Why small cars can help ease the burden of skyrocketing oil prices

Gas prices aren’t going down any time soon.

The steep rise in pump fuel prices in the last two weeks is the culmination of the oil market’s volatility amidst geopolitical uncertainty since the start of the year. Similar scenarios played out in 1973 and 1979 where conflicts in the Middle East created a shortage in petroleum supply and drove gas prices to unprecedented levels.

The energy crisis of the 1970s did have a positive outcome though. It forced governments and car manufacturers to develop fuel-efficient technologies and standards to maximize energy derived from fuel while lessening the severe impacts of high gas prices. It also led to the proliferation of the small, gas-miser car.

After a tumultuous political and economic climate in the early 1980s which saw most car manufacturers leave the Philippines, Toyota returned in 1988 to give us the Corolla 1.3-liter sedan. Mitsubishi followed suit by making its Lancer available with a 1300cc motor.

The People’s Car Program in the early 1990s saw major brands such as Honda, Kia and Fiat set up assembly plants to produce small, low-displacement models. The popular Honda Civic 1.2-liter hatchback and the Kia Pride ushered in both brands’ entry into the Philippine market. Small cars have truly been instrumental in ushering mobility in this country in the last 30 years.

Have you ever noticed though in the past two decades, as gas prices stabilized, cars have also started to get bigger and heavier again? This, coupled with improved engine combustion technology, has spurned growth spurts in most car models. As the market demanded more features and performance, and while governments mandated more crash safety inclusions, car manufacturers responded in kind by redefining car categories with increased car dimensions.

But now, with oil producing countries working to recover losses from the COVID-19 lockdowns two years ago and unwilling to increase oil production, the world is stuck again with skyrocketing gas prices. Compounded by Russia’s war with Ukraine, it looks like we are well into another energy crisis. And as mobility remains to be a necessity, it would seem that small cars will once again play a major role in the marketplace. A curious case of history repeating itself.

Fortunately, many car manufacturers have learned their lessons from the ‘70s and have not abandoned the small car in their lineup. Aside from playing the easy access role to the brand, small cars cater to a more practical demographic. They are cheaper to produce and are therefore cheaper to purchase. And while they may not be as plush, comfortable, or as powerful as the bigger models in the lineup, they still tick off the bare necessities.

Air-conditioning, a decent infotainment system, and a sprinkling of cupholders and cubby holes all make small cars practical daily drivers. The market is even teeming with a plethora of design choices. From small hatchbacks to micro pseudo-SUVs, one can choose a small vehicle that will fit his or her specific needs. China, India, Thailand, Indonesia are the sources of these cars nowadays. So take your pick.

Small cars are also lighter in weight. And the lower the mass, the less work the engine has to do to move the car about. Improvements in crash structure engineering and materials, as well as the inclusion of passive safety systems such as airbags and Anti-lock Brake Systems have all contributed to the small cars’ improved safety over the decades.

In terms of ownership costs, small cars are also generally more affordable to maintain. Their lack of complexity and minimal electronic technology assures lower maintenance and parts replacement costs. This is where the old adage, “Keep It Simple, Stupid” really comes to play.

Ultimately though, it is the small cars’ equally small engines that will spark renewed interest in this category. With gasoline prices threatening to rise up to potentially P100 per liter in the next few weeks, new car buyers may have to explore the small car market for their immediate four-wheeled mobility needs. Or, if money is no object, have a small car as a more practical daily driving alternative in the garage.

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A diminutive fuel-injected 1.0-liter gasoline engine is more than enough to get one around town. Today’s sub 1.2-liter engines produce as much power as 1.5 or 1.6-liter mills from 30 years ago. They also sip less fuel than larger vehicles especially in bumper-to-bumper traffic with long idle times. And most small cars are capable enough to do the famed climb to Baguio test nowadays as well.

Automatic transmissions are smarter now too and have more gears to optimize engine speeds during acceleration and cruising. Many car manufacturers have also adopted Continuously Variable Transmission or CVT technology to give small cars a scooter-like drive.

If one’s primary purpose is to get from point A to point B in relative comfort, that is not being exposed to the heat of the sun, getting soaked by the rain, or breathing in the city’s pollution, then a small basic car will be more than enough to do the job.

Yes, we have been spoiled in the last two decades with leather seats, soft to the touch interiors, cruise and climate control, fancy independent and multi-link suspensions, larger wheels and even more powerful engines, but they all literally come at a marked up price. For a car market that relies heavily on car loans, low-down payment and low-monthly schemes though, the small car continues to make more financial sense for a vast majority of car buyers in the Philippines today.

Short of the adoption of electric vehicles due to the lack of an enabling law that will lower their costs, institutionalize a fast-charging network across the country, and drive down electricity prices through alternative non-coal or oil sources, it would seem that the small car, and its small engine, will still play a crucial role in the development of our society.

And if history is any indication as to where affordable mobility is headed to in the near future, then one can safely bet on the fact that the small, gas-miser car is here to stay.