What’s the Difference Between a Compact and a Subcompact SUV?

When you go to a dealership, you’ll often see that their small SUVs are lumped into two categories: compact and sub-compact. They’re certainly larger, and nicer, than the “compact” cars of the 1980s that were no more than penalty boxes with wheels. Today’s small SUVs have lots of space inside for five people, fuel-efficient engines, and a surprising amount of technology or luxury features. But, what’s the difference between a compact SUV and a subcompact SUV?

What is a subcompact SUV?

The 2023 Kia Soul is an example of a Subcompact SUV.
2023 Kia Soul | Kia

Manufacturers often play fast and loose with the terms compact and subcompact, but the EPA doesn’t. The EPA rates fuel efficiency of vehicles but doesn’t use the same terms. Instead, the government rates small SUVs and Standard SUVs, and, horror (!), many of the vehicles that we would call a subcompact SUV the EPA rates as station wagons. The Kia Soul, for example, and the Honda HR-V that we call SUVs the EPA rates as “small station wagons.”

In the SUV world, there’s no real definition of compact or subcompact. In the car world, however, there is a definition. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, subcompact cars have an interior volume of 85 to 100 cubic feet, while compact cars have an interior volume of 100 to 110 cubic feet. Since many small SUVs are built on a car chassis, manufacturers simply use the definition that applies to the car for an SUV version.

What are examples of subcompact SUVs?

Subcompact SUVs are the smallest SUVs you can buy in the U.S. The Mazda CX-30 and the Honda HR-V are generally considered subcompact SUVs. The CX-30 seats five comfortably and has a total of 94 cubic feet of interior space. The HR-V, however, has 100.1 cubic feet of interior space, which would place it (just barely) in the compact, not subcompact, car category.

Three Toyota RAV4 is a compact SUV, but has a large footprint.
Three Toyota RAV4 small SUVs are parked | Toyota

The Jeep Cherokee has styling that makes it feel large, but it’s rated as a compact SUV. So is the Toyota RAV4. The RAV4, however, has 98.9 cubic feet of total interior room, which if it was a car would put it in the subcompact category. The Cherokee, however, has room for five and 105 cubic feet of interior space.

Others use different definitions for SUV sizes

a blue 2022 BMW x7 on a mountain road
2023 BMW X7 | BMW

The Highway Data Loss Institute, which rates vehicles on their sizes for insurance purposes, uses a different chart. Instead of measuring vehicles interior volume, which let’s face it doesn’t always mean a car is compact, the HLDI uses the car’s “shadow” to rate them. HLDI rates cars on the length times width, and then adds in weight. For luxury cars, the HLDI uses a price-to-weight ratio to determine ratings.