Let’s start with a riddle: What does the Honda Civic hatchback have in common with the long-wheelbase Rolls-Royce Phantom?
Nothing, it seems, with the exception of basic parts like wheels, doors and seats. Right? Not quite. In America, both models fall into the ‘large car’ category.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates total interior space, not exterior dimensions, to classify passenger cars into different segments. Following this methodology places the Civic and the Phantom on the same unlikely turf, where they’re in the company of other equally unexpected models. Meanwhile, the Ford Fiesta and the Nissan GT-R keep each other company in the subcompact corner.
Join us as we explore the big compacts and the scaled-up small cars sold in the United States, and highlight some truly strange truths:
Downsizing: America’s compacts
The EPA defines a compact as any passenger car regardless of length, width, weight or body style with between 100 and 109 cubic feet (2831 and 3086 liters) of interior space. The agency adds cabin and trunk space to get the final figure it takes into account.
Many German brands’ entry-level cars fall into the compact segment including the Audi A4, BMW’s 3 and 4 Series and the Mercedes-Benz CLA. The segment also includes the Ford Focus (pictured), the Chevrolet Cruze and, somewhat surprisingly, the tiny Mitsubishi Mirage. The stupefaction doesn’t end there, however.
COMPACT: BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe
At 197in (5010mm) long, the BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe is nearly as big as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. That doesn’t make it spacious inside, though. Passenger volume checks in at 97 cubic feet (2746 liters); cargo volume is only 12 cubic feet (339 liters). That’s the price buyers must pay for a stylish four-door car with a coupe-like silhouette. Form over function, as the saying goes.
Let’s bring the Mirage back on stage. Mitsubishi’s smallest, cheapest model measures 146in (3710mm). It lives up to the commonly-accepted definition of the word ‘compact’ and yet it’s deceptively big inside. It offers a tolerable 86 cubic feet (2435 liters) for the passengers and sets aside 17 cubic feet (481 liters) for cargo. In other words, it’s nearly as roomy as the big BMW - and also 84% cheaper.
COMPACT: BMW 530e
The gasoline-electric 530e is the only BMW 5 Series classified as a compact in America. The other variants of the 5 (such as the 530i and the M5) all slot into the mid-size category. They’re all nearly identical when viewed from the outside but the 530e’s lithium-ion battery pack eats four cubic feet (113 liters) of trunk space. That’s enough to bump it down a size.
COMPACT: Rolls-Royce Dawn
Rolls-Royce quietly entered the compact car segment with the Dawn, which is hardly city-friendly at 208in (5296mm) long. It’s based on the Wraith, a coupe the EPA optimistically calls a mid-size car, but it ditches the hardtop configuration for a power-retractable soft top that chews through four cubes (113 liters) as it folds into the body. The Dawn straddles the line between compact and mid-size.
Thinking small: America’s subcompact cars
Any passenger car with between 85 and 99 cubic feet (2406 and 2803 liters) of interior volume earns the ‘subcompact’ label. Sensible buyers in the market for a subcompact car will look at the Chevrolet Spark, the BMW i3, or the Mini Hardtop. Alternatively, subcompact shoppers can unaccustomedly treat themselves to a variety of high-end rides like the Audi A5.
SUBCOMPACT: Aston Martin Rapide S
Aston Martin’s Rapide S fares even worse than the equally style-focused BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe. It’s also 197in (5019mm) long yet passenger and cargo volume check in at 83 and 14 cubic feet (2350 and 396 liters), respectively. If a size-to-volume ratio emerged out of the EPA, the Rapide S would qualify for a spot near the very bottom of the scale. It’s as spacious as the 143in- (3636mm-) long Chevrolet Spark.
SUBCOMPACT: Bentley Continental GT Convertible
Bentley builds a subcompact with a mighty 12-cylinder engine, all-wheel drive and a sumptuous interior. It’s called Continental GT and it gives the passengers just seven cubic feet (198 liters) of space for their stuff.
The EPA still lists the last-generation Continental GT because Bentley hasn’t launched the new model in America yet. It will be interesting to see whether it remains a subcompact or if it achieves compact status on the EPA ladder.
SUBCOMPACT: BMW 4 Series Convertible
The BMW 4 Series Convertible suffers from the same problem as the Rolls-Royce Dawn, among many other models. The folding top takes up so much space above the trunk that it pushes the model down in the EPA’s classification system. Interior space remains unchanged at 90 cubic feet (2548 liters) but the nine cubic feet (254 liters) of trunk space embed the top-less 4 in subcompact territory. The BMW Group’s other subcompact models all wear a ‘Mini’ emblem.
SUBCOMPACT: Ford Mustang
The Ford Mustang has evolved considerably over the past five decades. The current model is a much better car to drive on a twisty road than any of its predecessors, and it’s offered globally for the first time, but some things never change. It still doesn’t make very good use of space. If it’s any consolation to Ford fans, the Chevrolet Camaro – the Mustang’s arch enemy for decades – performs even worse in this department.
The Mustang’s designers set aside 96 cubic feet (2718 liters) for the passengers and their gear. The Camaro’s designers stopped at 85 cubes (2406 liters) and called it a day. With 110 cubic feet (3114 liters), the Dodge Challenger looks palatial as it sits on the other end of the space spectrum.
SUBCOMPACT: Karma Revero
The Fisker Karma-turned-Karma Revero stands out as one of the least space-efficient cars in America. While its cabin is significantly bigger than the one in the Rapide S, the components of its plug-in hybrid powertrain reduce trunk space to a coupe-like seven cubic feet (198 liters). That’s approximately big enough for a pair of golf bags which, admittedly, is sufficient for the average Revero buyer. But if it’s space you’re after, you’re better off visiting the nearest Chevrolet dealer to check out the Spark than driving home in a Revero.
SUBCOMPACT: Nissan GT-R
The Nissan GT-R enjoys an excellent power-to-weight ratio – especially for a subcompact car. While it measures 183in (4671mm) long, its relatively cramped cabin and its small trunk add up to just 88 cubic feet (2491 liters) of interior space. Nissan’s Sentra is only a few inches shorter than the GT-R yet it gets the mid-size label because it offers 111 cubic feet (3143 liters) beneath the sheet metal.
The smallest of the small: America’s minicompact cars
The oddly-named minicompact category contains cars with under 85 cubic feet (2406 liters) of interior space. Interestingly, it’s exclusively populated by sports cars. You won’t find small, budget-oriented economy cars here. They’re all at least a size up.
Instead, this segment includes some of the fastest, most expensive and most desirable machines on the planet. Note every car in this segment has four seats; at least theoretically. The EPA wisely lumps all two-seater models (from the Fortwo to the Aventador) into their own category.
MINICOMPACT: Aston Martin Vanquish Zagato
The EPA even sucks limited-edition models into its system. Any car that’s street-legal in the United States must go through the agency before arriving on dealer lots. While Aston Martin bills the Vanquish Zagato as a work of art, the EPA merely points out it’s fairly tight inside with just 81 cubic feet (2293 liters) for people and stuff.
MINICOMPACT: Porsche 911
In terms of packaging, the Porsche 911’s biggest shortcoming is its small trunk, which checks in at just five cubic feet (141 liters). The passenger cabin, at 70 cubic feet (1982 liters), is surprisingly spacious, reflecting the effort Porsche continually puts into making its hallmark model easy to live with on a daily basis.
The EPA’s classification portrays the 911 as a four-seater with almost no storage space. On paper, it is. In reality, most owners use it as a two-seater with a spacious parcel shelf behind the front seats.
MINICOMPACT: Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86
The Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86 twins are the most affordable members of the minicompact category. Both coupes have 84 cubic feet (2378 liters) of interior space. They’re slightly bigger inside than the Mini Convertible, which is the only other model in the segment whose base price doesn’t come close to (or exceed) the six-digit mark. The reduced dimensions and the correspondingly small cockpit help the BRZ/86 deliver the tight, nimble handling enthusiasts seek.
Sizing up: America’s large cars
The list of compact cars in America highlights packaging-challenged luxury models like the BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe. It goes both ways, though. It takes just a quick glance at the market’s so-called large cars to find the true compact models with the most space for passengers and gear.
According to the EPA, a large car is one with over 120 cubic feet (3398 liters) of interior space. The segment includes the Audi A8, the Chrysler 300 (pictured), the Kia Optima and the aforementioned Rolls-Royce Phantom but it also encompasses surprisingly small cars.
LARGE: BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo
The BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo lives with its bigger sibling, the 7 Series, in large car-land while the standard 3 Series sedan exists in the compact kingdom. The GT boasts a longer wheelbase that it shares with the long-wheelbase 3 sedan made and sold in China.
The extra sheet metal between the axles clears up more space for the passengers riding on the back seat. The fastback-like roof line and the generously-sized hatch bump cargo capacity up to 25 cubic feet (707 liters), a noticeable improvement over the sedan’s 13 cubic feet (368 liters).
LARGE: Honda Civic hatchback
The hatchback is the only 2018 Civic body style considered a large car in America. It measures 177in (4519mm) from bumper to bumper and it offers 123 cubic feet (3492 liters) of interior space, on par with the Accord. The Civic sedan’s trunk is much smaller than the hatchback’s in spite of its bigger footprint so the EPA considers it a midsize model. The Civic coupe falls in the compact category.
In comparison, the long-wheelbase Phantom introduced last year stretches 235in (5982mm). You’d think the EPA would measure its ultra-luxe interior in cubic yards, not cubic feet, but it’s much smaller than its majestic dimensions suggest. The Phantom checks in at 142 cubic feet (4020 liters). Save money by selecting the standard-wheelbase model and that figure drops to 131 cubes (3709 liters).
LARGE: Hyundai Elantra GT
Hyundai pulled off the same trick as rival Honda. Known as the i30 outside of America, the Elantra GT slots into the large car category thanks to its commodious cabin and its roomy trunk. The sheet metal hides 122 cubic feet (3454 liters) of space, a rounding error compared to the Civic hatchback. If space is the truest form of luxury, you might be better off buying a ‘large’ hatchback than a Rolls-Royce.
What about station wagons, SUVs and trucks?
We’ve only talked about passenger cars so far. The EPA divides station wagons into three segments called small, mid-size and large, respectively. The agency again uses interior volume measured in cubic feet as a yardstick. Its definition of a wagon is vague at best. The segment includes the Kia Soul, the Chevrolet Bolt, the Nissan Rogue and, confoundingly, the Subaru Impreza hatchback. It also lists conventional models like the Volvo V90 and the Buick Regal TourX.
Trucks, vans, and SUVs are another story. The EPA looks at each model’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) to make the distinction between a small and a standard model. Starting with the 2008 model year, a truck with a GVWR of less than 6000lb (2727kg) is considered small. Examples include the Nissan Frontier, the Chevrolet Colorado (pictured) and the Toyota Tacoma.