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Car Buying

Compact Car or Subcompact Car: Which Is Right for You?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro

If you're interested in a new car with a reasonable starting price and great gas mileage, you're probably choosing between compact and subcompact models. So, which is best? We have some tips to help you decide whether a compact car or a subcompact car is best for you.

Do You Carry Passengers and Cargo?

One major question you'll need to consider is how often you carry around passengers and cargo. If the answer is "not very often," a subcompact car would probably be OK for you. The primary difference between a subcompact car and a compact car is cargo space and passenger room: Subcompact cars don't have much of either, and compacts have a little more.

One thing to consider is that if you carry passengers or cargo very often, you may not want a compact or subcompact at all. In that case, a used midsize vehicle -- or even a compact SUV, if you're often hauling gear or other cargo -- might be a great choice, rather than a brand-new compact or subcompact car.

Is Fuel Economy Your First Priority?

If gas mileage is your first priority, you shouldn't automatically buy a subcompact over a compact car. It may seem unusual, but some compact models actually get better gas mileage than subcompacts, or they get approximately the same fuel economy but offer more room for passengers and cargo.

For example, when equipped with an automatic transmission, the tiny subcompact Chevrolet Spark returns 30 miles per gallon in the city and 39 mpg on the highway. But the larger Mazda3 hatchback, also equipped with an automatic, gets 30 mpg city/40 mpg hwy, and it includes a lot more space for passengers and cargo.

Don't think that choosing a subcompact will automatically save you money at the pump. Instead, consider fuel economy ratings of various cars on a case-by-case basis, and visit websites such as Fuelly.com to see what kind of gas mileage other drivers are getting.

Subcompacts Better for Tight Budgets

So subcompacts have less space than compacts and they don't always get better gas mileage. But subcompacts do hold one major advantage over compact cars: They're less expensive. For drivers on a tight budget, the $2,000-or-$3,000 price jump between compacts and subcompacts can make a huge difference, especially in terms of the monthly payment.

As an example, consider the subcompact Ford Fiesta and the compact Ford Focus. Both are excellent cars, but the Fiesta's $15,000 starting price with shipping will entice shoppers on a tight budget a lot more than the Focus' $17,500 base MSRP. As a result, we think that subcompact cars can often be a great choice for shoppers on a budget.

Which Do You Choose?

Deciding between a compact car and a subcompact car can be hard, but we think it ultimately comes down to three issues. The most important is your budget. If you can only afford a subcompact, there's little point in considering compact cars, and it might be a good idea to start thinking about a pre-owned vehicle. If it's gas mileage you're interested in, you'll need to check the numbers, since some compacts offer better mileage than their subcompact counterparts. And if you often haul cargo or passengers, we suggest a compact over a subcompact because nobody wants to ride around folded into a cramped back seat.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
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Compact Car or Subcompact Car: Which Is Right for You?