At the 2001 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, ISUZU unveiled a concept that epitomized the circle that automotive styling has made in recent years. Their “GBX” concept harked back to the stagecoach as the spiritual precursor of the SUV, but it also serves as a reminder of the origins of the automobile itself. Many early automobiles were little more than motorized buggies, and fully deserved the moniker of “horseless carriage.” Over the years styling and construction changed, but a few elements of the automobile's distant past remained — large wheels, running boards, “climb-in” upright seating, even an actual “trunk” for luggage. The years following WWII saw the last of these features disappear. The 1948 Hudson combined many of the new styling hallmarks. Smaller wheels, integrated fenders and trunk, no running-boards and wide, three-abreast “Step-Down” seating. From then on “Lower, Longer, Wider” became the styling and marketing mantra. The three went hand in hand — “lower” required “longer” and “wider” to maintain the same space. Since the introduction of Chrysler's minivans in 1983, the packaging inefficiencies that “longer, lower, wider” brought to passenger vehicles, especially wagons, became obvious. Taller vehicles like trucks and SUVs also showed the inefficiencies of most sedans and station wagons.
In Europe, cheaper mini- and sub-compact cars have been much more popular. For such small cars sedans have never been very practical. Only in the Americas are sedan versions of mini-compacts still widely available. Once the advantages of the hatchback style were recognized it spread from mini- to sub-compacts, like VW's seminal Golf, where it is now the dominant body style. The compact class has proven more resistant. Cheaper models such as Fords, Opels and Fiats sell hatchbacks in at least equal numbers to sedans, but more expensive cars like Audi, BMW, Lancia and Mercedes continue with more conservative sedans or short wagons. Although only slightly smaller than the sedan BMW's 3-series Compact hatch is marketed as the “cheap” BMW. In the mid-size class the transition to sedans is complete. European models in this class are not “family” but “executive” cars. Despite space advantages, most offered in this class (e.g. Rover 800, Ford Scorpio and SAAB 9000) have fared poorly, and were replaced by sedans in the hope of better sales. Ironically the popularity of SUVs may inspire the revival of the large hatch (like the Oldsmobile Profile concept) in the US instead.
The popularity of smaller cars in Europe has also limited the market for large American-style minivans. Instead shorter narrower minivans like the Peugeot 806 and Ford Galaxy (on compact platforms) are the norm. These small MPVs (as they are known in Europe) were joined recently by even smaller vehicles — “mini-MPVs.” The ground-breaking Renault (Megane) Scénic combined taller, upright MPV seating with a sub-compact platform, providing the interior space of a much larger, more expensive vehicle. Vehicles like the Citroën Xsara Picasso, Toyota Corolla Spacio and (of course) the retro PT Cruiser all followed this same idea. GM then upped the ante with their own variation — the Astra Zafira — a full seven seat “mini” van on a compact platform that propelled the Astra past the Golf as Europe's most popular car. Ford and VW, late to the mini-MPV party, may have been forced to abandon their original designs to respond to the Zafira's success.