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Make way for the micro mobiles

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It also helps the Obama administration in tightening up fuel emission standards. The president wants new vehicles to average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, compared with 25.3 m.p.g. in 2009.

Moving forward, automakers are retooling their production schedules to create vehicles meant to attract consumers who otherwise associated small with cheap. These rollouts include the Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Cruze, both due to be released in early 2010, as well as hybrid versions of existing brands.

But those models, while small, look and feel like traditional automobiles. Microcars only come in extra-small sizes. And while safety concerns persist, the petite vehicles hold their greatest appeal for consumers who simply want to tool around the neighborhood or have a second car that is no less extravagant, or purposeful, than a shopping cart.

“The big bulky things seem out of tune and no longer seem relevant,” says Sheryl Connelly, a global consumer trends and futuring manager at Ford.

Ms. Connelly says the microcar phenomenon is comparable to what happened to bulky stereo systems this decade, having been trimmed to the dimensions of a stamp-sized iPod Shuffle.

“Small cars used to be thought of as entry-level cars, but I don’t think that is the mind-set today,” she says.

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