The other day I was doing some research for an article on why automatic transmissions are so popular in the United States (as a follow up to an earlier piece on why manuals are still so popular in Europe). Both of these articles can be accessed by clicking the respective links.
When researching on the popularity of the automatic gearbox in the Land of the Free, I did some digging into the top selling passenger vehicles in 2021 in the United States versus the United Kingdom.
With the exception of the Tesla Model 3, all of the top three best-sellers in the UK were small hatchbacks.
With no exception, all of the top three best-sellers in the USA were pickup trucks.
Across the entire European continent, the #1 seller for 2021 was the Volkswagen Golf, followed by the Peugeot 208 (a small hatchback), the Dacia Sandero (a small hatchback) and then the Renault Clio (a small hatchback).
If you look at the following list, it’s a “who’s who” of smaller cars – either hatchbacks or small SUVs:
Compare this to what has been selling well in America recently:
The Honda Civic is the smallest car on the map above, and it’s still rather large compared to many European hatchbacks.
Of course if you’ve been to Europe, you don’t even need the stats to tell you this … you’ll know from first-hand experience that cars are smaller on average.
But why are cars smaller in Europe? In this edition of Car Facts, I’ll explain why Europe is the spiritual home of the hatchback (and probably always will be)
Less Space = Smaller Cars
The primary driver of why cars are smaller in Europe than in the United States (and other countries like Australia and New Zealand) is space.
Relative to the United States, Europe has much less space for its inhabitants.
Just the other day, I was scrolling on Facebook and saw some viral post about the fact that you could fit all of Poland into Texas and still have space to drive around the outside of it:
America is simply a much more spacious country.
According to World Atlas, Europe has a population density of 188 people per square mile, whereas USA comes in at 87 people per square mile [source].
When you have less space to work with, you need to be efficient with the use of the space you do have. This is where small cars come into the equation.
In the motoring context, there are actually a few ways in which Europe has less space (therefore requiring smaller cars):
In many cities and towns, streets and roads can be narrow, often because they were built a long time ago – potentially before the advent of the car, and have been upgraded over time. Medieval and pre-Industrial Age town planning didn’t have cause to think about how cars might fit.
Wide cars are no good in this context, because you’ll struggle to pass traffic and parked cars/roadside objects. Imagine trying to get your Cadillac Escalade down this street:
Parking space is often at a premium, both on-street and in parking garages. You might not have your own parking space for your apartment or house, and so it’s important to have a pint-sized car that you can cram into a tiny parking space.
A great example of the need for a small car is that old Top Gear episode where Jeremy, James and Richard take a crop of modern hot hatchbacks to Italy.
Economy Is Important
As a rule, a smaller car will be more fuel efficient.
You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but fuel is much more expensive in Europe than it is in the United States:
I don’t think the average European bank balance would cope well with having to fill and run a pickup truck or large SUV!
Small cars weigh less, and can therefore get away with having smaller, less powerful but more economical engines. Simple physics dictate that a Fiat Panda is going to be more economical than a Ford F-150.
Don’t forget as well that smaller, economy-focused hatchbacks are usually cheaper to buy, and often cheaper to maintain due to their simple nature.
As I discussed in my article on the popularity of the manual transmission in Europe, many buyers want simple, A-to-B transport with few frills.
Large sedans and SUVs will typically have more creature comforts and features, but these don’t necessarily add much value for the average European buyer’s car use-case.
In the economy stakes, it’s also worth mentioning that hatchbacks – as a rule – are more efficient with their use of space than large sedans and SUVs.
A great example of how space-efficient a hatchback can be is the Honda Jazz/Fit. Ben, one of the editors of this site, can load more into his Honda Jazz than I can load into my Volkswagen Touareg (a substantially larger, thirstier car). Even my daily driver, which is a small Suzuki Swift Sport, is incredibly practical for its size.
Cars Aren’t As Integral To Daily Life
One other point to consider is that the car isn’t such a critical component of everyday life in Europe, at least not for many Europeans.
On an anecdotal basis, I know a number of people who currently or have previously lived in various European countries (I’m including the UK here as well) and for all of them, their car wasn’t necessarily a daily-use method of transportation.
Most would walk/bike/take public transport where they needed to go within urban areas, and then the car was reserved more for occasional trips out of town or when they had to collect things that weren’t so easy to transport by other means.
Going on holiday usually involves going by train or plane, as it’s easier, less hassle and often less expensive than driving.
It’s a bit of a stereotype, but the car is less of a necessity in Europe than it is in America. If you just need a car on occasion, then why spend more than you need to on a big car or SUV that will then take up too much space and be more expensive than it needs to be to run?
A basic, frugal hatchback or smaller car is all you need! So if you’re wondering why European cars are smaller on average, the answer is very simply that they make so much more sense for the local conditions.