Car Buying

What's the Difference Between Compact Cars and Subcompact Cars?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro December 2015

In years past, the smallest car you could buy was a compact, which was considered to be very small relative to a midsize model. These days, there's an even smaller automotive segment called subcompact car, and it's even smaller than the usual compact car. So, how is it possible for a car to be smaller than a compact car? Have compact cars grown, or are subcompact cars ultra-tiny? We're here to explain the differences between compact and subcompact cars.

Compact Car Growth

In general, the rise of the subcompact car segment isn't due to a new group of ultra-tiny cars taking over the streets. Instead, subcompact cars have appeared because virtually every size of vehicle, from compact cars and up, has grown larger over the past few decades. The result is that today's compact cars are approximately the size of midsize cars from 20 years ago, leaving a hole at the bottom of the car market, which is now being filled by subcompact cars.

For example, today's Honda Civic is 182.3 inches long, which makes it less than 3 inches shorter than the 1993 Honda Accord, a midsize car at the time. And the 1993 Honda Civic? Back then, sedan models were only 173 inches long, which means the Civic has grown nearly a foot in just over 20 years.

What's a Subcompact?

So, what is a subcompact car? Although the subcompact-car moniker makes it seem like subcompacts are ultra-small vehicles too tiny for most adults, the truth is that many of today's subcompacts are about the size of compact cars from past years. For example, the current Honda Fit is exactly 160 inches long, which is the same size as the 1993 Honda Civic hatchback. That's a story repeated throughout the industry, as subcompact cars are settling into spaces that were once squarely in the compact car domain.

How Did It Happen?

How exactly did compact cars grow so much? It's simple. With each passing compact car, drivers demanded something better than the old one, with more trunk space, more legroom, more headroom and more hiproom. The result is that compact cars became a little larger with each redesign until they finally became so large that a new size class opened up beneath them.

Let's go back to the Honda Civic example. In 1993, the Civic sedan was 173 inches long. Over the years, various redesigns bumped that figure to 175.1 inches first, then to 175.4, then 177.3 and then 178.1. Now, the Civic sits at 182.3 inches, having periodically increased over the years to add the interior room and trunk space car shoppers so greatly desired.

As a result, we suggest that you shouldn't let the name cloud your judgment. Subcompact cars aren't really that small, and if you're interested in buying a new car on a tight budget, you should consider the latest round of subcompact cars in addition to the compact models you're already familiar with.

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.
What's the Difference Between Compact Cars and Subcompact Cars? - Autotrader