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Europe and the U.S. Share a Lot, Except When It Comes to Cars

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The 2020 Geneva International Motor Show is over before it began. A victim of Covid-19, manufacturers have retooled to unveil new releases “digitally.” We Americans may shrug our shoulders because unlike viruses, many European cars and brands can’t cross continents.

Sure, the new Kia Sorento, Volkswagen Golf GTI and Mercedes E-Class that were scheduled to debut on the Geneva show floor will be coming to America, as will the BMW i4 electric sedan that was to be shown as a concept. But the new Seat Leon hatchback and Renault Captur Hybrid will be no-shows here in the United States. There are many reasons there will be no Dacia Dusters in Delaware driveways.

First off, Americans are not starved for choices. As the second-largest automotive market in the world after China, the United States has dozens of brands to browse.

“As attractive as the U.S. market is, it’s saturated,” said Stephanie Brinley, principal analyst for IHS Markit. “In the States, consumers are confused with all of the choices; it can be overwhelming.”

True enough. In the past 25 years or so, Suzuki, Daewoo and Daihatsu have left our shores. Scion, Geo, Saab, Eagle, Plymouth, Mercury, Saturn, Pontiac and Oldsmobile have joined Studebaker on that great off ramp.

For some European brands, coming to the United States means new dealerships and parts distribution. That’s expensive. Vehicles must pass our government emissions, safety and lighting requirements. That’s very expensive. And how does a company market an expensive product to consumers who are loyal to existing brands? That’s bottomless-money-pit expensive.

Even with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ existing network of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep franchisees, it has struggled to get Americans to fully embrace the Fiat and Alfa Romeo brands. A newcomer to the U.S. market would need a Caddy full of euros to introduce a brand. And by Caddy, I mean the Volkswagen Caddy, which is a small van used for deliveries and family hauling. And no, we don’t get it either.

People of each continent use their vehicles differently. “Americans like large vehicles and S.U.V.s that do 100 percent of everything,” Ms. Brinley of IHS said. “We plan for the most extreme-use case, while Europeans are more comfortable squeezing things into a small space.”

While traveling in Slovenia recently, I met the musician and Wudisban Records executive Marko Kocjan, known as Emkej, who drives a Skoda Octavia wagon, a VW product the size of the Golf SportWagen (that just left our market because of sluggish sales). In Ljubljana, Slovenia, the Octavia is a popular, though larger, choice.

“Me and my fiancée, Ajda Perme, came to the conclusion we needed a safer car and wanted extra room in the back for snowboarding and transporting music equipment to concerts. I love its space.”

American musicians would probably find the Octavia wagon far too small to haul keyboards, guitars, drums and amps. But like many European buyers, Mr. Kocjan makes the Skoda work.

“It is a car we can afford, plus the tax rate and fuel costs are in our range,” he said.

Many European countries tax vehicles on size, weight, engine size and fuel consumption at a far higher rate than our states.

So while there’s a more powerful 2-liter engine, Mr. Kocjan’s Octavia is driven by the smaller, more efficient 1.6-liter diesel with a five-speed manual transmission (rowing your own gears is much more popular in Europe).

Americans would find that powertrain pokey and inconvenient. It might be more appealing to Missourians — who pay around $2 per gallon, according to AAA — if they had to pay triple the price. That’s what Italians pay when filling up. You’re more likely to see Bigfoot sipping espresso there than a thirsty Chevrolet Tahoe.

And size matters to both continents, just not in the same way. No one needs to point out that America likes its trucks. Ford’s F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle (not just pickup truck) in America for over 30 years, but it is not officially sold in Europe.

With low fuel prices, we’re more likely to pick something larger and more comfortable to cover that ground. “We have a lot more room to spread out,” said Ray Telang, U.S. automotive leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers. “The U.S. market is filled with buyers who value size, they want S.U.V.s. The footprint of the U.S. has more rural areas. We are not as constrained by space.

“The European buyer drives narrower roads, pays a lot more for fuel and has to find a place to store the car in more crowded cities. Smaller works better there.”

But Mr. Telang also said the tastes were merging a bit. “As crossovers become more fuel efficient, the demand is accelerating in Western Europe, just not to the same level as in the U.S.”

Hatchbacks and wagons have always been popular choices overseas, and it can be argued those are close cousins to crossovers when it comes to usability and practicality.

Generally, European S.U.V.s are smaller than three-row models such as the Chevy Traverse, Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander that we buy in droves. Ford is a popular brand in Europe, but there are few Explorers there. And you will see far more Jeep Renegades overseas than Wranglers.

The huge VW Atlas that’s built in Chattanooga, Tenn., has been rebadged the Teramont in many foreign markets. And even though VW makes the midsize pickup Amarok, it’s not sold in our truck-loving country.

And then there’s design. In the home of the brave, we’re timid when it comes to styling.

Our roads are crammed with Honda Accords, Toyota Camrys and Nissan Rogues that roll with safe designs.

We would rather be seen in a Pontiac Aztek than the Fiat Multipla, which is best described as the only transportation device with a muffin top. A Citroën Berlingo would be roomy enough for our market, but the sheet metal would probably be ostracized.

Europeans are often willing to try different things, like the old three-wheeled BMW Isetta and Reliant Robin. The elfin Smart car made a noble stab at our market, but is leaving it while remaining in Europe. The oddly cladded flanks of Citroen’s C4 Cactus crossover would probably not generate much U.S. interest.

We don’t see Vauxhall or Opel cars circling cul-de-sacs, but the best of Europe’s automotive industries have influenced our cars in many ways. Volvo and Saab pioneered many safety technologies we now take for granted. BMW fundamentally changed the way cars performed with firm but comfortable suspensions.

It forced Cadillac (which has a minor presence overseas) to abandon its soft floaty ride for a much crisper dynamic. Americans wouldn’t rule out Peugeots or Skodas because of the way they drive. On my last visit to Europe, I enjoyed the dynamics of a rental Renault Clio. The small four-door hatchback was comfortable on the highway and attacked curves with spunk. The small engine did not pack much punch, but I appreciated its efficiency after pulling into gas stations with fuel prices at $1.45 a liter. Yeah, remember, there are nearly four of those in a gallon.

It’s human nature to desire forbidden fruit, but maybe it’s best we stick to what we have. Automakers know their markets very well.

Mr. Kocjan of Slovenia said: “I wanted a Cadillac Escalade when I was a kid, but now I see how big they are and I don’t know. I would love to have a Mustang … for a few days.”

Years ago, an Opel Insignia wagon cruising through Rome caught my wife’s eye. She was tempted to buy when the stylish machine ended up stateside rebadged as the Buick Regal TourX, but she did not pull the trigger. That’s what counts.

After just a few years it’s been discontinued, partly because of, you guessed it, lack of sales.

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