Governments and private organizations have developed car classification schemes that are used for various purposes including regulation, description and categorization of cars.
The International Standard ISO 3833-1977 Road vehicles – Types – Terms and definitions also defines terms for classifying cars.
Summary of classifications
This following table summarises commonly used terms of market segments and legal classifications.
Microcar / kei car
Microcars and their Japanese equivalent— kei cars— are the smallest category of automobile.
Microcars straddle the boundary between car and motorbike, and are often covered by separate regulations to normal cars, resulting in relaxed requirements for registration and licensing. Engine size is often 700 cc (43 cu in) or less, and microcars have three or four wheels.
Examples of microcars and kei cars:
A-segment / City car / Minicompact
The smallest category of vehicles that are registered as normal cars is called A-segment in Europe, or "city car" in Europe and the United States. The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines this category as "minicompact", however this term is not widely used.
Examples of A-segment / city cars / minicompact cars:
B-segment / Supermini / Subcompact
The size of a subcompact car is defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as having a combined interior and cargo volume of between 85–99 cubic feet (2,410–2,800 L). Since the EPA's smaller minicompact category is not as commonly used by the general public, A-segment cars are sometimes called subcompacts in the United States. In Europe and Great Britain, the B-segment and supermini categories do not have any formal definitions based on size.
Examples of B-segment / supermini / subcompact cars:
C-segment / Small family / Compact
The largest category of small cars is called C-segment or small family car in Europe, and compact car in the United States.
The size of a compact car is defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as having a combined interior and cargo volume of 100–109 cu ft (2.8–3.1 m3).
Examples of C-segment / compact / small family cars:
D-segment / Large family / Mid-size
In Europe, the third largest category for passenger cars is called D-segment or large family car.
In the United States, the equivalent term is mid-size or intermediate cars. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a mid-size car as having a combined passenger and cargo volume of 110–119 cu ft (3.1–3.4 m3).
Examples of D-segment / large family / mid-size cars:
E-segment / Executive / Full-size
In Europe, the second largest category for passenger cars is E-segment / executive car, which are usually luxury cars.
In other countries, the equivalent terms are full-size car or large car, which are also used for relatively affordable large cars that aren't considered luxury cars.
Examples of non-luxury full-size cars:
F-segment / Luxury saloon / Full-size luxury
See Luxury saloon / full-size luxury section below.
Minivans / MPVs
Minivan is an American car classification for vehicles which are designed to transport passengers in the rear seating row(s), have reconfigurable seats in two or three rows. The equivalent terms in British English are Multi-purpose Vehicle (MPV), people carrier and people mover. Minivans often have a 'one-box' or 'two-box' body configuration, a high roof, a flat floor, a sliding door for rear passengers and high H-point seating.
Mini MPV is the smallest size of MPVs and the vehicles are often built on the platforms of B-segment hatchback models.
Examples of Mini MPVs:
Compact MPV is the middle size of MPVs. The Compact MPV size class sits between the mini MPV and large MPV (minivan) size classes.
Compact MPVs remain predominantly a European phenomenon, although they are also built and sold in many Latin American and Asian markets.
Examples of Compact MPVs:
The largest size of minivans is also referred to as 'Large MPV' and became popular following the introduction of the 1984 Renault Espace and Dodge Caravan. Since the 1990s, the smaller Compact MPV and Mini MPV sizes of minivans have also become popular. If the term 'minivan' is used without specifying a size, it usually refers to a Large MPV.
Examples of Large MPVs:
The premium compact class is the smallest category of luxury cars. It became popular in the mid-2000s, when European manufacturers— such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz— introduced new entry level models that were smaller and cheaper than their compact executive models.
Examples of premium compact cars:
Compact executive / luxury compact
A compact executive car is a premium car larger than a premium compact and smaller than an executive car. Compact executive cars are equivalent size to mid-size cars and are part of the D-segment in the European car classification.
Examples of compact executive cars:
Executive / mid-size luxury
An executive car is a premium car larger than a compact executive and smaller than an full-size luxury car. Executive cars are classified as E-segment cars in the European car classification.
In the United States and several other countries, the equivalent categories are full-size car (not to be confused with the European category of "full-size luxury car") or mid-size luxury car.
Examples of executive cars:
Luxury saloon / full-size luxury
The largest size of luxury car is known as a luxury saloon in the United Kingdom and a full-size luxury car in the United States. These cars are classified as F-segment cars in the European car classification.
Vehicles in this category are often the flagship models of luxury car brands.
Examples of luxury saloons:
Sports / performance cars
Cars which prioritise handling or straight-line acceleration are called sports cars or performance cars. However the term 'sports car' is also sometimes used specifically for lightweight two-seat cars. Sports/performance cars can either be built on unique platforms or be upgraded versions of regular cars.
Common categories of sports/performance cars are:
The definitions for these categories are often blurred and a car may be a member of multiple categories.
Sports cars are designed to emphasise handling, performance or thrill of driving. Sports cars originated in Europe in the early 1900s, with one of the first recorded usages of the term "sports car" being in The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom in 1919. Sports cars started to become popular during the 1920s. The term was originally used for two-seat roadsters (cars without a fixed roof), however since the 1970s the term has also been used for cars with a fixed roof (which were previously considered grand tourers).
Examples of sports cars:
Sports sedan / sports saloon
A sports sedan — also known as "sports saloon" — is a subjective term for a sedan/saloon car which is designed to have sporting performance or handling characteristics.
Examples of sports sedans:
Supercar / Hypercar
A supercar – also called exotic car – is a loosely defined description of certain high-performance sportscars. Since the 1990s or 2000s, the term "hypercar" has come into use for the highest performing supercars.
Examples of supercars:
SUVs / off-road vehicles
Passenger vehicles with off-road capability or styling features are often categorised as either off-road vehicles, sports utility vehicles or crossover SUVs. There are no commonly agreed boundaries between these categories, and usage of the terms varies between countries.
The earliest type of passenger vehicle is called an "off-roader", "four-by-four" or "four-wheel drive". Off-road vehicles usually more focussed on off-road capability than SUVs and Crossover SUVs (often compromising their on-road ride quality or handling). Common features of off-road vehicles are four-wheel drive, high ground clearance, a body-on-frame (separate chassis) construction and low-range gearing.
Examples of off-road vehicles:
Sport utility vehicle
A sports utility vehicle (SUV) combines elements of road-going passenger cars with features from off-road vehicles, such as raised ground clearance and four-wheel drive.
There is no commonly agreed definition of an SUV, and usage varies between countries. Some definitions claim that an SUV must be built on a light truck chassis, however a broader definition considers any vehicle with off-road design features as an SUV. In some countries— such as the United States— SUVs have been classified as "light trucks", resulting in more lenient regulations compared to passenger cars.
The predecessors to SUVs date back to military and low-volume models from the late 1930s, and the four-wheel drive station wagons / carryalls that began to be introduced in 1949. The 1984 Jeep Cherokee (XJ) is considered to be the first SUV in the modern style. Most SUVs produced today use unibody construction (as per passenger cars), however in the past many SUVs used body-on-frame construction.
Examples of SUVs:
A crossover SUV— also called crossover or CUV— is a type of sports utility vehicle (SUV) that uses a unibody construction. Crossovers are often based on a platform shared with a passenger car, as a result they typically have better comfort and fuel economy, but less off-road capability (many crossovers are sold without all-wheel drive) than truck-based SUVs.
There are various inconsistencies about whether vehicles are considered crossovers or SUVs, therefore the term SUV is often used as a catch-all for both crossovers and SUVs.
Examples of crossover SUVs:
Government classification methods
Government departments often create classification schemes for the purposes of taxation or regulating vehicle usage (e.g. vehicles that require a specific licence or are restricted to certain roads). Some jurisdictions may determine vehicle tax based upon environmental principles, such as the user pays principle.
In Australia, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries publishes its own classifications.
A similar set of classes is used by the Canadian EPA. The Canadian National Collision Database (NCDB) system defines "passenger car" as a unique class, but also identifies two other categories involving passenger vehicles—the "passenger van" and "light utility vehicle"—and these categories are inconsistently handled across the country with the boundaries between the vehicles increasingly blurred.
In the United Kingdom, a vehicle is taxed according to the vehicle's construction, engine, weight, type of fuel and emissions, as well as the purpose for which it is used.
In the United States, since 2010 the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety uses a scheme it has developed that takes into account a combination of both vehicle footprint (length times width) and weight.
|US Highway Loss Data Institute classification||Definition|
|Regular Two Door||Two door sedans and hatchbacks|
|Regular Four Door||Four door sedans and hatchbacks|
|Station Wagons||Four doors, a rear hatch and four pillars|
|Minivans||Vans with sliding rear doors|
|Sports||Two seaters and cars with significant high performance features|
|Luxury||Relatively expensive cars that are not classified as sports (price in USD to curb weight in pounds more than 9.0 in 2010) (small cars over $27,000, midsize cars over $31,500, large cars over $36,000, etc.)|
|US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety | Highway Loss Data Institute 'Guide to car size groups' (includes minivans)|
|Shadow (square footage of exterior length × width)|
|Curb Weight||70 to 80 sq ft (6.5–7.4 m2)||81 to 90 sq ft (7.5–8.4 m2)||91 to 100 sq ft (8.5–9.3 m2)||101 to 110 sq ft (9.4–10.2 m2)||>110 sq ft (10.2 m2)|
|2,001 to 2,500 lb (900–1,150 kg)||Mini||Small||Small||Small||Midsize|
|2,501 to 3,000 lb (1,150–1,350 kg)||Small||Small||Midsize||Midsize||Midsize|
|3,001 to 3,500 lb (1,350–1,600 kg)||Small||Midsize||Midsize||Large||Large|
|3,501 to 4,000 lb (1,600–1,800 kg)||Small||Midsize||Large||Large||Very Large|
|>4,000 lb (1,800 kg)||Midsize||Midsize||Large||Very Large||Very Large|
|US IIHS|HLDI Guide to SUV size groups|
|Mini||<=3,000 lb (1,350 kg) and shadow <80 sq ft (7.4 m2)|
|Small||3,001 to 3,750 lb (1,350–1,700 kg)|
|Midsize||3,751 to 4,750 lb (1,700–2,150 kg)|
|Large||4,751 to 5,750 lb (2,150–2,600 kg)|
|Very large||>5,750 lb (2,600 kg) or shadow >115 sq ft (10.7 m2)|
The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) separates vehicles into classes by the curb weight of the vehicle with standard equipment including the maximum capacity of fuel, oil, coolant, and air conditioning, if so equipped.
|US NHTSA classification||Code||Curb weight|
|Passenger cars: mini||PC/Mi||1,500 to 1,999 lb (700–900 kg)|
|Passenger cars: light||PC/L||2,000 to 2,499 lb (900–1,150 kg)|
|Passenger cars: compact||PC/C||2,500 to 2,999 lb (1,150–1,350 kg)|
|Passenger cars: medium||PC/Me||3,000 to 3,499 lb (1,350–1,600 kg)|
|Passenger cars: heavy||PC/H||3,500 lb (1,600 kg) and over|
|Sport utility vehicles||SUV||–|
The United States Federal Highway Administration has developed a classification scheme used for automatically calculating road use tolls. There are two broad categories depending on whether the vehicle carries passengers or commodities. Vehicles that carry commodities are further subdivided by number of axles and number of units, including both power and trailer units.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) has developed a classification scheme used to compare fuel economy among similar vehicles. Passenger vehicles are classified based on a vehicle's total interior passenger and cargo volumes. Trucks are classified based upon their gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). Heavy duty vehicles are not included within the EPA scheme.
|US EPA car class||Total passenger and cargo volume (cu. ft.)|
|Two-seaters||Any (designed to seat only two adults)|
|Minicompact||Less than 85 cu ft (2,400 l)|
|Subcompact||85 to 99 cu ft (2,400–2,800 l)|
|Compact||100 to 109 cu ft (2,850–3,100 l)|
|Mid-size||110 to 119 cu ft (3,100–3,350 l)|
|Large||120 cu ft (3,400 l) or more|
|Small station wagons||Less than 130 cu ft (3,700 l)|
|Mid-size station wagons||130 to 159 cu ft (3,700–4,500 l)|
|Large station wagons||160 cu ft (4,550 l) or more|
Certain cities in the United States in the 1920s chose to exempt electric-powered vehicles because officials believed those vehicles did not cause "substantial wear upon the pavements".
North American market segments
Several other segment descriptions, listed below, are used in North America. Cars from these segments may also be sold in other countries, however usage of the terms is mostly specific to within North America.
Muscle car is an American term for high-performance cars, usually rear-wheel drive and fitted with a large and powerful V8 engine. The term originated for 1960s and early 1970s special editions of mass-production cars which were designed for drag racing.
Examples of muscle cars:
Pony car is an American class of automobile launched and inspired by the Ford Mustang in 1964. It broke all post-World War II automobile sales records, "creating the 'pony car' craze soon adopted by competitors." The term describes an affordable, compact, highly styled car with a sporty or performance-oriented image
Examples of pony cars:
Personal Luxury Car
A personal luxury car is a North American market segment for premium coupé or convertible produced from 1952–2007. These two door cars prioritized comfort, styling and a high level of interior features. Not prioritizing maximum interior space, interior volumes are equivalent size to mid-size cars and are part of the D-segment in the European car classification, and exterior dimensions can exceed F-segment.
The segment rose to popularity following the success of the 1958-60 Ford Thunderbird, which sold 200,000 units. Personal luxury cars from General Motors and Chrysler included the Buick Riviera and Chrysler Cordoba respectively.
Examples of personal luxury cars:
A sporting version of an affordable compact car or a subcompact car. There is no precise definition and the description is applied for marketing purposes to a wide variety of models.
Cars began to be marketed as sport compacts in the mid-1980s, when it was used for option packages on American-built coupes. Since then, it has also been used for standalone sports car models and cars imported from Europe and Asia.
The European equivalent is a hot hatch, however sport compacts are not restricted to just hatchback body styles.
Examples of sport compact cars:
European market segments
Several other segment descriptions, listed below, are used in Europe. Cars from these segments may also be sold in other countries, however usage of the terms is mostly specific to within Europe.
A grand tourer (GT) is a car that is designed for high speed and long-distance driving, due to a combination of performance and luxury attributes. The most common format is a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive two-door coupé with either a two-seat or a 2+2 arrangement.
The term derives from the Italian language phrase gran turismo which became popular in the English language from the 1950s, evolving from fast touring cars and streamlined closed sports cars during the 1930s.
Examples of grand tourers:
Hot hatch (shortened from hot hatchback) is a high-performance version of a mass-produced hatchback car.
The term originated in the mid-1980s, however factory high-performance versions of hatchbacks have been produced since the 1970s.
Front-mounted petrol engines, together with front-wheel drive, is the most common powertrain layout, however all-wheel drive has become more commonly used since around 2010. Most hot hatches are manufactured in Europe or Asia.
Examples of hot hatches:
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