Jennifer Aubrecht, a 24-year-old manager at a Frankfurt construction company, likes to push her new BMW 1 Series to the limit. That includes ripping past the occasional snoozing Porsche in a burst of turbocharged acceleration. This smallest BMW, which hit German showrooms a year ago, is no bigger than a Volkswagen Golf. But it blends the performance and styling once reserved for luxury models with the miserly gas mileage of a compact. "It's not only the great design" that appeals to her, Aubrecht says. "It's how fast and how comfortable the car is."
Fast means Autobahn-schnell. She has clocked the 600 miles from Frankfurt to Zagreb in nine hours. Her seven-month-old, 163-hp BMW 120 diesel is loaded with extras, including an aerodynamic design, sporty suspension, and a leather interior. "I love everything about it. Nothing can lure me away from this car," she says.
Europeans have long excelled at making neat small cars, from the cherubic Fiat 500 of the 1950s and '60s to the cuddly Rover Mini. Now the Old World is revolutionizing the boring compact. Forget the utilitarian box. A new generation of Euro compacts boasts racy design, surefooted handling, and engines that are both peppy and economical. BMW's new 1 Series epitomizes the trend, but it's hardly alone. General Motors' Opel unit, France's Renault, and Italy's Fiat make beguiling rivals. More foreign compacts may show up on U.S. roads -- Audi's A3 Sportback is already here, and BMW is debating whether to introduce the 1 Series in the U.S. But these models may also serve as an inspiration to reshape America's automotive future.
VW kick-started the trend of juicing the horsepower of a basic Golf in the 1980s with the hot-rod GTI model. But the design revolution in Europe's small cars really took off when BMW and Mercedes began their assault on the market with smaller premium cars in the late 1990s. Just to compete, every auto maker needed a compact with cutting-edge design, one that was nearly as fun to drive as a sports car. Even mass-market French, Italian, and American producers started launching small cars packed with tech-driven innovations such as the road-sensing adaptive suspension systems once reserved for top-of-the-line Bimmers and Benzes. "We wanted to democratize technology and make innovations affordable," says Carl-Peter Forster, president of GM Europe and former CEO of GM unit Adam Opel, describing the philosophy behind the hot-selling Opel Astra.
That meant bringing power to the masses. Small cars were once fitted with unexciting engines. Now, many European makers offer as many as six different engines for a compact, with the most powerful still striving to rank as fuel-efficient. BMW's 1 Series is the pacesetter among compacts, offering precise handling, brisk acceleration, and and an outstanding 41.3-mpg fuel rating for combined city and highway driving.
Audi's A3 Sportback, which has just landed on U.S. shores, is hot on BMW's tail. Its turbocharged TFSI engine is one of the few that improve power and economy by directly injecting fuel into the cylinders. Thanks to 200 hp, it zips from 0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. Next year, Audi will up the ante by launching the all-wheel drive Quattro version, which makes the car even safer.
The Opel Astra may not match the super handling of a BMW or Audi, but it highlights a quantum leap in the design and performance of Europe's mass-market small cars. The Astra had long suffered in the shadow of VW's Golf, the latter remembered mostly for its low price tag, dull silhouette, and puny engines. Suddenly, the fleet Astra, introduced in March, 2005, was blowing its rival Golf off the road. GM Europe President Forster cleverly introduced an optional adaptive suspension system on the Astra called continuous damping control (CDC), which gave computer-controlled shocks and springs at each corner of the car the ability to adapt quickly to road contours and conditions -- a first in the compact segment. The shock absorbers react almost instantly to variations in the road surface or driving style and help prevent skids and wheel spin.
There's plenty of power, natürlich. The new '06 Astra GTC coupe, with its optional panoramic glass roof and hopped-up OPC performance versions (in Britain, the OPC is called the Vauxhaul Astra VXR) comes with a 240-hp turbocharged engine that sets a new benchmark for "hot hatches," topping out at 152 mph. Its cabin resembles a jet-fighter's cockpit. "Design comes first in the eyes of consumers," says Frank Stephenson, an American design ace who was the artistic force behind BMW's smash hit Mini before moving to Ferrari and then Fiat.
Producing cars with ever-bolder designs is a competitive must for makers of European small cars. Italy's Alfa Romeo has won plaudits for the edgy styling of its new Brera sport coupe, inspired by a 2002 show car from the top Giugiaro design studio. The long hood, low stance, and squinty headlights give the car an aggressive body, while the line above the three round lights was drawn to resemble "an angry, sharply slanting eyebrow," says Wolfgang Egger, Alfa's design chief. The Brera's design is a simple, graphic message, says Christoph Stürmer, senior auto industry researcher at Global Insight Inc. in Frankfurt: "Get out of my way. You know this beast bites."
Renault's Mégane is another exemplary compact and a design standout. It broke the mold with its avant-garde geometric styling. The bulging tail shape, dubbed the "bustle" by Renault chief designer Patrick Le Quément, makes a statement that no manufacturer has yet to match. Renault's performance sprinter, the Mégane Sport, boasts sportier suspension, great cornering -- and does 0 to 60 in six seconds. That's breathtaking performance for a French fashion plate.
Mercedes pioneered the latest innovative step in the compact segment with its B-Class, a luxury "sports activity vehicle" designed to maximize interior space. Aside from the car's luxury trimmings and spacious interior, helped in part by the higher roofline, the formula remains the same -- power, performance, and design all in a neat, integrated little package. The B200 turbo engine version with 193 hp can top out at 140 mph.
U.S. car buyers may eventually see some of these innovations in their own backyard. After all, with gas prices so high, the American driving public may soon give up on its love affair with imposing bulk and Queen Mary contours. If that day comes, they need only look to the pocket rockets zipping across European highways to see motoring's future.
By Gail Edmondson