Compact vs Sub-Compact: How Small is Small?

There are those who say that size matters when it comes to fuel efficiency. For many folks, “to get great gas mileage, you have to drive a small car,” is a prevailing mindset. But the big question is: how small is small? Will a compact or sub-compact car fit your needs? Do you really need something larger … or perhaps even smaller?

If you’re in an urban setting, with tight parking conditions, a tiny inexpensive car may be your best bet. There’s nothing like zipping through traffic and scoring those tight parking spaces with ease. But it’s a dramatically different story out on the open road. Would you be comfortable duking it out with double tractor trailers and dump trucks on the Interstate while driving a microcar like the Scion iQ or Smart car?

The chart below provides a list of compact, subcompact, and microcars available – or (possibly) soon to be available – in the American market. Compacts, subcompacts, and microcars are often referred to as C-, B-, and A-Segment cars, respectively.

Compact / Subcompact / Micro Cars (with reviews)

Compact Cars (C-Segment) Subcompact Cars (B-Segment) Micro Cars (A-Segment)
Audi A3 Chevy Sonic Chevy Spark
Audi A4 Fiat 500 Ford Ka
Buick Verano Ford Fiesta Mitsubishi i MiEV
Chevy Cruze Honda Fit Smart
Chevy Volt Hyundai Accent Scion iQ
Dodge Dart Kia Rio  
Ford Focus Mini Cooper  
Honda Civic Mazda2  
Honda CR-Z Nissan Cube  
Honda Insight Nissan Juke  
Hyundai Elantra Nissan Versa  
Hyundai Veloster Scion xA  
Kia Forte Scion xD  
Kia Soul Toyota Prius c  
Mazda3 Toyota Yaris  
Mitsubishi Lancer Volvo C30  
Nissan Sentra    
Scion tC    
Scion xB    
Subaru Impreza    
Suzuki Kizashi    
Toyota Corolla    
Volkswagen Golf    
Volkswagen Jetta    

We’ve come a long way since the early seventies, when the American Motors Gremlin, Chevy Vega, and Ford Pinto were the first subcompacts built in America. Though some might hold a warm place in their hearts for the little beasts, these were among the most ghastly cars manufactured on the North American continent. For all the numbers that were produced, few exist today, as the little tin boxes quickly fell victim to rust and the rigors of the road.

Today’s world is entirely different. Small no longer equals cheap. Compact and subcompact cars offer a host of amenities and comforts that would’ve been unthinkable back in the day.

While downsizing can be one of the keys to slashing your fuel costs, the smallest cars aren’t necessarily the most efficient. Optimized compact sedans like the Mazda3 Skyactiv can deliver better gas mileage and more comfort than many subcompacts.

Once you’ve decided that a small car will meet your needs, you’ll need to determine what technology fits the bill. Although hybrid and diesel vehicles provide more MPGs, that efficiency comes at a cost. It’s up to you to make that determination. Plug your figures into our gas mileage calculator and you’ll see it in an instant.

The deciding factor between a less expensive (non-hybrid) Toyota Yaris and a comparable hybrid Prius c may come down to your typical driving cycle. If your mainly dealing with lots of stop-and-go low speed traffic, the Prius c could be the most cost-effective over the long run. But if you roll up most of your miles on open roads and highways with less congestion, the Yaris just might get the nod.

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5 thoughts on “Compact vs Sub-Compact: How Small is Small?”

  1. From your “List” and the vehicles I’ve personally driven, I wonder if the Compact isn’t the best pick overall. With the recent onslaught of 40 MPG vehicles in this class, they seem to be the best bang for the buck when you consider refinement and capacity. That said I’m sure the Micros have their own following and it’s understandable in large Metro areas although it seems they should get considerable more MPG considering their size. The Sub Compacts seem to be close to the Compacts in gas mileage & price leaving me to wonder, why? I feel cuteness plays here, in fact the Fiat 500 really catches my eye. IMO the S/C’s should be closer to a 50MPG figure on the highway on gas, giving you real reason to downsize.

  2. I’m curious when you’re going to test some of the micro cars on this list… I’m especially interested in the iQ after checking it out at the auto show. It seems to offer everything I want and nothing I don’t want.

  3. Hi,
    I’m thinking about buying a 2012 Volkswagen Passat and I wanted to know if 22 mpg in the city and Highway 31 mpg good?

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