Compact Car Buying Guide

The compact car is enormously popular today for its reliability, excellent fuel economy and suitability for modern city driving. As a rule, compact cars are larger than minis or subcompacts, but smaller than most midsize vehicles. While there are a limited number of compact or subcompact model cars manufactured by American automakers, cars of this size are nonetheless very prevalent throughout North America and Europe, where they are known as C-segment vehicles.

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About Compact Cars

While American car companies prior to World War II had manufactured smaller vehicles, the modern compact car's roots can be traced back to the introduction of the convertible Nash Rambler in 1950. Built on a 100-inch wheelbase, the Rambler was one of the first widely produced vehicles that met the industry standard definition of a compact car, by having a wheelbase of less than 110 inches.

Other U.S. automakers were quick to attempt to cash in on the success of the Rambler. However, their efforts were for the most part met with public indifference. Models such as the Kaiser-Frazer Henry J, Willys Aero, and Hudson Jet failed to capture the public's attention. Subsequent models like the Studebaker Lark, Chevrolet Corvair, and Plymouth Valiant were more successful at cutting into the Rambler's market share, and by the 1960s the compact car market in the U.S. was fairly open.

Still, compacts didn't really take off in the U.S. until the mid-1970s. In 1977, an industry-wide trend towards vehicle downsizing began. Thus, cars such as the AMC Concord and the Ford Fairmont, which had previously been branded as compact, became rebranded as midsize, and other cars that had been regarded as sub-compacts, such as the Ford Pinto and the Chevrolet Vega, became reclassified as compact cars.

The 1980s saw a huge increase in the popularity and production of compact cars. This was, in many ways, due to the gasoline crisis and shortages during the 1970s.

The car buying public witnessed the introduction of American-made compact car models such as the Ford Escort, Ford Tempo, and Chevy Cavalier. At the same time Japanese imports such as the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, and Acura Integra became some of the most popular and widely driven cars on the road. By the end of the 1980s, even luxury carmakers such as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo had entered the compact market with the Mercedes-Benz 300 and the Volvo DL, respectively. Today, compacts remain some of the most widely driven vehicles on the road with the Honda Civic, Honda Fit and Hyundai Elantra being among the most common.

Compact Car Variations

Originally envisioned as smaller, sedan-like family cars, compacts have diversified over the decades. Today, there are compact variations available for vehicles of many different body types. Drivers may choose from compact wagons, compact sedans, compact convertibles, and even compact sport utility vehicles (SUVs) .

Subcompact cars are even smaller than compacts. Classified as B-segment vehicles in Europe, where they are extremely popular, such cars are also sometimes known as super minis.

Sport compact cars are another variation on the compact theme. These cars are more performance focused than the typical economy compact car. They usually have front-wheel drive and are powered by a four-cylinder engine.

Popular Compact Car Brands

Today, many drivers are drawn toward compacts because of their reliability and superior fuel economy. Among the more popular brands of economical compacts are the Nissan Sentra, Nissan Altima, and Kia Forte Five-Door. There are also a number of popular sporty subcompacts currently on the market; examples include the Fiat 500, Volkswagen Golf, Honda Civic and Mazda Miata. Some smaller sized SUVs, like the Ford Escape, have also been described as compacts.

Who Drives Compact Cars?

The reliability and excellent fuel economy of compact cars makes them ideal for drivers of all types. However, teenagers and college students may especially appreciate the minimum investment it takes to buy a compact car and keep it gassed up and running. The low cost of operating a compact car also makes them very popular with retired people and families on a tight budget.

Some compact car models are also stylish and sporty. Compacts such as the Fiat 500, Mini Cooper, and Volkswagen Beetle are extremely popular for their retro European styling, comfort and reliability.

Sport compact vehicles such as the Honda Civic Si and Scion tC are ideal cars for young drivers. These models provide all the reliability and fuel economy of a typical compact with added engine power and handling capabilities.

The bottom line is that compact cars are stylish, reliable, and ideal for any driver who wants to save some money at the pump each week.