Who is killing the great city cars of Europe?
Once the most popular category of the continent is now on the brink of extinction
City cars, small cars, superminis, A-segment cars - known by many names -, seen in every European downtown and well beyond the concrete jungle is a classic European class of cars. Much like the Japanese kei car, they are tailored for 21st century urbanism, offer necessary mobility at a low price and by great practicality often combined with eccentric design they conquered the heart of millions of customers. But unlike any small car, these vehicles are the spiritual successors of post-war designs like the Citroën 2CV, Volkswagen Beetle or the original Mini. First and foremost they are economy cars, the charm is premium. Yet, there is a storm brewing over the future of the supermini, as Volkswagen and Peugeot announced they are slashing them from their model range, Renault and Fiat are uncertain about the fate of their offerings, while Opel and Ford already abandoned the market in recent years.
We may refer to them as city cars, but today's superminis blend well with all kind of environment
Obviously city cars wouldn't be the first form of vehicle to fall from the grace of picky customers. The same thing happened to coupé-cabriolets and MPVs: as the fashion cycle moved on they've been replaced. But that's not the case with A-segment cars at all - in 2019 more than 1.2 million such vehicles were sold all over Europe, a number stable throughout the past decade without any sign of decline in demand. That still makes them the 4th most popular category behind compacts, subcompacts and crossovers. It doesn't seems justified that every sane manufacturer is fleeing from such an important market where people are clearly buying.
The root cause
Some times ago automobile manufacturers were given the duty to reduce the average CO2 emission of their new cars to 95 g/km by 2020 - this year. In case they can't comply a hefty fine is in order. Seems like an easy task for producers of lightweight and economical cars, right? Indeed, at first one may assume that since a modern city car is capable of fuel consumptions as low as 4,5 l/100km (which translates to roughly 100 g CO2/km), it would make sense to focus R&D on this category to first reach the target level. That way selling small and efficient cars would be the key in reaching the required value.
Ladies and gentlemen: the 95 g CO2/km car - the VW Lupo diesel, from 20 years ago
Wrong - the automotive business did the math differently. They concluded that due to how tiny the profit margin is on city cars it's not worth the extra effort to develop them further and reach even lower emissions of possibly 80-90 g CO2/km. As a result, most brand plans to axe their city cars and they invest in making heavy and expensive cars eco-friendly instead. In fact the bigger a vehicle is the more battery fits in the chassis helping to write it off essentially as a 0 g/km car. As a side-effect city cars are stuck above the limit and they count as unnecessary burden in fulfilling legal obligations imposed by the European Union.
The reason city cars are worth saving
The disappearance of the city car can have dire consequences on our societies. In 2018 the yellow vest movement already illustrated what happens when fuel taxes rise too steeply. France - once a pioneer in affordable automobilism - burst into flames over the cost of motoring, amongst many other interior problems. In the long run removing the cheapest type of cars will intensify those issues as people counting on low-cost driving for their daily routine will have access only to bigger - likely second-hand - cars with higher running costs. Masses buy city cars because that's what they can realistically pay the bill for and live with. In other words: superminis are the hero of sustainability in a world where everything is getting supersized.
Even Asian companies like Hyundai design their city cars in Europe, because that's where the know-how is
Naturally, environmentalists have a point too: no matter how small and cute city cars are, they are only as clean as the engines manufacturers fit in them. Many country reacted by providing major subsidies for buying EVs, but that does not only makes it the greatest experiment of widespread electric car adoption, but also threatens the reputation of EVs if it turns out they are incapable of replacing ICE city cars flawlessly. Furthermore, electric city cars are scarcely available and their business model can't rely on eco-bonuses and governmental aid forever.
How to lie with statistics
The crusade for a green future is noble - no doubt that regulators had good intent when they enacted the CO2 fleet emission limits, but the system is flawed and it's quite obvious that monstrous electric SUVs are not what they wanted to end up with. The devil lies within the nature of average, which is not always the best number to describe various datasets. The problem arose in many quantitative fields over the centuries and the most common resolutions are 1) using the median instead of the mean average or 2) pruning the dataset, by removing the top and bottom 10 percentile for example. That way manufacturers could focus on making mass market cars more efficient without having to worry about their least economical, low-volume sport and luxury models distorting their CO2 reduction performance.
According to bogus science the Citroën C1 kills three times more polar bear than the DS7 Crossback hybrid
The test cycles which the European Union bases it's assumptions on are no perfect either. The figures quoted in this article come from real life experience of owners (shared on sites such as spritmonitor.de) rather than the currently valid WLTP cycles. While these official test cycles are great for comparing cars with similar drivetrains, they are absolutely rubbish when it comes to measuring cars with dual drive modes, mainly hybrids. It was cars like the Lexus RX that showed the way for European companies and now basically everyone is making their own RX hybrid to help save the planet, because that's what the evaluation promotes.
The topic is not black & white, there are shades of grey too: electric superminis have huge potential, but as of yet they come with usual EV handicaps
Another correction could occur by switching from benchmarking fuel consumption and with it operating CO2 emissions to lifecycle carbon footprint. The carbon footprint includes the CO2 equivalent of everything from mining the raw materials, vulcanizing the rubber, stamping the chassis, using the car and then scrapping the waste it leaves behind. While such calculations are always debatable and they are time consuming to produce accurately when it comes to complex ecosystems like car manufacturing, in theory this method captures the car's effect on the environment the best.
Stepping in the same river twice
Blaming electrification for endangering smaller species is obviously not the goal here as electric mobility is a great initiative too. Yet it wasn't that long ago when the EU shot itself in the foot with a similarly hurried regulation over the toxic exhaust gases of diesel engines. There are technologies which could help reduce the CO2 emitted by smaller cars, but in case the target is too expensive to achieve and the regulators provide easier ways, then manufacturers will instead use backdoors and will reduce their climate impact via compliance cars.
An overview of the European supermini market with more grim than bright outlook
Outsiders often envision Europe as a bastion of wealth where such tiny and cheap machines would possibly be pointless as everyone can afford to commute with the latest Audis and BMWs, but millions of Europeans - from Greece through Switzerland to the UK - need city cars to sustain themselves. They are not just smart solution, but are embedded in European culture as a tradition. And that's a big thing, because there aren't many matters the majority of the old continent agrees upon, though adoring our happy small cars might just be one of them.