MicroCompactCar Defined


The Daimler AG brand smart fortwo that was introduced to the US market in January 2008 is a car that in the US has been called a “microcar”. The smart car has been called a micro car, a city car and a mini car, and by some a supermini—these terms are not new, and mean different things to different people. The British and other Europeans use the terms differently than Americans.

Outside the US, and outside American English, the definition of a micro car has a considerable amount of variation. This has to do with linguistic differences, and also varying jurisdictional, tax and licensing considerations, among other things—in some cases the definitions are quite limiting.

Not everyone in the US would use the micro term for a smart, and there are those in the US and those outside who would very definitely maintain that the smart is not a micro car in any way except in the most general sense of the word. There is a Shri Lankan company that makes vehicles called Micro but they refer to their Micro trend (name in small letters) model as a “city” car in terms of it’s class.

History of MicrocarsInterestingly, it was designed by Pininfarina. Micro the Shri Lankan Company only calls them micro cars because they are built by Micro the car company. There is also a French company called Microcar that manufactures what they consider microcars, and NEVs or Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, which are for short travel distances. Sometimes called “station cars” these are for very short trips. French Micro was founded as a division of the sailboat manufacturer Beneteau. Honda recently showed a pure concept car called the P-Nut or Personal Neo-Urban Transport..

Typical European microcars have had seats only for operator and occupant (smart fortwo fits here), but have had a range of displacement of about 50-500 cc (smart now has about 999 cc in the US gas-injection version), one wheel drive (smart has two), cable operated brakes (smart has fully-assisted hydraulic ABS brakes), quite simple suspensions (smarts are simple but not as simple), and 6-7-8 inch wheels (smart typically has in the US 15-17 inch wheels). So is the smart a true microcar in the Euopean sense? The smart fortwo is not considered a re-iteration or re-invention of the micro car—it is generally referred to as a “city” car which is another category altogether, but overlaps with the “micro” car category. The term “city” car is a very general term meaning a very small low power vehicle for use in the city or in urban areas. The term “urban” car is also used, or even “ultra-urban” and the smart is very definitely in the ultra urban city car category. In Europe these vehicles are an official car category known as “A-Segment” cars. Some small cars outside the US are referred to as CUVs or Compact Urban Vehicles. The term “minicar” generally refers to either a city car, a size category of Janpanese vehicle, the Brazilian Obvio!, the Bond Minicar from Great Britain, or the British Mini (1959-2000) or BMW MINI—though the last is sometimes called a supermini car.

A “supermini” is a British car classification name that is generally for cars larger than so-called “city” cars but smaller than a small family car. This term has been applied to smart cars but only if you do not call smart a “city” car, since a supermini is theoretically larger than a city car. Go figure. Even BMW’s Mini Cooper may be a super Mini but would not be any longer thought of as a “supermini”–go figure again. Some superminis are referred to as “hatchbacks” for obvious reasons. Smart is sometimes referred to simply as a hatchback car. The B-segment in Europe corresponds to the “Subcompact” in the US. Overall size of vehicle is an issue, but engine size seems to be a factor that is primary in importance in determining which cars belong in the category. Engine displacement over 700 cc seems to prevent inclusion into some notions of what a microcar is. Some definitions exclude cars whose production or manufacture ended before 1945. Historically, many microcars have been referred to as early as the 1920s as “cyclecars” and also “bubble” cars in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Some of these have only three wheels.

Article written by Chris Sutch, smart center Annapolis, MD

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