FRANKFURT (Reuters) -- Carmakers are tapping smartphone technology to spruce up low-cost minicars and try to get an edge in a market that has grown to account for almost 10 percent of new-car sales in austerity-scarred Europe.
The Opel Adam Rocks, Peugeot 108, Citroen C1 and Toyota Aygo, which all debuted at the Geneva auto show on March 4, are available with large multimedia screens that can display music libraries or navigation maps stored on a smartphone.
Such features have already proven a big draw for customers in more upmarket models, and are now being added to a new breed of urban runabouts pitched at younger, tech-savvy drivers.
"What used to be a feature seen in premium cars is now coming in to the low and medium end of the market," said Dinesh Paliwal, CEO of Harman International, a maker of so-called "infotainment" systems for the auto industry.
"It's driven by a change in lifestyle where people no longer want to stop being connected just because they are in a car," Paliwal said.
With sticker prices starting between 9,500 euros and 11,500 euros, minicars are proving popular among first-time buyers in Europe as the region emerges from a prolonged period of economic weakness.
Researchers IHS Automotive forecast sales of A-segment (minicar) vehicles will rise by 11 percent between 2013 and 2017. But to succeed, analysts believe manufacturers will have to meet the growing expectation of young drivers to be able to access information and entertainment - or infotainment - from their smartphones.
"Many first-time buyers are young, and these tend to be more tech savvy than other more traditional clients. Carmakers can't ignore this," said Andrew Poliak, director of automotive business development for QNX Software Systems, a software maker owned by mobile phone group BlackBerry.
According to the International Data Corporation, smartphone shipments reached 1 billion and eclipsed sales of "standard" phones for the first time in 2013, accounting for 55.1 percent of overall mobile phone deliveries. As a result, Harman International expects sales of car infotainment systems to grow 14 percent between 2013 and 2016, compared with global passenger car sales growth of less than half that rate.
Not all attempts to make cars more sophisticated have been a success, however. Ford Motor slipped in the quality rankings in the United States after its Sync infotainment system proved vulnerable to glitches.