What You Should Know About Compact and Subcompact 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. We spoke to Matt DeLorenzo, Kelley Blue Book managing editor, for a list of features to consider when buying small.
But what makes a car a compact or a subcompact? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, subcompact cars have a combined passenger and cargo volume between 85 and 99 cubic feet. Compact cars boast a combined passenger and cargo volume between 100 and 109 cubic feet.
Think Fuel Economy
Gas price fluctuations can affect your budget, so ditching your gas guzzler for a smaller car with better fuel efficiency is one way you can minimize your costs at the pump. One rule of thumb: Don’t automatically assume that going subcompact over compact will save you more money when filling up — it turns out, while small vehicle classes 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 check in on the gas mileage of each car.
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When considering fuel economy, remember, the flip side of that is often power. “Most small cars with the 40 mpg fuel economy numbers typically use small displacement, non-turbocharged engines,” DeLorenzo says. “They’re great for delivering high fuel economy and make terrific city cars, but if you have any thoughts of freeway driving, you may want to consider a more powerful turbocharged version to make merging a little easier.” Turbochargers pump extra air into the engine to deliver more power, and small, non-turbocharged engines generally have slower acceleration.
Test Drive For Transmission
Most small cars typically come with a wider range of gears — four-, five- or now more commonly, six-speed automatic transmissions — which result in better fuel economy thanks to the overdrive top 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 band, with the diameter of one of the pulleys continually adjusting as needed to transfer power to the car’s tires. This is an alternative design to using fixed gears.
“These CVTs are smooth in operation, but there is still a tendency for them to feel a bit elastic in acceleration or hold the engine at a high RPM in steady-state cruising, a condition called ‘motorboating,’” DeLorenzo says.
Consider Cabin Comfort
Most subcompact cars have seating for five, but backseat passengers may find that legroom is scarce. In addition, if you travel with kids in tow or plan to, car seats can quickly eat up cabin space. There are subcompact crossover SUV options that offer a bit more room and cargo space behind the second row, or you can move up to a compact-sized vehicle for a bit more leg room.
When scouting for small cars, check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) websites to see what a vehicle’s crash rating is under the federal five-star program.Other safety features to look for include backup cameras, blind spot and cross traffic alerts, lane departure warnings and adaptive cruise control.
Plan Your Price Point
Compact cars may have more cabin space, but subcompact cars can pass them by in terms of price. For a shopper on a tighter budget, subcompacts could save you a few thousand dollars, which can mean a smaller monthly payment. Before shopping, determine your budget and needs to see what size car works for your plan.
For powerful acceleration and more efficient gas mileage, you can opt for a smaller hybrid or electric vehicle (EV), but keep in mind that “green” vehicles often come with a higher price tag, as well as distance restrictions between charges. “EVs can be good for city dwellers or those with short commutes, but typically the range of pure electrics in this class of vehicles is still in the 90 to 100 mile range between charges,” DeLorenzo says.
Pursue Smart Features
When designing small cars, makers often include features that can help maximize space, convenience and even entertainment. Some of the features may include keyless entry/start, heated seats, Bluetooth connectivity, music apps like Pandora, satellite radio and navigation.
Whether you go subcompact, compact or slightly larger, be sure to do your research to determine which vehicle is right for your needs. From cost to comfort, it’s important to know the many mighty options when buying small.