DETROIT -- Just a few years ago the subcompact car in America was a tiny, cheap econobox with a noisy engine and no frills that few people wanted to buy.
But the market for tiny cars is growing and changing as their styling, interiors, and features continue to improve.
"I don't think there's a segment that's come to life quite so quickly and robustly," said Jim Sanfilippo, senior industry analyst for Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc.
Analysts say eight tiny cars are on the market from seven manufacturers, but that number is likely to grow as demand increases.
Sales of the diminutive vehicles, called "B-Cars" in the industry, were up 43 percent in the first seven months of the year compared to the same period last year. Through July, automakers sold 151,848 of the cars.
Still, it's just a small fraction of a market dominated by larger vehicles.
The increase, though, has drawn interest from all the auto companies. Executives at
Demand for the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris was so high during the summer that dealers sold the cars at or above sticker price before their arrival at showrooms.
General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet has been in the market since 2003 with the Aveo, a tiny car built in South Korea by the company's Daewoo affiliate. The Aveo is the largest-selling subcompact in the United States.
The Yaris has been the greatest success so far, with 32,822 sold as of July 31. Even though it was just introduced in March, the funky car was closing in on the Aveo for the top spot in the class.
"We have basically sold out every single month," said Jim Turner, managing partner of O'Brien Auto Park in Urbana, Ill., a group of eight dealerships that includes Toyota. "We pre sell them before they get here, and they've pretty much been sticker price. Suffice it to say it's been a huge hit."
Honda also has been having trouble meeting demand for the four-seat Fit. At Howard Cooper Honda in Ann Arbor, Mich., graduate student Joshua Bornfield, 26, was disappointed to find none of the cars on the lot.
He was looking to buy his first new car, and preferred a subcompact because of price and gas mileage.
"If I were able to afford a more expensive car, I don't know that I would pick anything bigger at this point," he said. "I'm looking for fuel economy."
Gasoline prices indeed are driving the increased interest, but the cars are selling because they're much better than the old econoboxes, said Dan Gorrell, a partner in Strategic Vision, a San Diego-based market research firm and consultant to automakers.
"The B-cars of today are far better, more functional, more styled than those of the past," Gorrell said.
A few years ago, the Toyota Echo flopped largely because it looked and felt cheap, Gorrell said. The rounded Yaris is much nicer inside and out, he said.
"The options and equipment rival luxury cars of 10 years ago," said Jesse Toprak, chief economist for Edmunds.com, an automotive website. "They're not your mother's subcompact any longer."
Chevrolet has realized this with its 2007 Aveo, which is made of better materials than its predecessor, said
"There's a surprising level of content in the vehicle," he said.
Nearly all the subcompact cars get 35 to 40 miles per gallon of gasoline, and all are pleasant inside and out, Sanfilippo said. Prices range from under $10,000 to around $16,000.
Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, said breakthroughs in design and materials have made the interior space equivalent to larger cars.
He predicted that sales in the B-Car segment would grow to 600,000 by the end of the decade and said Ford is looking seriously at entering the market. Ford says that fuel economy has risen to among the top three factors that drive auto purchases, along with quality and safety.
Technology, including side air bags and stronger materials, has made the tiny cars safer, Sanfilippo said.
"There's not that concern anymore. You can drive safely," he said.
When DaimlerChrysler said it would sell its tiny two-seat Smart car in the United States in 2008, company officials said it would be marketed in urban areas where traffic congestion and parking shortages make smaller cars more practical.
But the surge in tiny cars isn't limited to big cities.
The Yaris, for example, is selling well in the rural Midwest .
"We're 120 miles south of Chicago in the middle of corn fields," said Turner, the dealer in Urbana, Ill. "People are buying them."