Subcompact car is a North American term used to describe automobiles whose vehicle class size is smaller than that of a compact car, usually not exceeding 165 inches in length, but larger than a microcar. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a passenger car is classified as subcompact if it has between 85 cubic feet and 99 cubic feet of interior volume.
In North America, the term "subcompact" came into popular use in the early 1970s. Previously, cars in this size were variously categorized, including "small automobile" and "economy car." During WWII and immediately afterwards this type of car was first seen in 1939 with the Crosley, and then popularized in the 1950s with the introduction of the Nash Metropolitan, as well as a number of imported models, notably the VW Beetle and various small British cars.
In the fall of 1959 Detroit automobile manufacturers competed against entry-level imports with domestic small cars such as the Studebaker Larkand Rambler American and in doing so created the compact car class, including the Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant, introduced as 1960 models. By the 1970s, cars like the Chevrolet Nova. Ford Maverick, and AMC Hornet had evolved into the smallest versions of the traditional six-passenger American family cars; larger than subcompacts, many were delivered with optional V8 engines.
The Chevrolet Vega was introduced September 10, 1970 as part of General Motors, Ford and AMC automakers entering a new subcompact class. The AMC Gremlin was introduced six months prior and the Ford Pinto one day after the Vega's introduction. They competed directly with the successful, but aging VW Beetle, as well as Japanese imports from Toyota and Datsun. Although the Vega's conventional rear wheel drive layout and unibody were similar to Japanese compacts, its 97.0 inch wheelbase and 169.7 inch overall length were longer than Toyota Corolla's 91.9 inch wheelbase and 161.4 inch length.
The Pontiac Astre, the Canadian-born badge engineering Vega variant was released in the U.S. September 1974. The Vega-based Chevrolet Monza and the Pinto-based Ford Mustang II were upscale subcompacts also introduced for the 1975 model year as larger pony cars the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang sales had fallen. The Camaro was scheduled for cancellation, but sales stabilized with the end of the gas crisis. The Monza with its GM variants Pontiac Pontiac Sunbird, Buick Buick Skyhawk, and Oldsmobile Oldsmobile Starfire and the Mustang II continued until the end of the decade. The Chevrolet Chevette was GM's new entry-level subcompact introduced in September 1975 as a '76 model. It was a successful and 'Americanized' design from experienced (but technologically conservative) Opel, GM's German subsidiary.
Captive imports was the other response by U.S. car makers to the increase in popularity of imported subcompact cars starting in the 1970s. These were cars bought from overseas subsidiaries or from companies in which they held a significant shareholding. GM, Ford, and Chrysler sold imports for the U.S. market. The Opel Manta, Ford Cortina, Mercury Capri, and Dodge Colt are examples.