Ford launched its European-designed Fiesta at the Detroit show earlier this month. The Mexican-built line will include a sedan and goes on sale as a 2011 model later this year

Ford launched its European-designed Fiesta at the Detroit show earlier this month. The Mexican-built line will include a sedan and goes on sale as a 2011 model later this year

Wildly fluctuating oil prices, emissions concerns and legislatory pressure are all combining to make US consumers look again at smaller cars - a sector once thought impenetrable by many manufacturers.

The giants of the US automobile industry, General Motors (GM) and Ford are now evaluating how to build on inroads made only a few years ago by Japanese stalwarts such as Nissan and Toyota - and they are finding an appetite exists for more modest models.

"Nissan and Toyota have only been here for a few years, but that has really worked up the market, it is how the global movement is growing," US-based automotive research site Edmunds.com's senior analyst Jessica Caldwell told just-auto from Los Angeles.

"Ford needs to have a car that does well everywhere, for example, and that has really elevated in importance. Small cars are changing with market share growing steadily - it is not ridiculously huge but it is significant, it is growing."

And while the days of the traditional US large truck and SUV are not exactly numbered, Caldwell noted automakers were thinking more creatively about them - "it is really a no-brainer," she said.

Legislation, oil prices and ever-stricter emissions requirements are on the menu, but that cocktail of pressure is being added to by a growing list of parameters that can vary state by state, but which are being overseen at federal level too - particularly with the rise of president Barack Obama to the White House. "When Obama took office, it [smaller cars] was definitely on his list," said Caldwell.

State by state legislation can vary but so too can regions, with Maine in the east and indeed much of the eastern seaboard, as well as California in the west, proving fertile hunting ground for giants such as Ford and GM to push the new agenda, particularly as oil prices remain so volatile.

"We expect, at least this year, gas prices to be steady, but we had a big spike in May - that really got people to take a look at those vehicles," said Caldwell. "People realised, 'hey,' these cars are not the ones they remember. As more brands appear they become more like smaller cars in Europe - it will catch on.

There will always be a constituency of course - particularly in the American mid-west and rural farming communities - that could prove more resistant to the lure of the small, but even in this resolutely traditional heartland, Caldwell believes a drive to efficiency will still play its part.

The move even spread to the epicentre of US carmaking last week at the Detroit auto show. The chatter included topics such as fuel cells, hydrogen and even diesel and how they could translate to sports cars and larger vehicles.

"In Detroit, you saw something you had never seen before really, with small cars and fuel efficiency," said Caldwell. "This is where the whole car market is going."

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