A subcompact car is the American term for an automobile with a class size smaller than a compact car, usually not exceeding 165 inches (4,191 mm) in length, but larger than a microcar. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a passenger car is classified as subcompact if it has between 85 cubic feet (2,407 L) and 99 cu ft (2,803 L) of interior volume.
The subcompact segment equates roughly to A-segment and B-segment in Europe, or city car and supermini in British terminology. In 2012, the New York Times described the differences, saying "today’s small cars actually span three main segments in the global vehicle market. The tiny A-segment cars include the Chevrolet Spark and Smart Fortwo. They’re extremely short and very light. Slightly larger are B-segment cars like the Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Sonic. The A- and B-cars are known as subcompacts."
In North America, the term "subcompact" came into popular use in the early 1970s with the introduction of new domestic-built models produced by North American automakers in response to the growing popularity of small imported cars from Europe and Japan. Previously, cars in this size were variously categorized, including "small automobile" and "economy car." This type of car has been around since the 1940s with the Crosley, and in the 1950s with the captive import, the Nash Metropolitan. A number of imported models, notably the Volkswagen Beetle and various small British cars, were also marketed as "economy" cars during this time.
The AMC Gremlin was described at its April 1970 introduction as "the first American-built import" and the first U.S. built subcompact car. The Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto subcompacts were introduced in September 1970 for the 1971 model year.
The Pontiac Astre, the Canadian-born re-badged Vega variant was released in the U.S. September 1974. The Vega-based Chevrolet Monza and the Pinto-based Ford Mustang II were upscale subcompacts also introduced for the 1975 model year as larger pony cars the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang sales had fallen. The Camaro was scheduled for cancellation, but sales stabilized with the end of the 1970s energy crisis. The Monza with its GM variants Pontiac Sunbird, Buick Skyhawk, and Oldsmobile Starfire, and the Mustang II continued until the end of the decade. While 1979 Mustang moved again to a larger platform the other first generation subcompacts were replaced by similarly sized, but now compact (and not anymore subcompact) called vehicles - in fact a reclassification that happened at the same time as former compact cars were now called mid cars and former intermediate cars were now called large cars. At this time another segment started opening up below Gremlin, Pinto and Vega that became the new subcompact segment.
The Chevrolet Chevette was GM's new entry-level subcompact introduced as a 1976 model. It was an 'Americanized' design from Opel, GM's German subsidiary. And then there were subcompacts that were imported but sold through a domestic manufacturers dealer network Captive imports, the Renault Le Car and the Ford Fiesta
In 1978, Volkswagen began producing the "Rabbit" version of the Golf in New Stanton, Pennsylvania, a modern FWD subcompact design, and in 1982, American Motors began manufacturing the U.S. Renault Alliance, a version of the Renault 9, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, both models benefiting from European designs, development, and experience. Chevrolet marketed two captive front-wheel drive subcompact economy cars in the second half of the 1980s to replace the aging Chevette, the Chevrolet Sprint, a three-cylinder Suzuki-built hatchback and the Chevrolet Spectrum built by Isuzu. During the 1990s GM offered the Geo brand featuring the Suzuki-built Metro subcompact.
Because of consumer demand for fuel-efficient cars during the late-2000s, sales of subcompact cars made it the fastest growing market category in the U.S. As of 2016[update], numerous models of subcompacts are sold in North America, including the Korean models such as Chevrolet Sonic, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio as well as Japanese models such as Honda Fit, Mazda 2, Nissan Micra (in Canada), Scion xD, Suzuki Swift (in Mexico), Toyota Yaris and hybrid Prius c. The Ford Fiesta is still only European subcompact car ever offered in North America. And there are even subcompact SUVs like the Jeep Renegrade and the Mazda CX 3
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During WWII and immediately afterwards, Mason began to explore the idea of developing a truly small car, the size of what today we'd call a subcompact.
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