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An econobox is a United States pejorative slang term for any of a series of small, boxy, fuel-efficient economy cars with few luxuries and a low sticker price. Econobox mostly denotes a stripped out, poverty specification, built down to a price, entry level version of a conventional car of the era, such as the 1950s Studebaker Scotsman or 1970s/80s Chevrolet Chevette. The other school of economy car design is to re-invent the car in order cope better with the stringent design constraints of low cost while retaining functionality. The British Austin Mini which did not sell well in America is the archetypal car of this school, and was bought by many British and other Europeans who could afford much more expensive cars, because it was at launch in 1959 technologically advanced with transverse engine front wheel drive and all independent suspension, and was stylish, fashionable and fun to drive as well as economical. The typical modern econobox is a subcompact car, usually with a three-door hatchback format with transverse engine mounting and front-wheel drive, to maximize interior space despite overall small dimensions. They are usually outfitted with vinyl bucket seats, basic AM radio, a rudimentary heater, foam-cushioned plastic trim, two-speed wipers and painted steel rims with a chromed wheel nut cap.
Econoboxes first came to prominence in the United States due to the 1973 oil crisis. Japanese automakers were leaders at producing smaller, fuel-efficient cars, as well as enjoying generally higher reliability and build quality than their US counterparts, so their offerings such as the Honda Civic generally outperformed their American competitors such as the Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto.
Possibly the first econobox was the 1920s Austin 7 first built in England which failed on the American market when it was made under license by Bantam. Crosley made similar but more successful economy cars in the 1940s. The best known American econoboxes were the 1970s/80s Chevrolet Chevette and the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon. Japanese econoboxes include the Honda Civic (in particular the first and second generations) and the Datsun B-210. The Fiat 127 and its Yugoslavian counterpart the Yugo are also famous econoboxes.
Other well known economy cars like the Volkswagen Beetle and the Citroën 2CV 'peoples cars' are sometimes referred to as econoboxes, though they do not have the requisite square shape of a true econobox.
Other cars such as the Chevrolet Sprint, Geo Metro, & Chevrolet Aveo as well as the Ford Festiva and Ford Aspire would be considered econoboxes. Although these cars had American nameplates, they were manufactured in foreign countries. American car manufacturers have typically had a hard time making money off of econoboxes, and they consider them "loss leaders" that only existed to meet CAFE fuel economy standards. So, over the course of time, American car companies shifted from manufacturing econoboxes themselves, and partnered with a foreign manufacturer to build them. A perfect example of this is the American Ford Escort. The Ford Escort replaced the Pinto in 1981, and was manufactured by Ford until 1990. The Escort built from 1991 to 1996 however was built using a Mazda "B" series. Chevrolet did the same thing using its "GEO" line, to sell cars built by Suzuki and Toyota. Chrysler did as well, using cars built by Mitsubishi.
Many long-running nameplates that obtained their start as econoboxes have since moved upscale. The Austin Mini and VW Beetle, for instance, have been revived or succeeded by high-performance vehicles whose retro exterior pays tribute to the originals, but they are now targeted at performance enthusiasts rather than the masses. Meanwhile, the Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra and the Honda Civic, three of the world's best selling vehicles, started as subcompact econoboxes but are now on the high-end of the compact size line.
Automakers created new lines of entry-level economy vehicles, such as the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and Nissan Versa, whose base models are no-frills vehicles. However, due to engineering advances, they have now incorporated more safety features while also providing substantial interior volume, despite the exterior dimensions. However, unlike original econoboxes, amenities such as power windows and air conditioning are available as options or on more expensive trims. Usually, the mid-level trims that contain some of these luxuries will be the most common models produced by their factories. The unfortunate drawback to all these added features however is that modern econoboxes do not achieve the same remarkable fuel economy numbers that their counterparts built in the eighties could produce.