Small vs. Big: Some Pros . . . and Cons

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If you’re trying to decide whether to buy a bigger – or smaller – car, you might want to consider some of the following pros and cons:

* Small cars usually perform better with manual transmissions –

This is because they usually have smaller – and lower torque at higher RPM – engines. This means you have to get the engine revving to get the car moving. Or at least, moving quickly. With a manual, this is easy. You raise the RPMs, let out the clutch – and off you go. With an automatic, not so much. It takes a moment for the engine to build up speed (RPMs) after you push down on the gas pedal with the transmission in Drive – a moment or two for the engine to get into the higher range of its powerband, where it makes its power – and torque. In the meanwhile, other cars are passing you by.

Most small (four cylinder) engines have torque peaks well above 4,000 RPM – and don’t make much torque at all in the idle to 2,000 or so RPM range – the engine speed you’re starting out at from a red light.

As an example, the ’12 Kia Soul I recently reviewed (see here for that) had a 1.6 liter engine with a torque peak at 4,850 RPM. It also made very little torque – at any engine speed. Maximum torque from this engine is just 123 ft.-lbs. – not a lot to get 2,615 lbs. of vehicle moving.  

The result of  a small engine with not much torque at all – and whatever torque there is way up there in the powerband – teamed up with an automatic transmission – is usually sluggish performance. Especially when accelerating from a standstill.

Bigger cars, in contrast, usually have bigger engines – sixes and sometimes eights. These engines produce more torque – and at lower engine RPM. For example: The full-size Chrysler 300’s big V-8 produces tremendous torque – 394 ft.-lbs. – at 4,200 RPM. Much of this prodigious torque is also available at lower speeds- making it ideal for pairing with an automatic transmission.  A big car with a stick can be plenty of fun to drive – but you usually won’t lose much in the way of performance by going with the automatic, if you prefer to let the transmission do your shifting for you.

Diesel engines – which make lots of torque down low in the powerband – also work well with automatics. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of small cars available with diesel engines in the U.S.

* Smaller cars are usually less crashworthy –

This one’s obvious – or ought to be. But the way crashworthiness ratings are published can be very misleading – because they don’t rank cars in absolute terms but only against other cars within their class of car. In other words, a compact is compared to other compacts – and a full-size car compared to other full-size cars. Compact cars are not compared with full-size cars. So, a compact with a 5 Star rating may be superior to another compact with a 4 star rating. But it’s still probably inferior to a full-size car with a 4 star rating. As a rule, the larger (and heavier) the vehicle, the more crashworthy the vehicle.

On the other hand, it’s certainly arguable that a smaller car is less likely to end up in an accident to begin with because it’s (typically) more nimble and – assuming an attentive/skilled driver – easier to avoid getting crumpled in the first place.

Also, most small cars are FWD (or AWD) and for the average driver, this layout offers more secure handling, especially in wet/winter driving conditions – which also reduces the chances of having an accident in the first place.

* “Packaging” –

Some cars are small on the outside but surprisingly spacious inside – sometimes, more spacious than physically larger (on the outside, anyhow) cars. Ask Mini Cooper owners – as an example. The Mini is tiny on the outside, but has more room up front than many considerably larger cars. And of course, there are vehicles like the Honda Fit and Scion xB that can swallow more cargo (such as a pair of bicycles) than some much larger vehicles.

Similarly, some big-on-the-outside vehicles may be surprisingly cramped on the inside. Or have puny trunks. The huge-on-the-outside Chrysler 300, for example, only has a 16.3 cubic foot trunk – while the much smaller on the outside Honda Fit has 57.3 cubic feet of space for stuff. That’s more than three times as much “trunk” space!

The tiny Nissan Cube – which is barely 13 feet long, bumper to bumper – has 42.6 inches of front seat headroom and 42.4 inches of legroom. A Mercedes E-Class sedan – which is about three feet longer overall and a solidly mid-sized car – only has 37.9 inches of front seat headroom and 41.3 inches of legroom.

So, don’t necessarily go by category – e.g., “compact” or “mid-sized.” Go by stats. Check out the interior volume of the car you’re considering. The cargo capacity (total and with the second row seats up), front and back seat leg and headroom – etc.

You might be surprised what fits – and doesn’t!

Throw it in the Woods?




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  1. Eric, what you wrote about crashworthiness is completely wrong and seemed to bear no relation to the graph which made it plain that big cars are much safer only if you hit a smaller car.

    Hit a wall in a large car – or hit another large car – and there is no advantage conferred by mass and momentum.

    Conversely, hit a wall in a small car – or another small car – and you are no less safe than in a large car.

    Crash tests assess likely harm regardless of the size of the vehicle and ratings are awarded solely on crash performance.

    A properly built small car is just as safe in a same-size collision as a large one in a same-size collision. In the real world – with two properly designed cars – weight will win, but thats not what crash tests are measuring. I’ve done a lot of work on this — and you might want to check out the many studies of actual crashes that show which cars are more likely to injure their occupants. Folksdam, swedish insurance company is a good source. Monash university in australia is another.

  2. The largest expense in owning a vehicle is depreciation, that costs waaay more than gas.

    So I buy 4-6 yr old SUVs at auction, drive em 10 years, or till they die and go get another.

    The latest one we bought in December at a repo auction, was a 8 yr old full size 8 passenger SUV , in excellent condition , 4wd loaded with every avail option including heated and COOLED seats.
    it stickered for $57K new, we paid $6K.

    Yep, it guzzles gas but should be way safer than a small car,
    should be able to put another hundred thousand on it and still get a couple thousand dollars out of it.

    and youre right, when they do a test crash, they dont crash a Honda into a F-150 like in the real world,

  3. Tim,

    Amen and amen. Toyota has the finest small/medium trucks in the world with their stout little diesel engines.
    I’m thinking about a trip to Mexico to get one, but it would be hell to get it registered with the bureaucrats in my set. Maybe someday the drones in the District of Criminals will quit listening to hysterical nonsense and allow us non-criminal types to buy what we want/need. But I doubt it…

  4. A friend bought a Prius(because it was politically correct). He had bought a Suburu once because they touted the engine would dive under the car and not in it if you had a head on. I love the guy but his reasoning escaped me. I asked him how he thought he’d fair if he had a head on with me and my one ton diesel ext. cab 4wd Chevy. He didn’t have an answer. Now I don’t drive a rig like that because I want to, would much rather have a good sized car with good handling and power. The fact remains that I can’t pull a big trailer,especially a gooseneck with a small Toyota that many friends have had to drive for company cars and never got even 30 mpg much less the 36mph they were rated at. Everything is a trade off and I know if I get in a bind and lose that truck I’m going to simply be an unwilling passenger therefore I watch my P’s Q’s. I sure wish people would play chicken with me and expect me to stop for them just because they think they have some sort of special right. I wrecked 3 big Chevy pickups all at once to avoid killing a couple kids in a tiny car that pulled out in front of me. It was a split second decision and I’d do it again even though people got hurt. Had I just locked up that big truck I’d have killed both the people in that little car. I’d do the same thing again and get the ticket while the fools in the tiny car went on their way. Life isn’t always fair.

  5. and regarding diesels. if Toyota would show some stones and sell their HiLux (Tacoma & 4runner) Diesel in America, they’d sell the ever loving snot out of them.

  6. Just the other day there was a story about a California state legislator’s wife that was driving their family 2002 Escalade and clobbered an 87 Honda that blew a red down in Santa Monica. Big SUV family walked away shaken but unhurt. Honda driver, not so much. Sometimes the saftey tradeoff of bad gas milage is worth it. My family car that we take our kids in is a Xterra.

    These “smart” cars that look like golf carts scare me even more.
    And I drive a 97 VW Golf.

    • You are correct that there is a trade off.

      Larger vehicles vs smaller vehicles:
      — everything being equal are safer in an accident than a smaller vehicle (TASV)
      — cost more to maintain and operate TASV
      — can carry more people and/things TASV

      As someone stated, one needs to determine what vehicle they need for the task they want to do.

      Regarding the safety aspect, I think people need to determine what risk they can live with in their lives.

      Hypothetical: a 15mpg SUV vs a 30mpg small car.
      gas for 15,000 miles @ $3.50/gallon is $1,750 more in SUV.

      What is the probability of being in an accident where the extra mass of the SUV means you walk away in one piece?

      Each person will need to decide for themselves if the extra mass is worth the cost.

      • When I drive by myself in my rat trap VW, I calculate the risk to be low. If I do end up dead, my kids will have no father but lots of insurance money to get on with thier lives. When I drive my kids, the SUV is the vehicle of choice as i would prefer to take the extra precaution and protect them to the best of my ability.

  7. I always buy my small cars equipped with manual transmissions. However, the last few times, the dealer had to “locate” them for me at dealerships about 200 miles away. Most dealers don’t want them in their inventory because they don’t sell well.

  8. This firefighter/EMT just helped put one too many children in a body bag after a head-on (old mid-size truck vs newer compact car). I’m trading my compact in for something larger. Your family is worth the potential loss in gas mileage.

  9. The problem with diesels is where are the places to buy it? There ar no diesel stations near me. There are plenty on the hiways but the price is always 10+ cents per gallon more. if we are hit by an EMP attack, will they still run?

    • I guess it does depend on where you are. In my area – SW Va. – pretty much every station sells diesel. Also, there’s the fact that most diesel cars will go at least 400 miles before they need a re-fill. That’s usually plenty to get to the next station!

  10. I like small cars- a lot. One of the littlies I really enjoy is the Pug. It is a 206 GTi. It is real good fun, especially when the roads are as twisty and turny as a twisty turny thing. That car is brilliant. A 306 Gti6 is wilder yet with a really wayward tail. I don’t have one of those yet. They require skill to exploit properly. If you so much as think of lifting off on corner entry a GTi6 pirouettes around in an instant. You do need to be ready with quick reponse thottle foot and decisive steering to properly enjoy its handling brilliance.

    I like the big cars as well. I never could bring myself to care for SUVs ot pick-ups though. For me a good big car is a four door sedan with a bit of mumbo. The old Daimler is one example. I also like the Ford Falcon with the turbo six in there. The V-12 Mercedes are outrageous enjoyment or swift luxury- take your pick. They don’t seem like they’ll handle when you first encounter them but they really surprise and do well.

    Now the best deal of all is to take your small car and stick the engine from the top performance variant of a big car in there. The first time I came across this was when a local stuck a 4.4 litre Rover V8 in back of a Beetle. That was fast. A Ford Essex V6 in a Suzuki CXG was even quicker. That thing would wheel stand! We used to say that was understeer when it did that! Of course, neither of those cars was a sorted as either of the Pugs, but that wasn’t what they were about. Still, they were safe enough if you knew what you were about. I’ve driven factory standard cars that were far inferior in handling, roadholding and safety to either of those specials.

    If you want a cheap car that gets good milage, get a small diesel engine and stick it in a light car- a second hand rwd ’80s Japper is just the ticket. The you can blow the cash you save on an extravagent car- sonething that you really like a lot.


  11. I once owned an old Volvo Diesel wagon. It was a big, heavy, non-turbo model that I loved until the day its electricals all went kablooey! It was a beast and I knew I’d be safe in it should any accident occur. So I agree that safety one is the mass of the automobile. Want your kids safe in an old used car? Get a good Crown Vic.

  12. Small diesel is the way I’d like to go. I’ve never understood why the gov makes it hard to find small diesel cars in the US. Everything I’ve heard about their performance has been outstanding.

    Another this is that I would have thought we’d have seen at least one fully electric car by now from one of the big names by now – I’d be curious to see how they perform in real life.

    • Absolutely agree. Small diesel pickup trucks are great for scooting around in if you can find them (the old Isuzu, for example). I was miffed when Ford discontinued the Ranger AND announced that their new 5-cylinder diesel for future Rangers would NOT be available in the US market.

      • I believe the Mazda B series trucks are just re-branded Rangers, DIYer. That 5 cylinder Ranger sounds great – maybe those can be bought in Canada or Mexico and brought here.

  13. Good analysis of the pros and cons. Obviously, one needs to define the job before it is possible to select the most appropriate tool.

    Perhaps the wild card is gas price. Over the next five years, it easily could range anywhere from $2.00 to $8.00 per gallon. The higher it goes, the higher fuel economy moves on almost everyone’s list of criteria.

    Wish we had a crystal ball!

  14. Great article Eric. This is all stuff I’ve tried to explain to car shopping friends and family in the past. A great example is that I’m 6-1 and lets just say 240ish. There is more driver seat room in my 2011 Golf TDI than in my 94 GMC Jimmy beater/woods truck. Everyone is shocked at how much room there is in the Golf. Anytime somebody says “(insert small car model here) is way too small” I tell them to go sit in it and see for themselves.

    Speaking of small cars, when are you going to review the Abarth? I want to drive that little bastard bad but can’t find one within 200 miles so I have to live vicariously through you.

    • Mike_A, how do you like your TDI? Did you it with manual shift? It’s a nice-looking car but I have problems getting past my childhood experiences with VW vans from the 70s and bugs from the 60s. 🙂

      And nice article, Eric.

      • mikehell- I love it. I had to get the DSG because the wife doesn’t drive stick very well, but it doesn’t take away from the fun and it’s actually a little bit more efficient than the manual. I’ve put 32k miles on it in 13 months and that has cost me about $50 a week in fuel. I get mid 40s for mileage and we’ll just call my driving style “spirited”. It handles well, brakes well and if you use the paddle shifters or sport mode to keep the turbo spun up, it accelerates like no other diesel I’ve ever driven. It’s our second VW, the other being my wife’s MkV GTI (which got me in trouble regularly).

        • mike, I have read that manual TDIs live longer before major repairs are needed. I don’t know why that would be and maybe it’s not even true but several mechanics have told me this.

          Do you mind telling me (us) what you paid for it?

          • Well, I got a job 53 miles from home. The bump in pay was worth it, but my beater Jeep wasn’t up to the challenge so I shopped everything that got 35+ mpg for around 25k. I liked the VW best. I shopped for a few weeks until I found the one I wanted and got it for just under 25k. I haven’t heard any horror stories about the DSG, keep in mind that it’s not really an auto, but a dual clutch manual gearbox that the computer shifts for you. It is more complex than a regular manual though. With the mileage I put on, a diesel is the only thing that makes sense because of the longevity. The new Jetta that Eric reviewed, isn’t as nice and doesn’t feel nearly as good on the road since they “americanized” it IMO.


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