What you should know about compact and subcompact cars
Last updated: January 1
When it comes to cars, bigger doesn’t always mean better. Some small cars, including compacts and subcompacts, have a surprising number of features and capabilities, including sizable cargo space, fuel efficiency, affordability and maneuverability.
According to the Automotive Science Group, a compact car has slightly less interior space than a standard mid-size sedan. Similarly, a subcompact or mini-compact is smaller than a compact car. However, Consumer Reports notes that small cars often have taller roofs and reasonably spacious back seats, which makes them feel fairly roomy.
Whether you think a small car would be great for your commute or simply love the sporty look that some smaller cars offer, here’s what to consider when shopping for a compact or subcompact car.
Check the fuel efficiency
Often, the appeal of a smaller car is the potential to save money at the gas pump, but a smaller car doesn't always mean you'll be getting lots of miles per gallon. While smaller vehicles generally boast better fuel efficiency than larger vehicles, individual makes and models can vary greatly. Do your research on a car-by-car basis to determine the gas mileage of each car.
Consumer Reports notes that the transmission on each car may affect the fuel efficiency. Many small cars come with a wider range of gears — four-, five- or, now more commonly, six-speed automatic transmissions — which may result in better fuel economy thanks to the engine running at lower revolutions in higher gears. Smaller rides also tend to rely on continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) instead of traditional gearboxes. (A CVT is an automatic transmission that uses two pulleys connected by a steel belt on cone-shaped pulleys, says Edmunds.) Since a CVT engine is not tied to fixed gears, it keeps the engine at optimum power and may boost fuel economy.
You may also be able to buy a hybrid or electric compact or subcompact car. Consumer Reports suggests determining whether the potentially higher price tag for one of these "green" cars will truly pay off in fuel savings — you may be able to recoup the costs in fuel savings quickly with some models, while it may not pay off with others.
Consider cabin comfort and cargo space
While many compact cars have seating for four or five, backseat passengers may find that legroom is scarce. Consumer Reports recommends getting in and out of every seat in any car you're considering. Check to see if doors are wide enough and there's enough head room for you and passengers to get in and out of the car easily. This will also give you an idea of how comfortable (or uncomfortable) a rear seat would be for an adult.
If you frequently have passengers, you may want to consider a four-door car, as Consumer Reports notes it can be difficult to access the back seats on some two-door coupes. Additionally, if you travel with kids, car seats may use up a lot of cabin space.
It's also a good idea to look at the cargo space. It's helpful to know that the trunk has enough room for the weekly groceries or that you can get a few suitcases in by folding down the backseat. If you need to haul larger items, a hatchback with a split-fold rear seat can be very useful, says Consumer Reports. For cars with a trunk, look for a tall, wide opening and a fold-down seat or at least a small area where you can pass through longer items, like skis.
Keep safety in mind
With safety features like airbags and electronic stability control on newer cars, compact and subcompact cars are safer than ever, according to Edmunds. Newer compact and subcompact cars may also include forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, backup cameras, blind spot and cross traffic alerts, lane departure warnings and adaptive cruise control. Check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to determine a vehicle's safety and crash-test ratings. Edmunds notes, though, that these ratings only compare cars within the same class. While a subcompact car may have great safety ratings, it still may not rank as well in crash test safety as a larger sedan or SUV
Know your price limit
You may find that a smaller car doesn't always mean a smaller price tag. If you're looking for something basic, you may be able to get a subcompact car for around $13,000, says Consumer Reports. A high-performance compact car with more bells and whistles, however, could cost you as much as $35,000. Generally, Consumer Reports says you can expect to spend between $18,000 and $22,000 for a small car with popular features.
Whether you go subcompact, compact or larger, be sure to do your research to determine which vehicle is right for your needs. From cost to safety, it's important to understand your options when buying a small car.