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Canadians are demanding when it comes to small cars

Chevrolet Sonic.

General Motors

Canadians are a tough sell when it comes to small cars – price-sensitive, style-conscious, brand-loyal, demanding of features and unforgiving of mistakes.

And so it is, after a promising start in 2013, Chevrolet's Sonic subcompact and Spark mini-car have stalled. Sonic sales for the first third of 2014 are down 11.2 per cent, while the Spark is off 18.9 per cent. General Motors' imports from Korea did well in 2013 – Sonic sales were up 4.9 per cent, with sales of the new-for-2013 Spark up 528 per cent, according to DesRosiers Automotive Consultants.

But don't take the Spark's percentage leap too seriously. The big move upwards is attributed to the fact that few Sparks were available in 2012. That said, GM made some noise with a Spark launch campaign the focused on the gizmo-crazy needs of young buyers and it was a sensible approach. To a point.

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Many of today's younger buyers are more interested in being mesmerized by relatively cheap smartphones than being entertained by pricier cars. Someone less understanding than me would say they would rather watch a little screen than live an actual big life. But I'd never say that.

I will say that Canadians are more discriminating than Americans when it comes to little rides. Even with a relatively strong 2013, the Sonic was the No. 6 seller among subcompacts, while in the United States, it has fared much better. The top five in Canada were predictable: Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Nissan Versa, Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit. Hyundai sold twice as many Accents as Chevy did Sonics (18,884 versus 9,400), and that in a down year for the aging Accent (sales down overall 16.4 per cent).

However, the Accent is a proven car. It's stylish, has a modern gasoline direct injection engine, a solid quality reputation, and is offered in two body styles – hatchback and sedan, each with plenty of features. Ditto for the Rio.

The Versa, dull and unsophisticated, has long been one of the least expensive cars to buy and that's a strong selling point, though it's been phased out in favour of the even-cheaper Micra. The Fiesta is the most entertaining subcompact to drive and also handsome and loaded with technology, if you're willing to pay for it – including a super-efficient three-cylinder EcoBoost engine. And the dead-reliable Fit is a gem of functionality, a Swiss Army Knife on four wheels.

While priced competitively – $13,995 to start for the Sonic sedan, minus $2,000 or more in discounts – it lacks panache and sophistication. Nothing sets it apart, not its design, performance, features or price. Canadians do not have a compelling reason to buy a Sonic. As for the Spark, for most Canadians it's too small and that means it will always be a niche model.

Interestingly, the Spark and Sonic tandem has been something of a hit in the United States, where Chevy, as Automotive News reports, outsells Toyota, Honda, Ford and Hyundai in the subcompact market and can boast small gains in mini-car sales. Chevy's goal down south it not necessarily to make money with these imported small cars, but instead to "graduate" buyers to larger models in its lineup, says IHS analyst Tom Libby.

Car makers would like to do something similar in Canada, but for many Canadians a small, well-equipped Fit, Fiesta, Accent, Rio or Sonic is a seven- or eight-year purchase, with graduation long down the road, if ever.

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Give credit to GM for pushing into the small car market with credible if not particularly exciting models. The next step: carve out an identity for the Sonic. We all know what the Accent, Rio, Versa, Fiesta and Fit stand for. What makes the Sonic special? Nothing, really. At least not yet.

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