||This article may contain original research. (August 2008)|
Cars may be classified by a number of different criteria and objectives. However, comprehensive classification is elusive, because a vehicle may fit into multiple categories, or not completely satisfy the requirements for any. This article details the commonly used classifications and definitions.
There are numerous ways of categorizing passenger vehicles. Where applicable, the equivalent Euro NCAP classifications are shown. Numerous jurisdictions establish vehicle classification systems for tax reasons, most often according to the car's construction, engine, weight, type of fuel and emissions, as well as the purpose for which they are used. Car-related taxation is based on a sustainable environmental policy known as the user pays principle and there are many differences between different nations and jurisdictions regarding vehicle class taxes and fees. For example, the power of classification was used by cities in the 1920s to exclude taxation of electric-powered vehicles because officials believed they did not cause "substantial wear upon the pavements."
For research into safety, the Highway Loss Data Institute takes into account a combination of both vehicle size and other vehicle features with all passenger cars that do not fit the definition of either "sports" or "luxury", are classified on the basis of both vehicle length and wheelbase.
|Sports||Those cars with significant high performance features|
|Luxury||Higher-end cars that are not classified as sports|
|Large||Length more than 495.3 cm (195 in) and wheelbase more than 279.4 cm (110 in)|
|Midsize||Length 457.3–495.3 cm (180–195 in) and wheelbase 266.8–279.4 cm (105–110 in)|
|Small||Length less than 457.2 cm (180 in) and wheelbase less than 266.7 cm (105 in)|
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) separates vehicles into classes by the curb weight of the vehicle with standard equipment including the maximum capacity of fuel, oil, coolant, and air conditioning, if so equipped).
|NHTSA classification||Code||Curb weight|
|Passenger cars: mini||PC/Mi||1,500–1,999 lb (680–907 kg)|
|Passenger cars: light||PC/L||2,000–2,499 lb (907–1,134 kg)|
|Passenger cars: compact||PC/C||2,500–2,999 lb (1,134–1,360 kg)|
|Passenger cars: medium||PC/Me||3,000–3,499 lb (1,361–1,587 kg)|
|Passenger cars: heavy||PC/H||3,500 lb (1,588 kg) and over|
|Sport utility vehicles||SUV||-|
Another vehicle classification scheme has been developed by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration for automatically calculating road use tolls. There are two broad categories depending on whether the vehicle carries passengers or commodities, with non-passenger vehicles further subdivided by number of axles and number of units, including both power and trailer units. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) has another set of classification guidelines that are based on the vehicle's total interior passenger and cargo space.
|EPA car class||Total passenger and cargo volume (cu. ft.)|
|Two-seaters||Any (designed to seat only two adults)|
|Minicompact||Less than 85 cu ft (2,407 l)|
|Subcompact||85–99 cu ft (2,407–2,803 l)|
|Compact||100–109 cu ft (2,832–3,087 l)|
|Mid-size||110–119 cu ft (3,115–3,370 l)|
|Large||120 cu ft (3,398 l) or more|
|Small station wagons||Less than 130 cu ft (3,681 l)|
|Mid-size station wagons||130–159 cu ft (3,681–4,502 l)|
|Large station wagons||160 cu ft (4,531 l) or more|
A similar set of classes is used by the Canadian EPA. The Canadian National Collision Database (NCDB) system defines "passenger car" as a unique class, but also identifies two other categories involving passenger vehicles—the "passenger van" and "light utility vehicle"—and these categories are inconsistently handled across the country with the boundaries between the vehicles increasingly blurred. In Australia, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries publishes its own classifications.
USA, UK and European classification methods
This is a summary table listing several different methods of passenger automobile classification.
Straddling the boundary between car and motorbike, these vehicles have engines under 1.0 litre, typically seat only two passengers, and are sometimes unorthodox in construction. Some microcars are three-wheelers, while the majority have four wheels. Microcars were popular in post-war Europe, where their appearance led them to be called "Bubble cars". More recent microcars are often electric powered.
Examples of microcars:
In 2012, Japan's Transport and Tourism Ministry will allow local government to use ultracompact cars as transport for residents and tourists in their limiting areas. The size of ultracompact cars will be less than minicars, but have engine greater than 50cc displacement and able to transport 1 or 2 persons. Ultracompact cars cannot use minicars standard, because of strict safety standards for minicars. The regulation about running capacity and safety performance of ultracompact cars will be published in early autumn. Today, there are cars smaller than ultracompact cars, called category-1 motorized vehicles which it has 50cc displacement or less and only one seat for the driver.
A city car is a small automobile intended for use in urban areas. Unlike microcars, a city car's greater speed, capacity and (in perception at least) occupant protection are safer in mixed traffic environments and weather conditions. While city cars can reach highway speeds, that is not their intended use. In Japan, city cars are called kei cars. Kei cars have to meet strict size and engine requirements: engines have a maximum displacement of 660 cc and the car's length must be under 3400 mm.
Examples of kei cars:
Examples of city cars:
Other small cars:
This class is known as supermini in Europe, subcompact in North America. Superminis have three, four or five doors and are designed to seat four passengers comfortably. Current supermini hatchbacks are approximately 3900 mm long, while saloons and estate cars are around 4200 mm long. Currently (2013) sedan variants are generally not available in Europe and are marketed at a lower price than hatchback models in North America.
In Australia, the motoring press tends to distinguish between a light car such as the Daihatsu Charade or early models of the Holden Barina, and slightly larger models such as the Ford Fiesta which is considered to be a small car. As the general size of vehicles in this class has gradually increased, the category of light car has almost disappeared.
Examples of superminis/subcompact cars:
This category is equivalent to the EuroNCAP class "Superminis".
Small family car/compact car
Small family/compact cars refer to the hatchbacks and shortest saloons and estate cars with similar size. They are approximately 4250 mm long in case of hatchbacks and 4500 mm in the case of saloons and estate cars. Compact cars have room for five adults and usually have engines between 1.4 and 2.2 litres, but some have engines of up to 2.5 litres. These are the most popular vehicles in most developed countries.
Examples of hatchback small family cars/compact cars:
This category is equivalent to the EuroNCAP class "Small Family Cars". In Australia, this class is generally referred to as being small-medium sized cars.
A hot hatch is a high-performance hatchback, based on standard superminis or small family cars with improved performance, handling and styling. Hot hatches are very popular in Europe, and originated from the Volkswagen Golf GTI. In North America, sport compacts are usually sold as saloons or coupés rather than hatchbacks.
Examples of hot hatches/sport compacts:
Saloons / sedans
Large family / mid-size
A class described as "large family" in Europe and "mid-size" in the USA, these cars have room for five adults and a large trunk (boot). Engines are more powerful than small family/compact cars and six-cylinder engines are more common than in smaller cars. Car sizes vary from region to region; in Europe, large family cars are rarely over 4700 mm long, while in North America, Middle East and Australasia they may be well over 4800 mm.
Examples of large family cars/mid-size cars:
This category is equivalent to the EuroNCAP class "Large Family Cars". These are known in Australia as Medium sized cars.
These are luxurious equivalents to mid-size and compact cars. Rear seat room and trunk space are smaller than executive cars simply because of their smaller overall size.
Examples of compact premium cars/entry-level luxury cars:
This category is equivalent to the EuroNCAP class "Large Family Cars".
Full size / large
This term is used most in North America, Middle East and Australia where it refers to the largest affordable sedans on the market. Full-size cars may be well over 4900 mm long.
Examples of full-size cars:
These are luxurious equivalents to full-size cars. This also refers to the largest hatchbacks within the similar length in this class, such as the Porsche Panamera.
Examples of executive cars/mid-luxury cars:
This category is equivalent to the EuroNCAP class "Executive Cars".
Full-size luxury / Grand saloon
Also known as full-size luxury cars, grand saloons, or premium large cars, while "Oberklasse" is used in Germany. Typically a four-door saloon (sedan). These are the most powerful saloons, with six, eight and twelve-cylinder engines and have more equipment than smaller models.
Examples of grand saloons:
This category is equivalent to the EuroNCAP class "Executive Cars".
Sports saloon / sports sedan
Examples of sports saloons/sedans:
Examples of sport compact saloons/sedans:
Estate cars / station wagons
A station wagon (also known as an estate or estate car) is an automobile with a body style variant of a sedan/saloon with its roof extended rearward over a shared passenger/cargo volume with access at the back via a third or fifth door (the liftgate or tailgate), instead of a trunk lid. The body style transforms a standard three-box design into a two-box design—to include an A, B, and C-pillar, as well as a D-pillar. Station wagons can flexibly reconfigure their interior volume via fold-down rear seats to prioritize either passenger or cargo volume.
Examples of estates/station wagons:
Sports cars and grand tourers
The term "sports car" does not appear to have a clear definition. It is commonly used to describe vehicles which prioritise acceleration and handling, however some people claim it is also defined as a vehicle with two seats.
A sports car (sportscar or sport car) is a small, usually two seat, two door automobile designed for spirited performance and nimble handling. Sports cars may be spartan or luxurious but high maneuverability and minimum weight are requisite.
Examples of sports cars:
Larger, more powerful and heavier than sports cars, these vehicles typically have a FR layout and seating for four passengers (2+2). These are more expensive than sports cars but not as expensive as supercars. Some grand tourers are hand-built.
Examples of grand tourers:
Supercar is a term generally used for ultra-high-end exotic cars, whose performance is superior to that of its contemporaries. The proper application of the term is subjective and disputed, especially among enthusiasts.
Examples of supercars:
The muscle car term generally refers to rear wheel drive mid-size cars with powerful V8 engines, manufactured in the USA. Some people define it as a 2-door vehicle, however others include 4-door vehicles in the definition. Although opinions vary, it is generally accepted that classic muscle cars were produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Muscle cars were also produced in Australia and other nations.
Examples of American muscle cars from the 1960s and 1970s:
Examples of Australian muscle cars:
The pony car is a class of American automobile launched and inspired by the Ford Mustang in 1964. It describes an affordable, compact, highly styled car with a sporty or performance-oriented image.
Examples of pony cars:
A car that features a flexibly operating roof for open or enclosed mode driving. Also known as a cabriolet or roadster.
Examples of convertibles:
Off-road vehicles, or "off-roaders" are sometimes referred to as "four-wheel drives", "four by fours", or 4x4s — this sometimes happens colloquially in cases where certain models or even an entire range does not possess four-wheel drive.
Sport utility vehicle
Sport utility vehicles are off-road vehicles with four-wheel drive and true off-road capability. They most often feature high ground clearance and an upright, boxy body design. Sport Utilities are typically defined by a body on frame construction which offers more off-road capability but reduced on-road ride comfort and handling compared to a cross-over or car based utility vehicle.
Examples of SUVs:
This category is equivalent to the EuroNCAP class "Large Off-Roaders".
Crossover SUVs are derived from an automobile platform using a monocoque construction with light off-road capability and lower ground clearance than SUVs. They may be styled similar to conventional "off-roaders", or may be look similar to an estate car or station wagon.
Examples of crossover SUVs:
This category is equivalent to the EuroNCAP class "Small Off-Roaders".
Also known as "people carriers", this class of cars resembles tall estate cars. Larger MPVs may have seating for up to eight passengers. (Beyond that size, similar vehicles tend to be derived from vans (see below) and in Europe are called minibuses.)
Being taller than a family car improves visibility for the driver (while reducing visibility for other road users) and may help access for the elderly or disabled. They also offer more seats and increased load capacity than hatchbacks or estate cars.
Examples of mini MPVs:
Examples of compact MPVs:
Both categories are equivalent to the EuroNCAP class "Small MPVs".
Examples of large MPVs / minivans:
This category is equivalent to the EuroNCAP class "MPVs".
Van, camper, RV, minibus etc.
In some countries, the term "van" can refer to a small panel van based on a passenger car design (often the estate model / station wagon); it also refers to light trucks, which themselves are sometimes based on SUVs or MPVs. (But note that those retaining seats and windows, while being larger and more utilitarian than MPVs, may be called "minibuses".) The term is also used in the term "camper van" (or just "camper") — equivalent to a North American recreational vehicle (RV).
In the United States, the term "van" refers to vehicles that, like European minibuses, are even larger than large MPVs and are rarely seen being driven for domestic purposes — except for "conversion vans". These possess extremely large interior space and are often more intended for hauling cargo than people. Most vans use body-on-frame construction and are thus suitable for extensive modification and coachwork, known as conversion. Conversion vans are often quite luxurious, boasting comfortable seats, soft rides, built-in support for electronics such as television sets, and other amenities. The more elaborate conversion vans straddle the line between cars and recreational vehicles.
Examples of North American "vans":
Examples of European "vans":
Other car classification terms
- A generic South African term for light pickup truck.
- A Buggy is an automobile with wheels that project beyond the vehicle body.
- Cabrio coach or Semi-convertible
- A form of car roof, where a retractable textile cover amounts to a large sunroof.
- Sometimes used to describe a luxury sedan or town car. Actually a trade mark of Rolls-Royce.
- El Camino
- The 1959 Chevrolet El Camino was a half-car (front) and half-truck (back) with low walls surrounding the bed. El Camino is used by some Americans and Canadians as a generic term for any passenger car with an integral cargo bed.
- Estate car
- British name for a station wagon.
- A design where the roof slopes at a smooth angle to the tail of the car, but the rear window does not open as a separate "door".
- Drop Head Coupe
- Generally a European term referring to a 2 door, 4 place automobile with a retractable canvas / cloth top with both a padded headliner and rollup windows (as opposed to side curtains).
- Flower Car
- in US, similar to ute in Australia, i.e. generic for Chevy El Camino, Ford Ranchero, GMC Sprint/Diablo, etc.;Hearse: A converted car to transport the deceased.
- Originally, a car with a tapered rear that cuts off abruptly.
- A limousine with the passenger section covered by a convertible top.
- A broad marketing term for a hatchback, which incorporates a shared passenger and cargo volume, with rearmost accessibility via a top-hinged liftgate.
- By definition, a chauffeur-driven car with a (normally glass-windowed) division between the front seats and the rear. In German, the term simply means a sedan.
- Term for a boxy wagon-type of car that is smaller than a conventional minivan.
- A configuration where the third box of a three-box styling configuration is less pronounced — especially where the rear deck (third box) is short or where the rear window is upright.
- A Phaeton is a style of open car or carriage without proper weather protection for passengers.
- Originally an open car like a roadster, but with a soft top (cloth top) that can be raised or lowered. Unlike a convertible, it had no roll-up side windows. Now often used as slang for a convertible.
- Sedan delivery
- North American term for a vehicle similar to a wagon but without side windows, similar to a panel truck but with two doors (one on each side), and one or two rear doors
- Spyder (or Spider)
- Similar to a roadster but originally with less weather protection.Nowadays it simply means a convertible.
- Initially a vehicle used to carry shooting parties with their equipment and game; later used to describe custom-built wagons by high-end coachbuilders, subsequently synonymous with ;Sports Wagon: A term used by a number of manufacturers in the North American market for their station wagon models.
- Targa top
- A semi-convertible style used on some sports cars, featuring a fully removable hard top roof panel which leaves the A and B pillars in place on the car body.
- Town car (US)
- Essentially the inverse of the landaulet, a historical body style in which the front seats were open and the rear compartment closed, normally with a removable top to cover the front chauffeur's compartment. In Europe the style is also known as Sedanca de Ville, often shortened to Sedanca or de Ville. Note that the modern Lincoln Town Car derives its name, but nothing else, from this style.
- Australian/New Zealand English term for the vehicles with a cargo bed at the rear.
- Wagon delivery
- North American term (mainly U.S. and Canada). Similar to a sedan delivery, with four doors.
Some non-English language terms are familiar from their use on imported vehicles in English-speaking nations even though the terms have not been adopted into English.
- Italian term for a roadster. The name means, roughly, "small boat".
- Italian term for a sedan.
- French term for a sedan.
- Italian term for a sport coupé.
- French term for a station wagon.
- Brazilian Portuguese term for a station wagon (specially in the state of Rio de Janeiro).
- Portuguese term for a station wagon. Not used in Brazilian Portuguese.
- Portuguese nickname for a limousine (the same word for Sword - long piece of metal). Not used in Brazilian Portuguese.
- Spanish and Polish term for a van, in the latter language almost always used in its diminutive form furgonetka.
- Portuguese alternative term (less used) for a van. Used in Brazilian Portuguese, most often for vans but sometimes for panel van variants of passenger cars.
- is a German abbreviation of "Kombinationswagen" (Combination Car) and it is German name for station wagon. Since Germany is a major producer of cars for many European countries, the term Kombi in this meaning is also used in Swedish, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Slovenian, Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian, Hungarian, Spanish, Portuguese, Bulgarian. In Afrikaans and in Australia, Kombi is also used to refer to a Volkswagen Microbus. In Brazil the word specifically refers to the VW Microbus.
- Brazilian Portuguese term either designating a van (especially as spoken in the city of São Paulo) or a station wagon (in the city of Rio de Janeiro).
- Spanish term for a sedan. Literally means tourism, used mostly in Latin American countries.
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