Dodge buzzes small car market with Dodge Hornet

A utomakers are swarming the subcompact car market with a vengeance, but is there room for a Hornet?

The Chrysler Group is about to find out when it unveils the new Dodge Hornet at the Geneva Auto Show later this month.

The boxy vehicle is designed to seat four and serve as a global concept.

But whether the Hornet foreshadows Chrysler’s plans for a car smaller than the new Dodge Caliber remains iffy.

“Chrysler is known to bring its concepts very quickly into the market, but believe it or not, we do some concepts where we have not decided yet to produce them,” said Thomas Hausch, Chrysler’s director of international sales and marketing, during a briefing Monday with journalists.

Chrysler has considered building a subcompact as part of its global growth strategy, but executives want to partner with another automaker to reduce engineering and production costs.

While the subcompact market is growing worldwide, it remains far less profitable.

Last month at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Joe Eberhardt, Chrysler vice president of global sales and marketing, said the automaker is primarily interested in a subcompact — or B-segment — car for the international market. While not convinced Americans will embrace tiny vehicles, he wouldn’t rule out the selling them in the U.S. market down the road.

“I am not sure that short term, that small cars are really an alternative for too many people,” Eberhardt said.

Global sales of B-segment cars are exploding, encouraging General Motors Corp, Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co. and others to expand offerings in the segment.

Since 2001, sales for subcompacts have ballooned from 9.8 million to about 11.4 million in 2005, according to figures from CSM Worldwide Inc.

The firm projects annual sales of subcompact cars will reach 14.1 million vehicles by 2009. The United States could account for 661,054 units — up from 372,392 last year — and Europe, where small cars are favored, is forecasts to generate some 6.4 million sales.

And while Detroit automakers continue to produce full-size SUVs, they’re also putting smaller wheels on the road.

GM has been selling the Chevrolet Aveo for two years, with U.S. sales reaching more than 68,000 units in 2005. Honda and Nissan Motor Co. are introducing new subcompact cars in the U.S. market this year.

At last month’s auto show in Detroit, Ford introduced its itty-bitty Reflex concept.

“With some of the interior designs and new B segment cars rolling out, people are looking at them as alternatives because these vehicles are pretty nicely made,” said Brian Chee, managing editor of research Web site Autobytel.com.

Today’s more stylish subcompacts are packed not only with fuel-efficient engines, but safety features at bargain prices, Chee said, creating a shift in what car shoppers are buying and a spread of what they’re looking for. The move is similar, he said, to consumers opting to buy a midsize or compact SUV rather than a full-size one.

Though pint-sized, the Dodge Hornet concept doesn’t skimp on the brawny Dodge design.

The car is built on a specially-designed chassis and is almost as wide as slightly larger C-segment vehicles such as the Ford Focus sedan.

The vehicle shown to the media had what Hausch called very flexible seatings. The rear passenger seats fold completely flat.

The car has 19-inch aluminum wheels, arching wheel flares and an oversize sunroof rendered in a deep “blue view” tint which contrasts with its “liquid silver” exterior.

It is equipped with a four-cylinder engine that pumps 170 horsepower.

“It’s purely a concept, but it shows you what the Dodge brand means in terms of future products,” Hausch said.