I live in Denmark (in Scandinavia in Europe). My mom has just moved to the US and is going to buy a new car, so I am watching closely as she and her new husband look at all the brands and choose one.
I now drive my mom's former car, a 1.3 liter 86 hp Toyota Yaris that does 39 mpg combined. We're talking about an 8 year old car. One of the topseller cars today, the Toyota Aygo, does 52 mpg. These cars make even the American hybrids seem like gas guzzlers. I heard on the radio that the national average for all private vehicles is about 28 mpg combined here.
Considering this information, I take a look at fueleconomy.gov and nearly have a heart attack. There's only 2 vehicles for sale that have better mileage than my prehistoric Yaris, and those are expensive hybrids. Thus, it is inevitable that my mom will have to get a gas-guzzing vehicle compared to what she is used to.
In Denmark, a typical Corolla has a 1.4 engine, and they don't come bigger than 1.6. In the US, the smallest Corolla engine size is 1.8.
In Denmark, the smallest Mazda available is a 2 that does 43,5 mpg combined. In the US, the smallest Mazda - well - isn't small at all and does only 27 mpg, unless you want to shell out for a hybrid, in which case the Tribute will do a stunning 32 mpg.
I wonder how the US car market got to such a disastrous state - not even offering small cars to those who want them. I guess that's what you get for having too cheap fuel and cheap cars!
Cheap fuel, cheap cars, rough roads (on which we prefer heavier vehicles that feel less bad on the bumps), pre-existing big heavy vehicles with easy licensing requirements that leave drivers of small cars in fear of their lives (you can't argue with physics -- guess which car is bouncing further and harder in a collision between a 2,000 pound Civic and a 8,000 pound SUV)...and a history of liking lots of space.
I feel cramped in small cars. My VW Rabbit (re-named Golf, same exact car, just using a different name in the US) is the smallest car I've ever felt comfortable in.
Plus, back in the 1980s, lots of people bought very small, light cars and were disappointed because they were really crappy; the resulting reputation hasn't worn off yet, even though many modern small cars are pretty nice.
A big part of that is also the diesel vs. gasoline situation. Also there is the automatic vs. manual transmission situation (many of us lazy Americans don't understand how to drive with a clutch and shifter).
Personally, I have driven many European cars (in Europe) and a 1.3L turbo diesel has as much kick as virtually anyone here could need except for the real sports car enthusiasts.
Which reminds me, if people started looking at torque ratings for cars instead of horsepower, diesels would be less unappealing!
Also, a lot of the small cars available in Europe won't meet US safety or EPA standards. Also, even though we've been complaining about fuel prices lately, US fuel prices are a lot cheaper than Europe. Plus, as HC mentioned larger cars ride out the bumps a lot better than small cars. My truck rides exceptionally well, and especially if your driving down an unpaved road. It just glides over the bumps.
Other factors to note are this: Americans are generally tall. Most often when I meet people from Europe they seem short to me (I'm 6'4"). Americans being taller will generally require more legroom and headroom which means a larger vehicle. We also spend more time in our cars. Most of the country is rural and no public transportation is available. Some of our states are larger than many European countries. I'll jump in the car and drive to Florida and think nothing of it. I doubt Eurpoeans are apt to travel on a trip like that in a car. They are more likely to take a train. Train travel here in the US sucks. Amtrak (The nationalized passenger rail carrier) is poorly run, and although there are some good routes (Like the Acella high speed rail between Washington DC, and New York city) most of the trains are in poor condition, and rail travel is unbearably slow.
For these reasons we take to the highways, and want comfortable, more powerful vehicles because of the amount of time we spend in our vehicles.
We also spend more time in our cars. Most of the country is rural and no public transportation is available.
I forgot about this factor. We spend a lot of our time, do a lot of activities, and need to keep lots of things in our cars. Most people eat in their car at least occasionally, which I understand doesn't happen much in Europe. Some people might change their clothes in their car, do office work, even nap.
When I was working in my family's construction business, many of my days were spent in my truck all day. We worked on job sites that were 100 miles away from our office, and I would spend whole days just going to jobsites to deliver tools or materials or deal with problems, to potential jobs to measure for an estimate, or to offices to pick up plans (and often those offices were even further away than the job site).
I'd leave at 6:30am, drive for an hour or two to my first destination, be there for anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours, go to my next destination, etc. Along the way I'd grab some lunch at a drive through fast food joint and eat it in my truck...Then I continue on.
While at a destination, I might take some measurements or pick up plans, and if it was urgent I might do the math in my truck. I might drop off or pick up tools or materials, including something that nobody knew they needed until I was already on the way there. I might repair broken tools in my truck. It all required me to keep a large variety of tools and supplies in the truck at all times, and I still needed to have an empty truck bed to carry decent amounts of materials -- else I'd have to drive a bigger truck, and try to remember everything I need from my pickup truck.
It got really crowded with me, a bunch of blueprints, tools, and cold weather clothing in the cab of the truck.
Anyway, most people don't use their vehicles exactly like that, but it is still very common to spend the whole day every day in your vehicle and need a large variety of stuff, and space to work/eat lunch.
In the US, traditionally, cars aren't just a means to get to a destination; they are a universal tool for doing lots of things, and they are often the destination. We carry all this stuff, and all this tradition, around with us when we drive, so lots of vehicles are big. When many are big, it's less pleasant to drive something so small (due to the safety issues I mentioned before, as well as such things as not being able to see past huge SUVs and pickups when in small vehicles).
Everyone I met in Germany was at least 6'. I feel like even in the US that we have a stereotype that Germans are big and tall, and it's mostly true. The small cars in Europe really don't feel that small, they're crafted to take 6'6" in to account without issue.
Diesel vs. Gasoline is important, but he's comparing gasoline cars. It is pretty stupid that we 'have' to have 1000+lbs of wasteful batteries to equal the economy of a gasoline engine in Europe. I think the transmissions are a very big issue, it's near impossible to find an automatic over there except for hyper luxury cars (like BMW 5 or 7 series, 30-50k + Euros!), plus from what I've seen they're geared much better. BMW diesels have 6 speed manuals and the gearing feel superb!
I think size of cars is the biggest issue. Did you know BMW had a 1 series? Nope, 3 is the lowest here, what about Mazdas? Not sure about the speed 3s and stuff, all I saw in Europe were Mazda 121s and maybe a 323. Remember the 323s 5-10 years ago? That was the 'smallest' Mazda, well no, they've had a 121 for years. All car lines you know of have 1 smaller category in Europe. Remember the old VW Polo? Well they never stopped making it there. Most cars have 1.4L, rarely higher.
And safety, ZrednaZ, you may feel sick looking at those numbers, but if you saw American roads you'd be scared for your life. Europe has a lot of box truck/delivery trucks, etc, but they're slow and lumbering, EVERYONE has a vehicle this size in America. There are tons of Pickup trucks and SUVs, our Germany landlords were shocked when I said my 'car' at home was 7 meteres long (almost exactly, 22 feet bumper to bumper). The thing is though, even though they're big you'd just think, whatever, they're easy to navigate around, but all those GIANT vehicles have 300+HP, they will move much faster than any vehicle you're used too and most drivers don't seem to understand their size and that's a lot of weight moving and accelerating very fast.
In Europe all the cars moved at about the pace of my Festiva and that was plenty, it felt fine, no horn honking or aggresiveness, no squealing tires as you accelerate your 6000lb mass. Plus people just feel like better drivers, people seem to really know the size of their cars, I've routinely seen just normal driving where people come within inches of each other or parked cars or curbs, but they all know exactly where they are and no one is 'worried'. SUVs are so big and Americans so stupid that if you come within 5' they get worried and either try to slam into you or get in front of you or just get overly aggressive on the defensive because you're clearly a 'bad driver'.
I was ecstatic when I heard that was coming here. I talked to a guy in New Zeland that was talking about his 1 series and I had to go to the European BMW site to see the thing. I wanted one for about 6 months before I heard they were coming here. It's made me re-think my decision about cars... again.
230 horsepower 3.0 L6, 3250 pounds, 6 speed, RWD. That's all I need to know.