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A compact car (North America), or small family car in British acceptation, is a classification of cars that are larger than a subcompact car but smaller than a mid-size car, equating roughly to the C-segment in Europe.
Current compact car size, as defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for the US and for 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 hp (75 kW) and 170 hp (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 hp (127 kW) to 300 hp (224 kW).
Small European family cars include the Ford Focus, Vauxhall/Opel Astra, Audi A3, BMW 1 Series (F20), Citroën C4/DS4, Dacia Logan, Alfa Romeo Giulietta, Fiat Bravo (2007), Lancia Delta, Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Volvo V40, SEAT León, Škoda Octavia and Volkswagen Golf Mk7. Examples of compact cars from Asia include the Tata Indigo, Honda Civic, Nissan Bluebird Sylphy, Mazda3, Subaru Impreza, Suzuki SX4, Mitsubishi Lancer, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Toyota Corolla Altis, and Proton Prevé. The Chevrolet Cruze, Pontiac G5, and Dodge Dart (2013) are an example of compacts made in the United States. Holden Viva and later Holden Cruze are examples of compact cars from Australia.
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.
In the United States, the compact car segment currently holds a 16% share of the market. This segment is dominated by non-American models from Toyota Group, Honda Group and Hyundai together with its controlled Kia, through successful models as Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra, and Kia Forte. The Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze are successful American compacts.
In 2012, General Motors launched the Buick Verano and Chrysler launched the new Dodge Dart. As a confirmation that this segment is more popular in Europe than in the US, those two models are based on two European counterparts (respectively the Opel Astra and the Alfa Romeo Giulietta).
History of compact cars in the United States
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. 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. And even after the reclassification vehicles like the Ford Fairmont were far larger than international midsize sedans and rather on par with large cars such as the Ford Granada (Europe). It would not be until the 1980s that American cars were being downsized to truly international dimensions.
|Class||Interior volume index|
|Minicompact car||< 85 cu ft (2.4 m3)|
|Subcompact car||85–99.9 cu ft (2.41–2.83 m3)|
|Compact car||100–109.9 cu ft (2.83–3.11 m3)|
|Midsize car||110–119.9 cu ft (3.11–3.40 m3)|
|Large car||≥ 120 cu ft (3.4 m3)|
|Small station wagon||< 130 cu ft (3.7 m3)|
|Midsize station wagon||130–160 cu ft (3.7–4.5 m3)|
|Large station wagon||≥ 160 cu ft (4.5 m3)|
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.
After the Second World War, European manufacturers usually featured two vehicle types: small economy cars that were usually saloons and large saloons. By the 1960s, the post war economic boom had produced customers who wanted something of intermediate size. These were usually saloons, with the first successful hatchback in this class being the 1974 Volkswagen Golf. The world's first hatchback, the 1958 FR layout Austin A40 Farina Countryman model that was a co-development of BMC and the Italian design house Pininfarina at a time when this was unusual. It had a lift up rear window and drop down boot lid. It was also sold as a two door saloon. It was built in Italy by Innocenti as well as in the UK. For 1965 Innocenti designed a new single-piece rear door for their Combinata version of the Countryman. This top-hinged door used struts to hold it up over a wide cargo opening and was a true hatchback – a model never developed in the home (United Kingdom) market. The Countryman name has 'estate' type associations, and BMC successor company Rover used the name on estate cars / Station Wagons so it is largely forgotten. This hatchback layout was further pioneered along with the European switch to front wheel drive FF layout with the smaller 1964 (Fiat) Autobianchi Primula and larger 1965 Renault 16. The success of the Golf saved VW from near bankruptcy, stimulating by the end of the decade, several other manufacturers to launch front wheel drive hatchbacks like the Fiat Ritmo/Strada, Citroën GSA hatch version of the 1970 GS, Renault 14, and GM Vauxhall/Opel Kadett. Also the other well-known European compact cars of mid-1960s - 80s were the Italian Fiat 124 and Fiat 125 and some models of the Soviet brand Lada which were based on it: VAZ-2101, VAZ-2103, VAZ-2106 and Lada Riva which were very popular in the Eastern and Central Europe in the 1970s - 80s.
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 Austin Maestro that had above average space / packaging, Renault 11, Peugeot 309, updated Opel Kadett, Renault 19, Fiat Tipo that had above average space / packaging, and the second generation Rover 200/Honda Concerto followed over the course of the decade. Citroën replaced the GSA with the 1984 BX that was between the sizes of the small family car and large family car, in an attempt to cover both markets with one model. Alfa Romeo's venture into this market, the Nissan-based Arna, was one of the few unsuccessful European small family hatchbacks of the 1980s. Instead of combining an Alfa Romeo design with Japanese build quality, it used the mediocre Nissan Cherry body and chassis with Alfa mechanicals and poor Italian build quality.
The 1990s saw small family cars firmly positioned as the most popular class of car in Europe. In 1991 Volkswagen Golf Mk III and ZX were launched. The Golf was elected European Car of the Year. The ZX's chassis spawned the Peugeot 306 in 1993. The ZX was the model used to launch PSA Peugeot-Citroen in China. Fiat replaced the Tipo in 1995 with the distinctive Bravo and Brava (three-door and five-door hatchbacks, respectively). During 1997,mercedes made a small family car called the A class. In 1998, Ford launched the all-new Ford Focus, completing sales of run-out Escort versions in 2000.
According to 2011 sales, compact cars are currently the second segment in Europe after the subcompact one (which in Europe corresponds to A-segment + B-segment), with approx. 3 millions units sales. Currently, the Volkswagen Golf is not only the leader of the segment but also of the European market (sold almost 500 thousands units during 2011). Volkswagen Group leads the segment with other successful models as Skoda Octavia (approx. 180k units), the premium Audi A3 (approx. 140k units) the Spanish Seat Leon (approx. 70k units) and the sedan version of the Golf, the Volkswagen Jetta (approx. 40k units). Other successful European models, over 300k units sold in 2011, are the Opel Astra and the Ford Focus. Bit less for the Renault Megane, with 250k units.
Some small family cars have also spawned compact MPVs, the first of which was the 1996 Renault Scénic, named 1997 Car of the year in Europe. In 1999, the Citroën Xsara Picasso and Opel Zafira were launched, then the Citroën C4 Picasso, Fiat Multipla, Ford Focus C-MAX, Peugeot 5008, SEAT Altea and Volkswagen Touran followed and are becoming increasingly popular. In few years they outsold estates and saloons in many countries.
In 1955, the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry set forth a goal to all Japanese makers at that time to create what was called a "national car". The concept stipulated that the vehicle be able to maintain a maximum speed over 100 km/h (62 mph), weigh below 400 kg (882 lbs), fuel consumption at 30 km/L (85 mpg-imp; 71 mpg-US) or more, at an average speed of 60 km/h (37 mph) on a level road, and not require maintenance or significant service for at least 100,000 km (62,000 mi). This established a "compact car" target that was larger than what has become known as the "light car" or the kei car. Under Japanese regulations, this class is defined as vehicles at or less than 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). Interior dimensions and available cargo space are not taken into consideration. All vehicles in Japan, regardless of origination of manufacture, are held to this standard.
This larger class is by far the most popular in Japan due to tax benefits stipulated by Japanese government regulations (Japanese Government's Road Vehicle Act of 1951). One of the first compact cars that met those requirements was the Toyota Publica with a flat-4 engine, and the Mitsubishi 500. The Publica and the Mitsubishi 500 were essentially "kei cars" with engines larger than regulations permitted at the time. These vehicles were followed by the Hino Contessa in 1961, the Isuzu Bellett, Daihatsu Compagno and Mazda Familia in 1963, the Mitsubishi Colt in 1965, and the Nissan Sunny, Subaru 1000, and Toyota Corolla in 1966. Honda introduced their first four-door sedan in 1969, called the Honda 1300. In North America, these cars were classified as subcompact cars.
By 1970, Nissan released their first front wheel drive car that was originally developed by Prince Motor Company which had merged with Nissan in 1966. This was introduced in 1970 as the Nissan Cherry. In 1972, the Honda Civic appeared with the CVCC engine that was able to meet California emission standards without the use of a Catalytic converter. In 1973, the Energy Crisis started, which made small fuel efficient cars more desirable, and the North American driver began exchanging their large cars for the smaller, imported compacts that cost less to fill up and were inexpensive to maintain. The Toyota Camry, the Datsun 510, the Mitsubishi Galant (a captive import from Chrysler sold as the Dodge Colt), the Subaru DL, and later the Honda Accord gave buyers increased passenger space and some luxury amenities, such as air conditioning, power steering, AM-FM radios, and even power windows and central locking without increasing the price of the vehicle. Compact trucks were also introduced to the USA, with the Toyota Hilux and the Datsun Truck, followed by the Mazda Truck also sold as the Ford Courier, with Isuzu selling their compact truck as the Chevrolet LUV. In 1979, Mitsubishi sold their compact truck Mitsubishi Forte as the Dodge Ram 50 and Plymouth Arrow.
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 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 Citroën 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 spreading across Europe. The Allegro was front-wheel drive but only came as a saloon or estate though the 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 replacing the rear-drive saloon format in favour of hatchbacks and front-wheel drive. It was available in several versions, as well as the Orion saloon that was launched in 1983. Vauxhall's Astra entered the market with the 1984 MK2 model, as well as the Belmont saloon that was launched in 1986. Austin Rover, as British Leyland was now called, replaced the Allegro in early 1983 with the all-new Maestro. The venture with Japanese carmaker Honda saw the launch of the Triumph Acclaim, a four-door saloon based on the Honda Ballade with a Honda-designed engine. The Rover 200 succeeded it in 1984.
The MK2 Volkswagen Golf went on sale in the UK at the start of 1984. The first British built Peugeot car - a 309 - rolled off the Ryton-on-Dunsmore production line at the end of 1985. Subsequently, the Talbot marque was phased out. 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 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. Vauxhall rejuvenated its Astra with the launch of an all-new model in October 1991, and in early 1998 with a new version. The 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. The Megane replaced the Renault 19 in 1996. 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 competition increased. The Peugeot 307 was launched in 2001 and won the 2002 Car of the year in Europe award. The Renault Megane II was launched in November 2002 and was awarded 2003 Car of the year in Europe. The Volkswagen Golf entered its fifth incarnation at the beginning of 2004, but it got only the third rank for the 2004 Car of the year in Europe. The Vauxhall Astra entered with a fifth generation model in March 2004 and got no podium for the Car of the year in Europe. The Ford Focus second generation model was launched in December 2004, but it got only the third rank for the 2004 Car of the year in Europe, beaten by the Citroën C4 I and the Toyota Prius. Other offerings in the small family car sector included the Citroën C4, the premium class car Citroën DS4, the entry class car Dacia Logan, Fiat Bravo, Hyundai Elantra/i30, Mazda 3, Peugeot 308 (2014 Car of the year in Europe), Škoda Octavia, Toyota Auris and Volkswagen Jetta.
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