What Is Considered a Compact Car?

by Rob WagnerUpdated July 11, 2023
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The compact car, identified as a small car in Europe, falls between the mid-size car and the sub-compact vehicles. Typically a Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Versa, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Sentra, Volkswagen Jetta, and the Audi A3 fall into the compact category. The compact can have different body styles and cargo volume, and be a hatchback, two-door, or four-door model or a sports compact. They are generally factory equipped with a four-cylinder engine.


The compact has been available in some form since the inception of the automobile, but as cars grew larger, the compact made its formal debut with the 1950 Nash Rambler that sat on a 100-inch wheelbase. Compact cars are economy cars that are fuel-efficient, have limited but usable trunk space and interior volume, and are great for road trips because of their fuel economy and gas mileage. Lack of cargo space may be a problem for some people, and lack of legroom may be a dealbreaker for other if they’re looking at buying a new car. Compact SUVs or compact sedans are perfect for small families or single people who don’t need a full-size car with a huge combined passenger space and lower MPG, like a subcompact car.

Volkswagen's Influence

The growing popularity of the Volkswagen Beetle in the 1950s prompted American automakers to introduce a series of compacts, including the Studebaker Lark, Chevrolet Corvair and the Ford Falcon.

Today's Dimensions

Offered in configurations of a sedan, station wagon, coupe or convertible, today's compact measures no more than 181 inches in length with a wheelbase between 100 and 105 inches.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines a compact as having 109 cubic feet of cargo and passenger space and being able to seat up to four passengers.


The vehicle is powered either by a gasoline or diesel four-cylinder engine ranging in size from 1.2 to 1.4 liters.

Sports Cars

By strict definition many sports cars, such as the Audi TT and the Mazda Miata, can be considered compact cars, although in some cases their engine size often exceeds the 2.4-liter limit.

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