The DS3 showcased the true potential of a compact car

A compact car (North America), or small family car (Europe), is a classification of cars which are larger than a supermini but smaller than or equal to a mid-size car. The term often leads into confusion, however, since international compact cars are somewhat larger than their North American equivalents, mostly because no supermini/subcompact size is manufactured by American, Mexican and Canadian car makers up to date.

Current compact car size, for US and international models respectively, is approximately 4,100 mm (161 in) and 4,450 mm (175 in) long for hatchbacks, or 4,400 mm (173 in) and 4,750 mm (187 in) long for convertibles, sedans (saloon) or station wagons (estate car). Multi-purpose vehicles and sport utility vehicles based on small family cars (often called compact MPVs and compact SUVs) have similar sizes, ranging from 4,200 mm (165 in) to 4,500 mm (177 in) in the U.S., and from 4,400 mm (173 in) to 4,700 mm (185 in) in international-based models.

In Japan, any vehicle that is over 3.4 m (11.2 ft) long, 1.48 m (4.9 ft) wide, 2 m (6.6 ft) high and with an engine over 660 cc (40 cu in) but is under 4.7 m (15.4 ft) long, 1.7 m (5.6 ft) wide, 2 m (6.6 ft) high and with engines at or under 2,000 cc (120 cu in) is considered a compact vehicle. The dimension standards are absolute, meaning special consideration is not made for SUVs, CUVs, minivans, station wagons or hatchbacks.

Common engines are 1.5 to 2.4-litre straight-4s, using either petrol (gasoline) or diesel fuel, with a range between 100 bhp (75 kW) and 170 bhp (127 kW). Some models also have economical 1.3 or 1.4-litre units. High-performance versions, called hot hatches or sport compact sedans, may have turbocharged 2.0 or 2.5-litre engines, or even V6 3.2-litre units, ranging maximum outputs from 170 bhp (127 kW) to 300 bhp (224 kW).

Small European family cars include the Ford Focus, Opel Astra, Peugeot 308, Citroën C4, Renault Mégane, Fiat Bravo, Lancia Delta, SEAT Leon, Skoda Octavia and Volkswagen Golf. Examples of compact cars from Asia include the Tata Indigo, Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Lancer, Nissan Bluebird Sylphy, Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza, Suzuki SX4, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Daewoo Lacetti, and Toyota Corolla. The Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5, and Dodge Caliber are an example of compacts made in the United States. Holden Viva and later Holden Cruze are examples of compact cars from Australia.

American market[]

Compact car is a largely North American term denoting an automobile smaller than a mid-size car, but larger than an international supermini variant, similarly recognized in much of the world as a "C-segment" (between B- and D-segment) vehicles. Compact cars usually have wheelbases between 100 inches (2,540 mm) and 105 inches (2,667 mm). The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a "Compact" car as measuring between 100 cubic feet (2.8 m3) and 109 cubic feet (3.1 m3) of combined passenger and cargo volume capacity. Vehicle class size is defined in the U.S. by environmental laws in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 40—Protection of Environment, Section 600.315-82 Classes of comparable automobiles. Passenger car classes are defined based on interior volume index or seating capacity, except automobiles classified as a special vehicle such as those with only two designated seating positions.

Although small cars had been made in the United States before World War II, the compact class was introduced in 1950 when Nash introduced a convertible Rambler. It was built on a 100-inch (2,540 mm) wheelbase to which a station wagon, hardtop, and sedan versions were added. Although first conceived by George W. Mason, the term "compact" was coined by George W. Romney as a euphemism for small cars with a wheelbase of 110 inches (2,794 mm) or less.[1][2] The U.S. automobile industry soon adopted the term.

Several competitors to the Nash Rambler arose from the ranks of America's other independent automakers, although none enjoyed the long-term success of the Rambler. Other early compact cars included the Henry J from Kaiser-Frazer (and its Sears, Roebuck and Company marketed variant the Allstate), as well as the Willys Aero and the Hudson Jet.

The modern compact class was greatly expanded between 1958 and 1960 when the Studebaker Lark, Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon, and Plymouth Valiant were brought to the market previously dominated by the Rambler American. These models also gave rise to compact vans that were sized similarly to the Volkswagen Type 2 microbus and were based from the Falcon, Corvair, and Valiant automobile platforms.

Within a few years after that, the compacts had given rise to a new class called the pony car, named after the Ford Mustang, which was built on the Falcon chassis. At that time, there was a distinct difference in size between compact and full-size models, and an early definition of the compact was a vehicle with an overall length of less than 200-inch (5,080 mm), much larger than European designs.

During the 1960s, compacts were the smallest class of North American cars (and much bigger than those elsewhere), but they had evolved into only slightly smaller versions of the 6-cylinder or V8-powered two-bench six-passenger sedan. They were much larger than imports by makers such as Volkswagen and Datsun, which were typically five-passenger 4-cylinder engine cars, even though ads for the Ford Maverick and Rambler American would make comparisons with the popular Volkswagen Beetle. In the early 1970s, the domestic automakers introduced even smaller subcompact cars that included the AMC Gremlin, Chevrolet Vega, and Ford Pinto.

The 1977 model year marked the beginning of a downsizing of all vehicles, so that cars such as the AMC Concord and the Ford Fairmont that replaced the compacts were re-classified as mid-size, while cars inheriting the size of the Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega (such as the Ford Escort and Chevrolet Cavalier) became classified as compact cars.

Class Minicompact car Subcompact car Compact car Midsize car Large car Small station wagon Midsize station wagon Large station wagon
Interior volume index (cubic feet) under 85 85-99.9 100-109.9 110-119.9 120 or over under 130 130-160 over 160

In the 1985 model year, compact cars classified by the EPA included Ford's Escort and Tempo, the Chevrolet Cavalier, Toyota Corolla, Acura Legend, Mercedes-Benz 300, Nissan Maxima, and Volvo DL.

In North America, the compact segment is still discernible as a class smaller than the average car but larger than the smallest models on the market. The Chevrolet Cobalt would be an example. The term has also been adopted to describe small SUVs, such as the Ford Escape.

European market[]

After the Second World War, European manufacturers usually featured two vehicle types: small cars and large saloons. In the 1960s, some brands found that many middle class buyers wanted something larger than superminis, and built small family cars. These were usually saloons, with the first successful hatchback in this class being the 1974 Volkswagen Golf, which moved the layout of the smaller Renault 5 to this segment. This proved popular and by the end of the decade, several other manufacturers launched hatchbacks like the Fiat Ritmo, Citroën GSA, Renault 14, and Opel Kadett.

The 1980s began with the launch of two more front-wheel drive hatchbacks: the Ford Escort Mk III and the Lancia Delta. Similar cars such as the Renault 11, Peugeot 309, updated Opel Kadett, Renault 19, Fiat Tipo, and second generation Rover 200 followed over the course of the decade. Alfa Romeo's venture into this market, the Nissan-based Arna, was one of the few unsuccessful European small family hatchbacks of the 1980s.

The 1990s saw small family cars firmly pitch themselves as the most popular class of car in Europe. The Volkswagen Golf Mk III was launched in 1991 and elected European Car of the Year. Citroën replaced the GSA with the large family car BX and later the small family car ZX. The ZX's chassis spawned the Peugeot 306 in 1993. Fiat replaced the Tipo in 1995 with the distinctive Bravo and Brava (three-door and five-door hatchbacks, respectively). In 1998, Ford launched the all-new Ford Focus, completing sales of run-out Escort versions in 2000.

Some small family cars have also spawned compact MPVs, the first of which was the 1996 Renault Scénic. The Opel Zafira, Citroën Xsara Picasso, Ford Focus C-MAX, Volkswagen Touran, SEAT Altea and Fiat Multipla followed and are becoming increasingly popular. In few years they outsold estates and saloons in many countries. A more recent trend is to build coupé cabriolets with components from these vehicles. Examples of this are the Peugeot 307 CC, Opel Astra TwinTop, Renault Mégane CC, and Volkswagen Eos.

UK market[]


Small family saloons had a strong following among car buyers in the UK as the 1970s dawned, and enjoyed a popularity similar to that of larger family cars such as the enormously successful Ford Cortina. These two sectors were in fact dominant of the new car market at this time, as the Mini and - to a lesser degree - the Hillman Imp were the only popular mini-cars at this time. The Morris/Austin 1100/1300 had been Britain's best selling car for most of the time since its launch in 1962, and rival British products included the Ford Escort, Vauxhall Viva and Hillman Avenger. Cars such as the Citroen GS, Peugeot 304, and Datsun Sunny 120Y were also being imported.

British Leyland replaced the 1100/1300 with the Austin Allegro in 1973. Ford updated the Escort in 1975. The Vauxhall Viva finished production in late 1979 on the launch of the all-new Astra - which abandoned the traditional rear-wheel drive saloon in favour of the front-wheel drive hatchback format that was gradually spreading across Europe. The Allegro was front-wheel drive but only came as a saloon or estate though the similar Austin Maxi was a hatchback. The Escort was still a rear-wheel drive saloon in 1979 but was due for an imminent replacement by an up-to-date third generation model. The Hillman Avenger continued to sell well as a Chrysler following the 1976 rebranding and as a Talbot after the sale of Chrysler's European operations to French carmaker Peugeot in 1979, in spite of the 1978 launch of the Horizon front-wheel drive hatchback.

One of the first foreign cars to have a major impact on this sector in the UK was the Golf - a Giugiaro-styled front-wheel drive hatchback launched in 1974. The sporty GTI version sparked a huge demand for "hot hatchbacks" in the UK and many other countries. Other foreign competitors during this era in the UK included the Renault 14, Fiat Strada, Honda Civic, and Mazda 323.


The MK3 Ford Escort went on sale in the autumn of 1980 ditching the rear-drive saloon format in favour of hatchbacks and front-wheel drive. It was Britain's most popular car for most of the decade and also spawned XR3i and RS Turbo "hot" versions, as well as the Orion saloon that was launched in 1983.

Vauxhall's new Astra also joined the market with an aerodynamically-styled 1984 MK2 model that carried off where the 1979 original left off. The GTE 16v, with a top speed of nearly 140 mph (230 km/h), was the fastest hatchback in the world in the late 1980s.

British Leyland called time on Allegro production in early 1983 and replaced it with the all-new Maestro. Successor organisations Austin Rover and Rover Group kept the Maestro on the price lists in spite of its disappointing sales. The venture with Japanese carmaker Honda had seen the launch of the Triumph Acclaim, a four-door saloon which set new British benchmarks for reliability and build quality. It was succeeded by the Rover 200 in 1984 and this model was even more popular.

History was made just before the end of 1985 when the first Peugeot car - a 309 - rolled off the Ryton production line. The Talbot marque was ditched soon afterwards so Peugeot could concentrate on producing some of its own range in the UK, and the 309 was a popular small family car in the late 1980s.

The MK2 Volkswagen Golf went on sale in the UK at the start of 1984 and maintained the success and popularity of its predecessor. Other foreign small family cars to succeed during the 1980s included the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Mazda 323, and Nissan Sunny. 1988 saw the arrival of two more impressive foreign imports - the Fiat Tipo and Renault 19.


Ford began the 1990s by replacing its 10-year-old Escort (and the Orion saloon version) with an all-new model. The Escort was Britain's best selling small family car throughout the decade. Its eventual successor - the Focus - went on sale in September 1998, but Ford hedged its bets with this radical new design and kept the Escort in production for two more years.

Vauxhall rejuvenated its Astra with the launch of an all-new model in October 1991, and in early 1998 with a new version.

Rover's 200 Series was launched during the autumn of 1989, and its successor was launched in 1995. Later, a facelift transformed it into the Rover 25 and re-positioned as a supermini.

As well as the Volkswagen Golf (which entered its third incarnation in 1991 and its fourth in 1997). The Pininfarina styled 1993 Peugeot 306 was built in England at Ryton near Coventry.

Renault's Megane, which replaced the successful Renault 19, arrived on the UK market in early 1996. It received a mild makeover midway through 1999.

Other foreign brands included the Citroën ZX, its successor the Xsara, the Fiat Brava/Fiat Bravo, the Nissan Almera, as well as the latest incarnations of the long-running Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Mazda 323.


The Renault Megane II was launched in November 2002 with styling quite unlike any other offering in this sector at the time. By 2005, the Megane II was Britain's fourth most popular new car.

The Volkswagen Golf entered its fifth incarnation at the beginning of 2004. The Vauxhall Astra entered with an all-new fifth generation model in March 2004. The Ford Focus second generation model was launched in December 2004. The Focus was the top seller in this segment, followed by the Astra.

Other offerings in the small family car sector included the Peugeot 308, Fiat Bravo, Skoda Octavia, Toyota Auris, Citroën C4, and Mazda 3. The small family sector is now firmly established as Britain's most favoured sector. In 2004, five of Britain's 10 best selling cars were in this sector - compared to just three in 1992. Back in 1992, the top 10 in the UK featured three larger family cars, but from 2001 to 2006 has featured just one.

See Also[]


  1. McCarthy, Tom (2007). Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment. Yale University Press. p. 144. 
  2. Ward's automotive yearbook. 22. Detroit: Ward's Communications. 1960. p. 92. 

External links[]