Why U.S. Likes Big Cars

The craze for small cars may sweep the world, but will it reach the American heartland? In the realm of psychology, the choice between a big car and a small one is based not just on how much money we have or how many seats we need; it speaks to who we are as human beings and individuals. The big car may be too deeply ingrained in the American psyche to give up, says Darren Dahl, a consumer-behavior consultant and professor of marketing at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Karen Pinchin. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why do people buy the cars they do?
Darren Dahl:
In North America vehicles mean a lot to the consumer. We're very much a car culture. We know that people spend hours in their vehicles commuting, up to two hours a day for some individuals. So the brand of the vehicle, the hype around a vehicle, it says a lot about you.

How so?
Cars have a very big role to play within what I would call the extended self: how you view yourself and who you are in the world. And so when you talk about big cars, or small cars, these obviously have a big part to play in defining who you are as an individual. If you're someone who likes to have some feeling of security, power, control, etc., then a large vehicle can provide that.

Does that mean that the people who have historically bought trucks are not likely to downsize with the environment in mind?
Absolutely. There was an instance in American culture where a very famous representative from the state of Texas was holding up pictures of vehicles, pictures of little European cars, in Congress and saying "This is not what we drive." It's not what traditionally America was all about. Trucks have been marketed as powerful vehicles for years and years, and it's important to people to have that power, that ability.

Why is that?
Part of it is because SUVs are big vehicles, and you're up above traffic, you feel like you can squish anything in front of you, although you'll probably tip over and die. But you look at some of these small cars, the Smart car or the Mini [Cooper], and you automatically think, "Man, if I get hit in that, I don't know what's going to happen to me." It's just an automatic concern. But if lots and lots of people are driving them then it's not going to be a problem.

Then what is the target demographic for the smaller, alternative-energy cars?
If you look at the marketing that's being done for the [Toyota] Echo, and on these smaller types of cars, it tends to be a younger person, which makes sense for many reasons. A younger individual would, arguably, not have as much money on average, as they're just getting started, and smaller cars do tend to be less expensive. Plus, younger consumers are more concerned about the issues that small cars play to, like the environment. When you're younger, you question society and want to question some of the norms. A smaller car, if it's seen as being more controversial, or fun and playful, I think that resonates well with a younger audience. Plus they don't have kids, and they don't need the room.

Are car manufacturers missing out on a potentially lucrative demographic of eco-friendly families?
Oh, totally. There's a Ford hybrid that is doing very well, so there's no question that they could be making a lot of money by appealing to those environmentally conscious families. Although there's always a question mark on what the American consumer is going to embrace or not embrace. Is it a flash in the pan? Now it's starting to look like it's not. You have a company like Toyota, I have seen some numbers on this, and they're perceived to be the green automaker after coming out with the Prius. They gambled early, and a lot of the big American players either thought that wasn't going to be the case or didn't seize on it quickly enough. And now, arguably, they're playing some catch-up.

What are your instincts on the future of small, alternative-energy vehicles in the United States?
I think smaller cars are going to play more and more of a role in terms of our society. And I say that because I hope so, and I might be a little biased because it's more responsible. Plus, everyone will look to technology to save us, if this global-warming thing is as serious as everyone says. So the small cars seem like they will be the logical choice. You don't want to get hit by an SUV in one, but a lot of these cars are getting on the fuel-economy wagon.
What consumer trends could boost sales of lighter, smaller, more environmentally friendly cars?
A few things do work in their favor. Gas prices are huge, and if you're looking at a hybrid SUV versus a regular SUV at an equal cost, you'll probably go hybrid because of the gas issue. There's also starting to be a more mainstream environmental flavor out there, whether it's the global-warming thing, or concern about future generations, but it's certainly got more traction than it's ever had. So these two forces are moving us closer toward the smaller-car concept.

Do you think that people who drive trucks could be persuaded to drive an equally large but lighter vehicle in order to reduce their emissions on the road?
I think for some people, they're not aware of the lightness of the vehicle. For the hardcore SUV big-truck drivers, they're not going to be into a lighter vehicle. There's a certain group of guys that just want that kind of power, that bigness of the vehicle. That group is male, always male, and they're not going to be persuaded.