The UK Compact Car Guide for Fans

Published: 05th May 2011
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Compact cars are defined by being affordable mid-sized vehicles that are larger than superminis or city cars. My previous articles on the subject, 'Essential Buyers Guide to Compact Cars' and 'Crucial Buyers Guide to Compact Car Categories', outline the main criteria to look for when shopping around for a compact car as well as the range of categories available in this sector.

The following article is purely for compact car fans – it will give you a summary of the UK history of this popular vehicle type.


Generally known as a compact car in North America and a small family car or C-segment in Europe, this class of vehicle is sometimes misunderstood, since international compact cars tend to be somewhat larger than their North American equivalents because no supermini or subcompact size has been made by American, Mexican or Canadian car manufacturers. This is often said to reflect the cultural fact that Europe is itself more compact than the wide open spaces of the America regions.

In addition, multi-purpose vehicles and sport utility vehicles which are designed to be small family cars are often called compact MPVs and compact SUVs.

Common compact car engines are 1.5 to 2.4-litre straight-4s, using either petrol or diesel fuel. They have range between 100 bhp (75 kW) and 170 bhp (127 kW). Some models also have economical 1.3 or 1.4-litre units, while high-performance versions, called hot hatches or sport compact sedans, can have turbocharged 2.0 or 2.5-litre engines.

Evolution of Compact Cars in the UK Market

The inception of these vehicles dates back to the 70's here in the UK. At the time, small family saloons became highly popular among car buyers, replacing the Morris/Austin 1100/1300 which had been Britain's bestselling car since its launch in 1962. British Leyland then introduced the Austin Allegro in 1973, followed by the updated Ford Escort release in 1975. In late 1979 the new Astra was launched, which set a new standard by abandoning the traditional rear-wheel drive saloon in favour of the front-wheel drive hatchback format that was gradually spreading across Europe.

One of the first foreign cars to have a big impact on the UK car market was the launch of the Golf, a Giugiaro-styled front-wheel drive hatchback, in 1974. The sporty GTI version was then released which gave rise to a huge demand for "hot hatchbacks" in the UK. Other foreign rivals in the marketplace during the 1970's were the Renault 14, Fiat Strada, Honda Civic and Mazda 323.

Then came the 80's - the MK3 Ford Escort went on sale in 1980 to effectively replace the rear-drive saloon format in favour of hatchbacks and front-wheel drive. It went on to be released in several different versions. Vauxhall's Astra MK2 model, released in 1984, and the Belmont saloon launched in 1986, also caused a stir in the market.

In addition, further notable contributions that fuelled appetite for compact car types in the 80’s were British Leyland's Maestro which replaced the Allegro, Honda’s four-door saloon Triumph Acclaim and Honda Civic, the Rover 200, MK2 Volkswagen Golf, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sunny, Fiat Tipo and the Renault 19.

In the 1990’s, Ford replaced its 10-year-old Escort with the all-new Escort model. It became the UK's best selling small family car throughout the decade and was eventually superseded by the Ford Focus which was released in 1998.

Further introductions to shape the compact car market during this decade included the Rover 25, Peugeot 306, Renault Megane, Citroen ZX and its successor the Xsara, Fiat Brava and Nissan Almera. Mazda’s 323 also model continued to be in high demand.

Moving to the new millennium, the 2000’s were kicked off by the Renault Megane II in November 2002, which boasted styling that was unlike any other offering in this sector at the time. By 2005, the Megane II had become Britain's fourth most popular new car.

The Ford Focus second generation model was launched in December 2004 and enjoyed the top selling position in this segment, followed by the Astra. By 2004, five of Britain's 10 best selling cars were in the compact car category, compared to just three in 1992.


These days, the small family or compact car sector has established itself as the most favoured British mode of transport. With many great models and design style to choose from, as well as their reputation for affordable pricing, this type of vehicle is going from strength to strength in the consumer marketplace.

About the Author: Anthony Blascara is a vehicle repair business owner and compact car enthusiast.

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