The Volkswagen Beetle grew 6 inches last year. Why cars are getting bigger

The new Kia Rio is among the many cars getting longer, partly to suit global tastes.
The new Kia Rio is among the many cars getting longer, partly to suit global tastes.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew
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With more drivers embracing fuel-efficient or hybrid cars, it seems like carmakers would be embracing smaller cars. Instead, they’re going in the opposite direction.

Inch by inch, millimeter by millimeter, newer car models are growing in length and complexity with each redesign or refresh. One factor driving the trend:  As cars become more global they need to appeal to consumers of varied tastes and sizes. So a car designed initially for an Italian market might want to appeal to American and Chinese buyers too—and both of those markets want a bigger vehicle.  “China asks for a longer wheelbase on all of our cars,” says Thomas Hagg, a Porsche media representative. “It is prestige,” he said, and many Chinese buyers plan to ride in the back seat behind their drivers. (The smallest Porsche is the Boxster, which grew by “a few millimeters” to 4,374 in its latest version.)

The Kia Rio, a 159.3-inch, five-door hatchback, has grown by an inch or two in recent years. So has the Volkswagen Beetle, which added 6 inches when the 2012 model was redesigned. The Beetle now flies into showrooms at 168.4 inches long. The story’s much the same for many makes and models worldwide. Luxury carmaker Mercedes-Benz has joined Porsche in adding a few millimeters to even its smallest car’s length.

Buyers of the Mercedes A class want more space inside, more leg room and more comfort, so “yes, it is a little bit longer than its predecessor,” says Jens Schäfer, a spokesman.

Some subcompacts and compacts have inched up so much that they are nearly the size of the mid-size cars of a decade ago, auto experts say.

Small cars  also need to squeeze in more sensors for as many as 10 airbags and more electrics and other safety and other features that have migrated from the luxury cars to the compacts. “It’s the trickle-down effects,” says Ralph Trjoa, Kia’s national manager of car product planning. Auto designers also are “adding more personality” to the small cars than before, he said.

The Ford Fiesta, redesigned for 2014, is one of the few new cars that did not grow from its earlier iterations. It remains 160.1 inches long, or 159.7 inches for the hatchback. “We feel that this is the right size,” said Amy Marentic, group marketing manager for Ford’s global cars. She noted that Ford knows it’s unusual not to be growing.