Ford, Honda See Big Money in Little Cars

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- During its February sales call last week, Ford's ( F) brass was all fired up about something that has been exciting customers: small cars.

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As Hummer hobbles toward its demise and SUV lovers salivate over station wagons, value-driven consumers are embracing compact cars they once derided as "econoboxes." While customers two decades ago derided Ford's subcompact Festiva and Aspire models -- the latter mocked for suggesting drivers "aspire" to economy class -- Ford's 2011 Fiesta is getting a lot more love. After offering buyers navigation systems, premium sound, keyless entry and ignition, heated leather trim on the seats and a choice of nine exterior colors, Ford received more than 105,000 queries, 8,000 reservations and 2,500 orders for a car that's not produced in North America yet.

"The numbers tell us that more than 50% of the 8,000 Fiesta reservations are from buyers who don't even own a Ford," says Ken Czubay, Ford's vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service. "It is very exciting to see small-car prospects giving us a look for the first time in a very long time."

A lot has changed since Ford rolled out its last U.S. subcompact in 1997. For one, the vehicles labeled "subcompact" now dwarf the power, features and interior space of the Yugos, Hyundai Excels and other underpowered models of the late '80s and early '90s. Also, since China took over as the world's biggest vehicle market last year, big car-loving Americans are no longer in the drivers' seat. As Chrysler's takeover by Fiat threatens to flood the U.S. with zippy Fiats and Tata Motors' tiny offerings create a stir in India, we offer seven examples of small cars making a big impact here:

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