Automobiles and apple pie: about as American as you can get, right? Well, no. The U.S. gave up the global car crown years ago. While Detroit cranked out gas-guzzling behemoths, carmakers elsewhere worked toward building smaller, more fuel-efficient models. When gas prices hit dizzying new heights in September of 2005, American consumers realized they could admire all sorts of vehicles they would never be able to buy. "Why can't we get that car here?" has become a common refrain.
U.S. auto consumers may have only themselves to blame. Critics have been quick to decry the glut and poor planning of the Big Three automakers, but manufacturers have pointed the finger right back at consumers, charging that the huge vehicles they made were simply a response to demand. A Sept. 9, 2009, survey of 32,000 new car and light-truck buyers in the U.S. conducted by AutoPacific, a Tustin, (Calif.)research firm, concluded that American consumers still want cars that are "bigger, faster, and with more bells and whistles." Why then, the automakers figured, should they bother with cars such as the tiny Ford Ka (F), now available in the U.K., Latin America, and Mexico but missing from U.S. lots?
Wary of Diesel Tough fuel economy and emissions standards in the U.S. also make it hard to import cars designed for less stringent markets. Fuel-efficient diesel vehicles designed for Europe used to spit out lots of greenhouse gases. In the U.S., states such as California cracked down on emissions because of smog problems, and so diesel was a nonstarter. Despite improvements in diesel technology, it's still not a sought-after fuel supply, so Americans might not find the Mini Cooper D (BMWG.F) for sale near them any time soon. "Americans can't figure out that diesel is more efficient, cleaner, and has better performance," says Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of Edmunds.com, a Web site that tracks the auto industry.
Safety standards are another reason European and Asian superminis don't make it to U.S. shores. Vehicles in America have to reach a certain weight. The bare bones design of Tata's Nano (TTM) would not likely meet the restrictions necessary to be considered roadworthy in the U.S.
Then there's the bottom line. It's neither practical nor profitable for companies to make all vehicles for all countries. Much of the time, it's cheaper to make cars in countries such as China or India, where labor costs are low. Having to ship vehicles across oceans adds costs too high to pass on to U.S. consumers. For now, consumers will have to content themselves with looking but not driving.
For another look at popular European cars not available in the U.S., check out this additional BusinessWeek slide show.