Detroit read­ies downsized cars, hop­ing driv­ers go along for the ride

Will Amer­i­cans think small?

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY PETER WHORISKEY

This sum­mer, a Gen­eral Mo­tors plant in Orion, Mich., will be­gin crank­ing out some very small cars.

The Chevro­let Son­ics, as they will be known, are hardly a break­through. There are tens of thou­sands of cars this tiny on the road — among them the Honda Fit, the Toy­ota Yaris and the Ford Fi­esta.

What will set the Sonic apart from its ri­vals and make it one of the most closely watched ex­per­i­ments in the in­dus­try, how­ever, is that it will be the small­est car mass-pro­duced in the United States.

Ever since an in­va­sion decades ago of small, cheap cars from over­seas set in mo­tion the near-death spi­ral of the Detroit Three, the task of build­ing an ap­peal­ing small car has be­guiled the do­mes­tic auto in­dus­try, work­ers and man­age­ment alike. Or, as then-Sen. Barack Obama asked about the U.S. com­pa­nies, shortly af­ter his elec­tion as pres­i­dent, “Why can’t they make a Corolla?”

Con­ven­tional wis­dom has long held that U.S. wages were too high to make small cars prof­itably in this coun­try. In­deed, for years man­u­fac­tur­ers made their money on big trucks and sedans. The lit­tle guys just didn’t mat­ter.

The Sonic is the in­dus­try’s re­but­tal, a fuel-ef­fi­cient sub­com­pact that Gen­eral Mo­tors is putting up against fierce com­pe­ti­tion. For the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, more­over, which res­cued Gen­eral Mo­tors and de­clared the man­u­fac­ture of a small car here a stip­u­la­tion of the bailout, its emer­gence is a mea­sure of vin­di­ca­tion.

“It’s a huge break­through,” said Bob King, pres­i­dent of the United Auto Work­ers, which made sig­nif­i­cant wage con­ces­sions to land the Sonic deal. “It’s im­por­tant to show we can build any size car in the U.S.”

Steve Girsky, GM’s vice chair­man for busi­ness strat­egy, ac­knowl­edges that the com­pany could have built the Sonic in Mex­ico where, as it hap­pens, Ford makes the equally small Fi­esta.

“We wanted to make a run at mak­ing a small car here,” Girsky said at the Detroit auto show.

But if they build them, will Amer­i­cans buy them?

The idea of mak­ing a small, fuel-ef­fi­cient ve­hi­cle here is po­lit­i­cally ap­peal­ing, but it might not square with the fickle tastes of con­sumers. Whether they’ll jump on board re­mains an open ques­tion and, crit­ics say, could high­light the risks of the govern­ment’s own­er­ship in GM af­ter its bailout, which gave the United States a 61 per­cent stake, po­ten­tially pit­ting com­mer­cial mo­tives against po­lit­i­cal ones.

Con­sumer tastes for large or small cars fluc­tu­ate with oil prices. In May 2008, when gas prices across the coun­try were near­ing peaks, the best-sell­ing car in the United States was the Honda Civic. But prices have sub­sided, and along with them, con­sumer in­ter­est in small cars. U.S. en­thu­si­asm for small cars lags well be­hind that of Euro­peans, who long ago adapted to stag­ger­ing fuel prices.

“ These are su­per-small cars,” Jeremy An­wyl, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ed­munds.com, the au­to­mo­tive Web site, said of the Sonic. “What was the best-sell­ing car in the U.S. last month? The Ford F-150. Not

DAVID PLUNKERT FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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