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.
Compact cars usually have wheelbases between 100 inches (2,540 mm) and 109 inches (2,769 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.
History of compact cars in the United States
One of the first truly small cars on the U.S. market, in the sense that it was considerably smaller than the standard- size cars of its day, was the Austin Bantam that appeared in 1930. Production of the British-based city car lasted only four years with a total of 20,000 units. Although other little cars such as the Crosley focused on low price and economy, "Americans did not take easily to small cars."
The U.S. market after World-War II experienced growth in sales in standard-sized cars. By 1947, Chevrolet had prototypes of the Cadet, an economy car developed by Earle S. MacPherson. Ford also experimented with a "light car" and, unlike Chevrolet's Cadet, production ensued for the European market as a large car, the Ford Vedette.
In 1950, Nash introduced a convertible Rambler model. It was built on a 100-inch (2,540 mm) wheelbase to which a station wagon, hardtop, and sedan versions were added. Compared to European standards, they were large. 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 Nash Rambler established a new market segment, it became known as "America's first small car", and the U.S. automobile industry soon adopted the "compact" 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.
In 1952, Ford Division assistant general manager Robert S. McNamara started the Market Research Unit, which was given the job of finding out why smaller cars were becoming popular. In 1954, 64,500 of over 5 million cars sold in the United States were imports or small American cars. Ford alone sold over 1.4 million big cars. Yet 5 percent of those surveyed said they would consider a small car. The potential market totalled 275,000.
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.
Ford Division marketing research manager George Brown said smaller cars appealed to people with a college education and a higher income whose families were buying more than one car. The cars had to offer not only high gas mileage but also headroom, legroom, and plenty of trunk space.
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, 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.
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.
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 approximately 3 million units sold.
The world's first hatchback, the 1958 FR layout Austin A40 Farina Countryman. Because of the Volkswagen Golf's definition and long standing dominance of this class it is often referred to as the "Golf segment" in much of Europe.
For those whose budgets can't stretch to a Compact Executive, more luxurious versions of small family cars have been offered through the years. These are usually saloons which have a more upmarket image in Europe than hatchbacks although a full range of body styles are available.
Early examples include the compact luxury Riley One-Point-Five and Wolseley 1500 models, offered by the British Motor Corporation from 1957 to 1965. Germany's Lloyd Arabella, later Borgward Arabella, was available from 1959 to 1963 and was available in 'de Luxe' trim with a higher powered engine. All these cars offered more style, higher performance and greater luxury than the economy cars available from competitors.
The 1981 Triumph Acclaim was British Leyland's first upmarket compact car created in collaboration with Honda and was replaced in 1984 by the Honda Civic based Rover 200-Series. The latter was marketed directly at the entry-level BMW 3-Series. Rover continued to offer more upmarket compact cars with its 200- and 400-Series twins and later Rover 400 and 45 saloons and fastbacks up until its demise in 2005.
Volkswagen has long marketed its Jetta sedan above the Golf hatchback its based on. The current Jetta, the sixth generation, is uprated for the European market with multi-link rear suspension instead of torsion beam rear axles and a higher quality interior. Volkswagen stablemate, Audi, has offered its compact A3 since 1996 - initially as a hatchback before adding a convertible in 2003 and a sedan in 2012.
Alternative Body Styles
Some small family cars have also spawned compact MPVs, the first of which was the 1996 Renault Mégane Scénic, named 1997 European Car of the Year. In a few years at the end of the 1990s, they outsold estates and saloons in many countries. Nevertheless, the MPV segment began to lose the customer interest at the beginning of the 2010s, while the SUV segment increased. The Renault Scenic and the Citroën C4 Picasso are the leaders of this segment in Europe over the past two decades.
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 an air cooled two cylinder opposed 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.
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 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.
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. 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 first British built Peugeot car - the compact 309 - rolled off the Ryton-on-Dunsmore production line at the end of 1985.
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.
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