I would have said that they are popular, although certainly bigger cars are also popular, more notably than in Europe for example.
One reason is that gasoline in the US is much, much cheaper than in most of the industrialized world – for example, it is around $10 per gallon in Norway, one of the world’s largest oil producers and exporters. This is not new; this has been the case for many years. The difference in the price of gasoline (when the price of oil is marginally different anywhere in the world) in Europe is largely due to taxes. But the effect is that people desire more efficient (i.e., often, small) cars, and they also drive less and when they do they do things to conserve fuel.
Also, a more minor point is that the big macho car has long been a status symbol in the US; this is changing, and it is nothing like the economic factors, but it is there.
Well, one reason is that America has a thing about size. For many people, part of being American is about driving a big car, having a big house, and eating huge sandwiches. The big car=American thing might have its roots in the US as both a place of agriculture and a place of movement. When you are hauling around equipment, you need a bigger vehicle, and when you move from place to place a lot, a bigger car means you can carry most of your belongings with you.
Our infrastructure has expanded, and consequently consumers have sought larger and more robust cars for highway and distance travel. Some small cars remain popular, but generally due to the preferences of subsets of the population (high school students who can’t afford anything beyond a used coupe; city-dwellers aiming to squeeze into tiny parking spots; sports cars geared toward speed enthusiasts, and so forth).
As rigibson and sfincher said, small cars don’t exhibit the same status as their larger counterparts. It’s perceived as more impressive to drive a BMW 7-Series or Cadillac Escalade – they’re aesethetically dominating and carry prestige.
Yet there is recent evidence of a resurgence in demand for small cars in America. This is intertwined with higher gas prices (in a relative sense: rigibson astutely mentioned that our gas is still quite cheap) and the desire to spend less money at the pump.
I’ve read in many different sources that 9/11 seems to have done a psychological number on many people, particularly women. The speculation is that big vehicles, particulalry SUVs/Hummers/Pickups, enhances a driver’s sense of safety, his or her sense of protection, while on the road (despite the fact that accidents involving SUVs have higher fatality rates than those involving smaller vehicles due to their higher center of gravity). I don’t know how precise or valid this claim is, but I suspect there may be some intangible truth to it. Perhaps people just don’t feel as safe and protected in small vehicles. I’m interested to know what others think of this.
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