The imminent launch of the Fiat 500 Cabrio got me thinking about the "cute car" phenomenon. Certain cars get labeled as cute from the time they are introduced and it remains with them for life. Their appeal may wear with age, but it never gets old. Being known as cute never hurts. Whereas the designation as a "chick car" can dent sales to men, cute cars appeal to both sexes and their appeal is nearly timeless.
Since I'm not talking about "Hello Kitty" here, what are the qualities of automotive cuteness? First is small size -- the smaller, the better. It is pretty hard to fall in love with a Ford Expedition. Rounded forms are important, too. They are warmer and less threatening than straight lines and hard edges.
Then come anthropomorphic qualities -- making the car look as human as possible. When we look at the front of a cute car, we see a human face. The headlights represent the eyes, the grille appears where the nose should be, and the air intake forms a mouth. It's best to have the ends of that air intake turned upward -- nobody wants to look at a frown. Few cute cars have all three qualities, but they all have to be small and have the potential to be lovable.Herewith, my list of the ten cutest cars:
1. Fiat 500
The current contender for the title of cutest car on the market, the 500 scores a rare triple in cuteness: It's small, curvy and friendly-faced. The 500 is even cuter if you use its Italian nickname "Cinquecento." A modern interpretation of Italy's beloved Topolino built between 1957 and 1975, it was reintroduced in its home market in 2007 and became a cult hit. Every Italian looks stylish in a 500. If Americans find it drives half as well as it looks, Fiat will have a winner. Still to be determined is whether the 500 will look as cute in Rochester as it does in Rome.
2. Volkswagen Beetle
The modern descendant of the venerable post-World War II Beetle, today's Beetle has so many curves that it is huggable. Too many, in fact. To maintain the arc of the roofline when the body was reengineered for front wheel drive, the driver's seat was pushed back towards the trunk. It kind of felt like you were steering from the rear seat. This classic version is being replaced after 13 years of production with a new, more streamlined design aimed at male buyers. The first new Beetle temporarily revived VW sales in the U.S. VW hopes the next one has a more lasting impact. The bud vases are gone but it's still pretty cute.
3. MINI Cooper
No car on the market has made such a virtue of cuteness. From its anthropomorphic face, to customer love-ins disguised as owner clubs, to its enduring slogan "Let's Mini," this car is cute cubed. Even better, there's a payoff behind the wheel, where the MINI's short wheelbase and optional turbocharged engine make you feel like you're running up to Blenheim Palace for a country weekend with Kate and Will. On the market since 2001, MINI is proof that cute endures. Inventories have remained low and sales keep clicking along despite traditional English characteristics like dodgy quality and aristocratic pricing.
4. Kia Soul
The Soul's designer says he was inspired by a nature documentary to create a car that looks like a wild boar with a backpack, but the adorably ugly Soul would never cut it in the jungle. The presence of Kia's corporate grille known as the "Tiger Nose" won't scare anybody either. Where the animal imagery does succeed is in transforming a tiny economy box into an "urban crossover vehicle" with street-cred cuteness. Customers have been captured by the jungle imagery: They bought more than 10,000 Souls in April.
5. Nissan Cube
Technically, the Cube is a mini multi-purpose vehicle produced by Nissan for the Japnese market since 1998 and now sold in export markets. Philosophically, it is a descendant of the quirky "Pike" cars, limited edition microcars with whimsical names like the snail-shaped S-Cargo van that captivated Japan during the bubble economy years of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Nearly half as wide as it is long, it boasts an admirably-efficient footprint and might have competed for New York's taxi of the future. The Cube's flat-roofed, square-cornered style hasn't translated into English very well; the closest American parallel is the equally slow-selling Ford Flex.
6. Mazda MX-5 Miata
The grandaddy of cute sport cars, the Miata was introduced in 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show with a price of $15,000, and it created a sensation: A classic British roadster from the 1960s had been updated, improved, and rendered nearly trouble-free. The Miata has remained in production ever since -- larger, faster, and more expensive -- with its core unchanged. Its cuteness derives from its compact size, light weight, efficient cockpit, and ease of control. The ergonomics are so perfect and the manual transmission so slick that slipping behind the wheel makes you feel like Stirling Moss.
7. Scion iQ
Its U.S introduction has been delayed by Japan's earthquake, but the hedgehog-shaped iQ will create a sensation once it arrives. Toyota calls it the smallest four-seat vehicle in the world, so tiny and adorable that owners may want to tuck it in at night. But the iQ is much more versatile than the typical minicar. It is equipped with 10 airbags, including a unique rear-window air curtain, and it is so nimble that Aston Martin is adopting a version that it is calling the Cygnet to add to its line of $200,000 sports cars. Hybrid and battery-powered models may make the iQ indispensable in big cities.
8. Smart ForTwo
The shortest car in America, the Smart ForTwo sacrifices some of the inherent cuteness that comes with its size in favor of some modernistic touches like the abbreviated roofline and jarring side body graphics. Some more of the cuteness wore off after drivers experienced the short wheelbase firsthand and saw the $16,000 price tag for the trunkless two-seater. Popular in Europe where they park on sidewalks, the ForTwo has yet to find a following in the U.S., where sales have trickled away to less than 500 a month.
9. Chick Hicks
Can villainy be cute? Probably only in Pixar's 2006 "Cars." The Buick Grand National-inspired stock car racer has been a runner-up his entire career, he's bitter about it, and it shows. Hicks is sponsored by Hostile Takeover Bank, has nasty workers in his pit crew, and deliberately rams a competitor so that he can win the Piston Cup. As usual in a cartoon, the villain gets the foil, and Chick is no exception. Yet he's cuddly enough to get his own Facebook page, where fans sign in with his signature "Ka-chicka! Ka-chicka! Ka-chicka!" and a chance to wreak more havoc in "Cars 2" this summer
Hall of Fame: Chrysler PT Cruiser
Launched on an unsuspecting public in 1999, the PT Cruiser was immediately dubbed "the car too cool to categorize." Depending on whom you talked to, its utterly original design was inspired by either a Chrysler Airflow, a getaway car for 1930s movie gangsters, or a Model A hot rod. Based on a Neon platform, the five-door Cruiser was both eminently practical and very profitable. As late as its fifth year on the market, Chrysler still sold 130,000 of them. The design would prove so iconic that Chrysler was unable to successfully update it, and production was ended in 2010.