Size Matters: How Small Cars Got Big

2016 Hyundai i30
Will your family fit in a small car? Let's find out

If you’re sniffing around the Mazda3, Toyota Corolla or Hyundai i30, you’ve certainly got company - they're insanely popular, and they're slogging it out in the most hotly contested segment of the market. These are the three top-selling cars in the country - but are they as small as people say and, sometimes, think?

Officially, the i30, Corolla and Mazda3 all sit in the ‘small car' segment - which just goes to show you how far the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries can insert its head into its own anus. (That's the car industry's lobby group.) Part of me senses an evil marketing ploy in all this. Families might be disinclined to think they'll fit in a notionally 'small car' no matter what its true size or actual accommodation capacity is.

What a neat way to get people to spend another $5000 to $10,000 on an SUV - whether they need one or not. 

I blame the Toyota Corolla for the start of this segment-stretching misnomer. See, Corolla started life as a tiny (and very nasty) car shortly after the end of the last ice age, in 1966.

In the course of manufacturing more than 40 million Corollas - the roadgoing equivalent of the cockroach - every time Toyota released a new model, they had to pump it up, just a bit - make it a bit bigger, give it a bit more grunt. Otherwise there would have been no compelling reason for anyone to upgrade. You have to offer people more: more power, more space and more features. The pitch is simple: Buy the new one because it's got [insert reason here; more this, more that...]

So: Toyota piles up this water, pushes it over and starts surfing the small car wave. They’re on a real winner, and it's hardly a secret, so everyone copies them - and suddenly we’re on a small car surfin’ safari. There are Honda Civics and Mitsubishi Lancers and Subaru Imprezas and Nissan Pulsars as far as they eye can see. Today, this is the most popular segment in the market.

Go here for which small car to buy >>
Or try the new Hyundai i30 >>
Or perhaps a Mazda SP25 >>




Length: 3855 mm
Width: 1485 mm
Height: 1380 mm

Weight: 720 kg

Length: 4330 mm (+11.5%)
Width: 1760 mm (+18.5%)
Height: 1475 mm (+6.9%)

Weight: 1310 kg (+81.9%)

Length: 3930 mm (+1.9%)
Width: 1695 mm (+14.1%)
Height: 1510 mm (+9.4%)

Weight: 1055 kg (+46.5%)

The increases are staggering - especially when considering how much better a modern car is 'packaged' - in other words moving the wheels out to the corners and sandwiching the engine into ever smaller spaces to maximise passenger and luggage volume. Of course the other staggering increase is in weight. In ballpark terms the 2015 Corolla is nearly twice the weight of the first Corolla (admittedly all those safety systems and additional equipment items account for much of that increase - but so does the extra size and rigidity). It's easy to see why the increases in efficiency haven't been translated directly into fuel economy gains.

By now we’ve had just shy of half a century of incremental size increases in Corollas. Small cars have grown like Kim Kardashian’s arse. (Albeit with a higher IQ.) Manufacturers even had had to invent new, smaller cars, to fill the void at the bottom end, caused by middle-age small car arse-inflation-itis. Which is why there are now so-called ‘light’ cars like the i20 and Mazda2. And even they have grown incrementally bigger, which is why there are so-called ‘micro’ cars like the Mitsubishi Mirage and Nissan Micra. And check out the Yaris above: even it eclipses yesterday's Corolla.

Re-sizing SUVs

Above, left to right: The Mazda CX-5 and its smaller brother the Mazda CX-3; Subaru Forester, which grew to the extent an XV was required in the range.

SUVs are doing it too - there are a swag of micro-SUVs being inserted below established middle-aged players. Enter the Mazda CX-3 >>, a kind of pumped-up Mazda2 sitting underneath the super-successful Mazda CX-5 >>. The Subaru Forester got enough middle-aged spread about it to warrant the development of the Subaru XV, and Honda's CR-V now has a Mini-Me all of its own too - the diminutive Honda HR-V. The Nissan X-TRAIL >> stands not quite shoulder-to-shoulder with the Nissan Qashqai, and even the Renault Koleos now has the Renault Captur to dwarf. The worst SUV on Australian Roads is doing it too: the Holden Captiva now has the Trax.

That’s the back story about how ‘small’ got ‘big’. If you’re worried a car like a Toyoya Corolla, Mazda3 or Hyundai i30  might be too small, worry about a more credible threat. Weaponised smallpox attack on the subway. Anthropogenic global climate emergency. Food chain destruction caused by biodiversity breakdown. Kim Kardashian saying something actually newsworthy. That kind of terrible thing.

Cars like Hyundai i30, Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla are not small in any literal sense. Young families fit in them just fine. An i30 is 4.3 metres long. It’s just three inches shorter than a Nissan Qashqai, and nine inches shorter than a Mazda CX-5 - the whole ‘SUV/extra space’ idea is a complete con. It’s a matter of a few inches. Good luck using all that extra height you get for practical storage on the move. But one thing is certain: you spring for an SUV and you’re going to put your hand a lot deeper into your pocket - $6000-$8000 deeper. That’s between one and two thousand bucks an inch. Isn’t that what Ron Jeremy said, famously, to the aspiring starlet.

A couple of caveats: Here's why you don't want to buy a Holden Cruze >> And why Honda used to be a desirable brand but lost the plot lately >> 

Before you fork out the big bucks on an SUV, why not see if an erroneously named 'small car' might not just fit the family - and the budget - better?