From tailfinned Cadillacs of the 1950s to three-ton S.U.V.'s at the turn of the century, luxury vehicles have always pushed the limits of size and mass.
Now it's happening again, but in the opposite direction: automakers are whipping up bite-size luxury models, confident that Americans are finally seeing the upside of small, yet artful, portions.
These cars also spotlight a new kind of status, a less-is-more mentality that's taking root in everything from food to fashion. Small, yet relatively precious, with prices of roughly $30,000 to $50,000, these models suggest that their owners could afford to buy a bigger car -- but choose not to.
For S.U.V.'s, especially, the old question of "how big can they go," is undergoing a 180-degree switch. Hummer-size entries are barely on the table. Instead, fuel-efficient crossovers like the BMW X1, Buick Encore and Mini Countryman are creating a niche that, not long ago, would have seemed too inconsequential for carmakers and consumers to bother with.
Tall-riding and squat, shaped a bit like petite hiking boots, these entries are one size smaller than compact crossovers -- think of the Audi Q5, BMW X3 or Volvo XC60 -- that themselves seemed a novelty only a decade ago. Yet those compact haulers quickly became the fastest-growing part of the luxury market.
The Encore is the antithesis of the traditional battleship-size Buick. Lincoln hopes its coming MKC, a luxury crossover utility based on the Ford Escape, can help to reverse its slump.
Audi's Q3 crossover, about two inches shorter than a Honda Civic, is coming to America, perhaps next year. Porsche recently hired 1,000 workers in Leipzig, Germany, to build the Macan, a downsized S.U.V. that goes on sale early next year.
And for 2015, Mercedes-Benz is prepping a crossover, tentatively called the GLA, that would match up against the X1 and Q3.
Automakers are also experimenting with shrunken sedans.
Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics, an auto industry consulting firm in Birmingham, Mich., says that as "compact" models have grown larger and more expensive -- including the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4 -- many consumers are eager for smaller and relatively more affordable models.
A stylish example is the Mercedes CLA, due to go on sale this fall at a come-hither starting price of $30,825 (including the mandatory $925 delivery charge). That Civic-size sedan is powered by a turbocharged 2-liter 4-cylinder engine producing 208 horsepower.
In decades past, luxury compacts were often perceived -- rightly, in many cases -- as a bait-and-switch. Most notoriously, for 1982 Cadillac slapped leather trim and alloy wheels on a Chevrolet Cavalier economy car and called it the "Cimarron by Cadillac." Instead of seeing the Cimarron as automotive royalty, critics and consumers called for its head.
A few years later, Mercedes loyalists were unimpressed by the 190, a compact sedan that came to be dismissed as a "poor man's Mercedes." A later attempt to sell Americans on a small Mercedes hatchback, the C230, also fell flat.
But more recently, European automakers established beachheads with small sport sedans like the 3 Series, C-Class and A4, turning them into best sellers and profit centers. Even Cadillac has made amends with its 2013 ATS sedan, its first small car since the Cimarron and an impressive 3 Series fighter.
The Mini Cooper deserves some credit for changing perceptions of what a small car can be -- and how much the public is willing to pay for one.
BMW's 2002 redesign of the legendary, fuel-sipping, rally-winning Mini -- originally introduced to England in 1959 for about $800 -- wasn't a luxury car per se. Yet it represented a new way of thinking, at least for Americans who stereotyped tiny cars as being cheap, dull, unreliable or unsafe. The reborn Mini was fashionable and fun to drive, and it was hardly inexpensive; checking off some of the many BMW-bred options could kick the price to $30,000 and more.
In the Mini's wake, automakers are following its high-design formula, said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president for forecasting at LMC Automotive, a research firm. In contrast with the past, he said, "These aren't dumbed-down luxury vehicles that try to fool you" with a designer name.
The pint-size brigade also dovetails nicely with the psychology of post-recession consumers. "Buyers are coming back in, but they're feeling a little more frugal than before," Mr. Schuster said. "With these models, they can still aspire to a premium vehicle with the features they want."
Early next year, Audi will offer a redesigned A3 -- now a sedan, like the Mercedes CLA, rather than a hatchback. While Lexus offers a luxury hatch, the CT 200h hybrid, European brands pointedly continue to leave high-end hatchbacks at home.
Mr. Hall noted that America's introduction to hatchbacks did not go well, with poorly executed small cars like the Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Chevette. And the image of hatchbacks as budget bottom-feeders has persisted.
In Europe, Mr. Hall said, single-car households prize hatchbacks for their versatility. In the United States, crossovers ably fill the role of family hauler, often as the second car in the family.
"Hatchbacks are great if you need one car to do multiple things, but we're not a nation of one-car, small-parking-space families," Mr. Hall added.
An Audi spokesman, Mark Dahncke, acknowledged that Americans greatly prefer sedans. But he said that Audi management might eventually add an A3 hatch to the lineup, perhaps with fuel-saving versions like the TDI diesel or a plug-in hybrid.
Mr. Hall added that such environmental imperatives, and not simply consumer tastes, were driving the downsizing. Mercedes and other brands face challenging targets for mileage and carbon-dioxide emissions.
Small cars, of course, are ideally suited to alternative-fuel powertrains. At the New York auto show this week, BMW will display its Concept Active Tourer, a front-drive hatchback that will combine a 3-cylinder gasoline engine with plug-in electric assist to achieve nearly 95 miles per gallon.
Another BMW plug-in, the i3, a city car built on a featherweight carbon-fiber chassis, is to go on sale late this year. Analysts expect a price of roughly $45,000.
But some models with luxury nameplates, like the Mercedes CLA, are actually priced below fully equipped versions of Honda Accords and other midsize family sedans, creating an interesting quandary for buyers. "Do I want the larger, loaded vehicle, or one with a premium badge?" Mr. Schuster said.
For now, LMC Automotive is lumping the crossover squirts into a "small C.U.V." segment (for crossover utility vehicle), distinct from larger "compact" crossovers. But the research firm plans to officially begin tracking sales in this expanding class.
"It's really a new category, and it's taking on a life of its own," Mr. Schuster said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.