What Are Subcompact Cars?
Subcompact cars are a class of small automobiles with limited interior and cargo room compared to larger vehicle classes. According to the official definition, a subcompact car has a combined passenger and cargo volume between 85-100 cubic feet. This is smaller than compact, midsize, and full-size cars.
The typical dimensions of a subcompact car are:
- Length: 140-165 inches
- Width: 65-68 inches
- Wheelbase: 90-100 inches
Subcompacts are usually front-wheel drive with 4-5 seats. Some common subcompact models include the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, and Honda Fit.
A major advantage of subcompact cars is improved fuel efficiency. Subcompacts can achieve 35-40 mpg in combined city/highway driving, which is significantly higher than larger vehicle classes. Their small engines, light weight, and aerodynamic designs contribute to greater fuel savings for owners.
History of Subcompacts
Subcompact cars first emerged in the 1950s in Europe and Japan as an economical option for consumers. Manufacturers like Volkswagen, British Motor Corporation, Fiat, Renault, Datsun and Toyota began producing small, fuel-efficient models in the postwar period. During the late 1950s and 1960s, some of these subcompact cars were introduced to the US market, but had limited appeal compared to larger American models 1.
This changed in the 1970s during the oil crisis. With fuel prices rising, American consumers began looking for more fuel-efficient vehicles. Subcompacts gained popularity as an affordable and practical alternative to larger cars and gas guzzling muscle cars. Automakers responded by importing popular subcompact models like the VW Beetle, Toyota Corolla and Datsun B210. This expanded the niche subcompact market in the US 2.
Common Subcompact Models
Some of the most popular subcompact models in recent years include:
The Toyota Yaris has been a top-selling subcompact for many years. Known for its excellent fuel economy and reliability, the Yaris appeals to budget-minded shoppers. Toyota discontinued the Yaris after the 2020 model year in the United States, but it remains popular in other global markets. The Yaris consistently earned high praise from reviewers for its spacious interior, nimble handling, and smooth ride quality given its small size.
The Honda Fit earns acclaim for its versatile interior configuration thanks to its “Magic Seat” system that allows for folding down the rear seats in multiple configurations. Reviewers compliment the Fit for its peppy performance, sharp handling, smooth ride, and excellent fuel economy. The Fit was discontinued after the 2020 model year in the U.S. but remains on sale globally. According to GoodCarBadCar.net, the Honda Fit was among the top selling subcompact cars from 2018-2020. https://www.goodcarbadcar.net/2022-us-subcompact-car-sales-figures/
The Ford Fiesta has developed a reputation for being fun-to-drive thanks to its nimble handling and sporty performance capabilities. Reviewers praise the Fiesta’s upscale interior appointments not typically found in the subcompact segment. Ford ceased Fiesta sales in the U.S. after the 2019 model year.
The Chevrolet Sonic combines a smooth ride with responsive handling and acceleration, earning it positive reviews. The roomy interior and high safety scores add to the Sonic’s appeal. Production of the Sonic ended after the 2020 model year.
The Nissan Versa offers one of the lowest starting prices in the subcompact segment, making it attractive to value-driven shoppers. Along with its affordability, reviewers note the Versa’s generous passenger space and cargo room. The Versa continues to be part of Nissan’s subcompact lineup.
The Hyundai Accent delivers high fuel economy, a modern interior, and satisfying driving dynamics. Hyundai gave the Accent a major redesign for the 2018 model year, further boosting its appeal. The Accent remains a core part of Hyundai’s lineup with its combination of value and quality.
Subcompact Car Design
Subcompact cars are typically designed as hatchbacks or sedans with an emphasis on interior space efficiency over cargo capacity or performance. To maximize passenger and luggage space while keeping the exterior dimensions small, subcompact cars utilize space-saving design elements like a short front hood, upright seating, and folding rear seats.
To keep curb weight low, and thus fuel efficiency high, subcompact cars tend to use lightweight materials in their construction. The first subcompacts like the Chevrolet Vega had all-aluminum engines. Modern subcompacts frequently use high-strength steel or aluminum for major body panels. Interiors also tend to use lightweight plastics and fabrics.
Unique subcompact designs like the Smart ForTwo push the boundaries of small car engineering. With tandem seating and an ultra-short wheelbase, the ForTwo maximizes interior space while keeping an incredibly compact overall footprint.
Subcompact Car Performance
Subcompact cars generally have smaller engines than standard or midsize cars, which means they produce less horsepower and torque. The typical subcompact car has an engine size around 1.0 to 1.5 liters producing between 70 to 130 horsepower, compared to standard cars that often have 2.0 to 2.5 liter engines producing 150 to 200 horsepower (source). For example, the 2023 Kia Rio subcompact has a 1.6 liter engine with 120 horsepower, while the Kia Forte compact sedan has a 2.0 liter engine with 147 horsepower.
Instead of focusing on powerful acceleration, subcompact cars are designed for excellent fuel efficiency. Models like the 2023 Mitsubishi Mirage get 37 mpg in the city and 43 mpg on the highway with its tiny 1.2 liter 78 horsepower engine (source). While subcompacts may lack the exhilarating acceleration of larger cars, their high mpg ratings make them ideal commuter vehicles for city driving and tight parking spaces.
Subcompact Car Safety
Subcompact cars face some challenges when it comes to safety due to their small size. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), small cars have higher driver death rates than midsize and larger cars. However, they have improved significantly in recent years thanks to advanced safety features.
In crash tests by IIHS and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), many subcompacts earn high ratings, though some score lower on the demanding small overlap front test. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Hyundai Elantra, and Subaru Impreza are examples of subcompacts earning high marks for crashworthiness from both agencies.
To compensate for their size, most new subcompacts come equipped with advanced driver assist systems like automatic emergency braking and lane keeping assist. Features like blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert also help drivers avoid accidents in the first place.
While subcompacts fare well in government and industry crash testing, physics dictates size limitations. Larger vehicles inherently have safety advantages in collisions simply due to greater mass. This is especially true in head-on crashes with larger vehicles. As a result, many safety experts recommend larger vehicles for families.
Subcompact Car Pricing
Subcompact cars are generally the most affordable new vehicles available, with base MSRPs typically ranging from around $15,000 to $25,000. Compared to compact cars that start around $19,000 and midsize cars that start around $22,000, subcompacts provide a lower cost of entry into new car ownership.
Most subcompact models like the Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa, Kia Rio and Toyota Yaris have base prices under $20,000. Some more premium subcompact options like the Mazda2 and Honda Fit start around $21,000-24,000. Larger subcompact SUVs like the Hyundai Kona start around $20,000 (source).
Many automakers offer incentives on subcompact models to make them even more affordable. Cash rebates, special financing and leasing deals can lower the purchase price by thousands. With judicious negotiation and shopping around, buyers can often get excellent deals on a new subcompact car.
Advantages of Subcompacts
Subcompact cars offer many advantages to drivers, especially those in urban areas. The biggest advantage is excellent fuel economy. According to Toyota UK, subcompacts can achieve 40-50 mpg in combined city and highway driving. Their small size and light weight allows their small engines to sip gas and save drivers money at the pump.
The compact dimensions of subcompacts also make them extremely easy to park and maneuver through tight city streets and parking lots. Their tight turning radius and short length allows them to nip into small parking spaces other cars can’t access.
Subcompacts are very affordable to buy and own. According to Wheelership, their lower purchase price and cheap insurance make them accessible for buyers on a budget. Service and maintenance costs are also lower thanks to their basic powertrains and less expensive tires and brakes.
Finally, their size makes subcompacts ideal city cars. Their footprint allows them to zip through congested urban traffic and fit into tiny spaces for parking. Excellent outward visibility also makes subcompacts easy to maneuver and park in the city.
Disadvantages of Subcompacts
While subcompact cars do have some advantages, such as good fuel economy and ease of parking, they also have some notable drawbacks compared to larger vehicles. One major disadvantage is that subcompacts have less interior room and cargo space. The small overall size means cramped legroom for tall drivers and tight squeeze for multiple passengers. There’s also very limited trunk space, which makes fitting bulky items a challenge (Source).
In addition, subcompacts tend to have less powerful acceleration from their small engines. Drivers may find merging and passing tedious compared to larger cars with more horsepower under the hood. Subcompacts typically have engines 1.5 liters or smaller, while full-size sedans often have 3+ liter engines (Source).
Finally, the small size of subcompacts can potentially compromise safety in collisions. Their light weight and short front ends offer less crush zone to absorb impact forces. Statistics show increased driver fatality rates in small cars versus large cars in head-on and side impact crashes (Source). However, modern subcompacts do contain airbags, crumple zones and other safety features to help protect occupants.
Future of Subcompact Cars
As gasoline prices continue to rise, subcompact cars are likely to grow in popularity due to their excellent fuel efficiency. According to one source, “This Is The Featherweight Future Of Subcompact Cars And It’s Amazing. Take a good look at Renault’s light and aerodynamic EOLAB hybrid concept. At 141 mpg (U.S.) equivalent, it’s a prime example of how automakers can push the fuel efficiency envelope.” 
Subcompact cars are also likely to benefit from advancements in hybrid and electric powertrains. With their small size and low weight, subcompacts are ideal platforms for electrification. As battery costs continue to decrease, we may see more affordable EV subcompacts hit the market.
Finally, subcompacts stand to gain from self-driving technologies. Their nimble size and maneuverability make them well-suited for autonomous driving in crowded urban environments. Some experts predict that self-driving subcompact “pods” could one day provide affordable on-demand transportation in cities.