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Is a small car or a large car better for your family?

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Jez Spinks

If you’re in the market for a new car, you might be wondering if it’s time to upsize or stick with a smaller model car.

To help with your decision, we’ve put together a list of some of the advantages and disadvantages of small and large vehicles.

Small car – the pros

Compact dimensions

The smaller the vehicle, the easier it is to drive in traffic. Your chances of finding a parking space quickly are also increased dramatically.

Affordability

Smaller vehicles are cheaper to buy when compared with larger cars. Not only do they require fewer pieces and less sheet metal to construct but the interiors are usually manufactured on a smaller development budget.

Cheaper insurance

Provided you haven’t purchased a performance model – such as a hot-hatch – then small cars will typically be less expensive to insure than bigger cars.

Lower fuel costs

Simple physics means weight has a major influence on fuel economy – the bigger the car, the more effort is required from the engine to move it … or the bigger engine needs to be.

Smaller vehicles commonly use smaller engines, with many these days adding turbochargers to increase performance while also, in some cases, minimising fuel use.

Potential for more features

Your budget may stretch to the entry-level version of a larger family car but it will have a bare-bones equipment level.

Choosing a higher-specification variant of a smaller vehicle means you will benefit from significantly more (and often better) features – whether they’re active driving aids, convenience items or infotainment bonuses such as higher-end audio systems.

Small car – the cons

Smaller cabin

In news that will surprise no one, a smaller car means a smaller cabin.

Less luggage space

The same logic – and occasional exceptions – applies to cargo capacity. The physical size of a vehicle largely determines the size of its boot.

Design also has an influence. Smaller vehicles often feature shorter rear overhangs than bigger cars. Longer rear overhangs help to create more boot space.

Small SUVs can compensate to some degree with their extra body height, which in turn creates extra cargo height.

Slower performance

Car manufacturers tend to fit smaller cars with smaller engines, which makes sense though it can mean performance is less adequate.

The past decade’s trend towards small engines with turbochargers, which use exhaust gases to force more air into the combustion process, have helped to improve the performance of smaller vehicles.

Turbos add complexity and cost, however, and are sometimes available only on more expensive variants of some city cars and compact SUVs.

Big car – the pros

More cabin space (and often more seats)

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out a typical automotive equation: the larger the vehicle, the bigger the interior space. This typically means more legroom for all passengers (especially those in the rear seat), as well as more shoulder room, though not necessarily more headroom.

Many of the largest SUVs and people-movers provide seating for up to seven or eight people, while a handful of mid-sized SUVs can also cater for seven occupants with 5+2 seating that includes “occasional” third-row seats. (These are often best for older kids, though, as the rearmost legroom is usually too cramped for adults.)

Greater cargo capacity

Bigger interior dimensions also typically improve luggage space – an important factor for families.

While owning a smaller family vehicle may require the purchase of a roof pod to share all the holiday gear, large cars can swallow a heck of a lot of stuff just in their boots. Many of them will even take kids’ bikes without the need to lower the rear seatbacks or use exterior bike carriers.

Higher towing capacity

It’s no coincidence that the best towing vehicles are big SUVs or the giant US utes that are converted locally to right-hand drive. That’s because big kerb weights provide a great foundation for a vehicle tasked with pulling something heavy behind it.

Not all big vehicles are equal when it comes to towing, however, so it’s important to research crucial figures such as Gross Vehicle Mass (GMV – the maximum total vehicle weight including occupants and cargo), Gross Combined Mass (GCM – the maximum total weight of the vehicle and the trailer/boat/caravan it needs to pull), and towball download rating.

Establishing the weight of the rig/trailer/boat/caravan you want to pull is also a wise starting point in determining the best towing vehicle for your needs. You may find a smaller vehicle will do the job.

Generally safer

Small cars have never been structurally stronger or equipped with so much protection, but the laws of physics still dictate that, in the event of an accident, you’re chances of escaping serious injury – or worse – are improved in larger vehicles.

Big car – the cons

Can be more intimidating to drive

The bigger the vehicle, the greater the space it takes up on the road – and that can mean more intense concentration as freeway/carriageway lanes and streets with parked cars will feel narrower.

Manoeuvring around a multi-storey car park is also trickier in a large vehicle compared with a city car or small SUV.

Parking challenges

Aside from the extra challenge of driving around the tight confines of a multi-storey car park, a bigger vehicle also reduces the chances of finding parallel parking spots easily on high streets.

When you do find one, longer vehicles make it harder to judge the gap between your rear bumper and the vehicle behind. (Thankfully, more and more vehicles feature parking sensors as well as reverse-view cameras.)

Generally thirstier 

Physics again here. The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the engine needed to provide adequate motivation. And that means more fuel to fill up those cylinders.

It’s why turbo diesel engines have proved popular in large cars, as the slower-burning nature of diesel fuel and the strong low-down torque associated with these engines can help reduce consumption compared with petrol engines.

More expensive

Whether it’s the sheet metal and glass used for the exterior body, underbody components, or the plastics and other materials used for the interior, more parts are needed to make bigger cars than smaller cars – and naturally car manufacturers pass on all those additional costs to buyers. 

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