already ruled it out, saying the car can't meet U.S. emissions regulations.