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Economy vs Compact Car Rental: Key Differences To Consider

Economy vs Compact Car Rental: Key Differences To Consider

When you rent a car, you want to get your money’s worth. 

To do so, you may be in the market for a smaller car that won’t cost much and gives you great mileage. 

Should you opt for an economy or compact car? Are there differences between the two? Here are some key differences you should consider before making your choice.

Economy cars are smaller than compact cars and are therefore often more fuel-efficient and easier to maneuver on narrow city streets, but compact cars offer more room for luggage and passengers. When deciding whether to rent a compact or an economy car, the main factors to consider are fuel economy and passenger/cargo space.

Whether you’re on vacation or a business trip, renting a car is rarely as cheap as you’d like. 

Thus, when trying to decide between an economy or compact car, the key difference between the two is the size of the vehicle.

Almost always, a compact car will be smaller than an economy car. 

In fact, you might even decide to go with a sub-compact, which is even smaller. 

If you do, remember that you won’t have much room for luggage or other items, so always keep this in mind.

Also, keep in mind that when a rental agency refers to a vehicle as a compact car, this may differ from what you have in mind. 

In fact, some agencies will actually classify a regular-sized car as a compact car, often to entice customers and increase business.

Should you go through an agency that does this, the advantage is that you can get a bigger car for a lower rental price. 

However, your fuel mileage may decrease, so what you save in rental costs may be eaten up by filling up at the pump.

Economy Car Definition

Technically, an economy car is a vehicle that typically has four doors and seating for as many as five people. 

Considered to be the smallest vehicles of all auto groups, economy cars are made primarily for low-cost operation. Very small and lightweight, their primary purpose is to get you from Point A to Point B with as few frills as possible. 

Interestingly, the term “economy car” is mostly limited to the United States, even though many vehicles in this class are driven in countries around the world. 

Thus, if you are trying to rent a vehicle on foreign soil, you may need to look twice to be sure you are indeed getting an economy car.

As to how these vehicles came to be known as economy cars, this is attributed to their excellent fuel economy and affordable rental prices. 

If you choose to rent an economy car, you can expect a vehicle that will give you at least 30 mpg on the road.

Economy Car Examples

If you are seeking to rent an economy car, some typical examples you may find available include the Ford Fiesta, Kia Rio, Mitsubishi Mirage, Volkswagen Golf, and Chevrolet Spark. 

While economy cars may have up to four doors, be aware that most we encounter typically only have two. 

Also, the back seat in an economy car is also very, very small, so passengers can expect to be somewhat cramped during your trip. 

Compact Car Definition

If you want the technical definition of a compact car, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines a compact car as one that has a combined passenger and cargo volume of 100-109 cubic feet, and also measures between 161-187 inches long. 

However, while the federal government has its definition of compact cars, getting a clear definition often depends on who you are talking to at the moment. 

At most dealerships, a compact car is defined as a vehicle that is in between sub-compact and midsize vehicles. 

As a result, this may include some cars that the EPA may not technically look at as being compact cars. 

When you are wanting to rent a compact car, it will be important for you to know some of the typical examples of a compact car.

Compact Car Examples

Once you’re standing at the rental agency counter and tell the clerk you want to rent a compact car, you should be getting offered such vehicles as the Mazda 3, which is typically considered to be the best compact car on the market today. 

Other choices may include the Kia Forte or Kia Soul, both of which are also very impressive in our book, as well as the Ford Focus or Dodge Dart.

Last but not least, other popular compact cars found at rental agencies include the Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, and Chevrolet Cruze. 

All of these cars will also offer you excellent gas mileage, usually almost if not as good as most economy cars.

A bit roomier than economy cars, you may want a compact if you have others with you, have plenty of luggage or other cargo, or just don’t want to feel quite as cramped when behind the wheel.

Five Differences between Economy and Compact Cars

There are five key differences between economy and compact cars.

First, economy cars usually have only two doors, though they can have up to four. A compact car will almost always have four doors, giving you more room and options for passengers and cargo.

Second, an economy car will usually allow you to seat two adults and two kids somewhat comfortably, although two adults in the back seat of an economy car will make for some tight quarters. When renting a compact car, you can usually have five passengers in a more roomy interior.

Third, an economy car will give you at least 30 mpg on the road, and often far more. While some compact cars will do the same, many will fall into the 25-30 mpg range, so keep this in mind.

Fourth, economy cars are usually cheaper to rent than compact cars. If you want to spend as little as possible on your rental car, opt for an economy model.

Finally, since economy cars are very small, many people tend to shy away from them when renting. As a result, you will likely have few if any problems ever securing an economy car to rent, while you may have a bit more difficulty getting that compact car you had in mind.

How to Pick between an Economy and Compact Car

When you are trying to decide whether to rent an economy or compact car, always take several things into consideration. 

First, think about how many people will be in the car with you. 

Do you simply want basic transportation that will have you and your passengers sitting very close together, or would you prefer more room in the vehicle’s interior?

Also, think about how much cargo you may have with you on your trip. 

Even if you don’t have much luggage or other things with you initially, this could change as your trip progresses. 

Consider how many miles you expect to be driving your rental vehicle. If fuel costs are a concern, an economy car will be the smart choice. Should you only need your rental car for a few short trips or have no qualms about filling up more often, choose a compact car.

Finally, think about how much it will cost you to rent your car per day. Being smaller and usually in less demand, economy cars can be rented for low prices at most rental agencies.

Though we find economy and compact cars to be extremely similar in many ways, they do have differences that need to be considered when you are renting. Whether your top priority is fuel mileage, comfort while behind the wheel, or ensuring you have plenty of room for passengers and cargo, think carefully when selecting an economy or compact car.

Zach Reed

Hi, I'm the founder of! Having owned a wide variety of vehicles in my life, I was astounded at how hard it can be to find answers to common automotive questions. Rather than sit idly, I decided to create this website to help others!