Car categories demystified

But, when you’re buying a car, what is it that you look for? Are you all for buying into the hype about the facts and figures? Or is it the practicality of the vehicle that counts.

Let’s forget about the numbers for just a sec and take a look at how your vehicle is going to serve you in a practical sort of way. The first and most important thing about purchasing a new vehicle is deciding from which segment your wheels will come. If you are anything like me, you may be forgiven for thinking the Golf 5, Astra and BMW 1 Series fall into the same category. Well, if you’re talking dimensions-wise, you’re probably right.

But car manufacturers structure their vehicle categories differently. This means that vehicles from the same size and price class don’t necessarily measure up to the same thing in the segment. The problem is these days we’re spoilt for choice.

What’s the difference between a sports sedan and compact car? Up until a few years ago, I thought the term “compact” meant something small; like a Mini, or a Citi Golf. How wrong I was.

Brass tacks

Categories are broken up differently by all manufacturers, magazines and authoritative bodies (like the AA and Naamsa ‘ the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa). So when you’re reading Car Magazine’s top three in each category, bear in mind that Cars in Action may have a completely different yardstick.

Hein Koetzee, of Response Group Trendline, a marketing and training company that brings out stats for Naamsa explains how they measure different categories. Fasten your seatbelt for this . . .

Firstly, manufacturers group similar models based on the following criteria:

Vehicle footprint or application: measures not only the vehicle’s size but also what it is most commonly used for and how people would name them e.g. SUV, sedan, hatchback, etc.

Engine specification: for the petrol-heads who want to know all about the torque, kilowatts, top speed and general performance figures.

Target market: quite simply, who the vehicle is intended for.

Trim: measures the finish of the vehicle, its luxury and safety features and generally the niceness of the interior e.g. is the dashboard made of plastic or hand-stitched leather.

Lift price: how big a hole will the car burn into your pocket, excluding running costs of course.

Right, now we know how vehicles are segmented, but what are the categories they fall into?


Trendline has 12 different categories that cover pretty much everything on the market.

Remember again that each magazine and manufacturer will group rival vehicles differently according to where they think they will get the best competitive result. For example, while the Citro’n C2 and Tata Indica are roughly the same size, that doesn’t mean they are even remotely classed in the same bracket.

“The categories we have are pretty much straightforward,” says Koetzee. “While other measurements include compact and sub-compact sedans as different categories, we just stick to one rule: if it’s small, it’s small. If it isn’t, why call it compact?”

Referring to VW’s Jetta, he says: “This vehicle is often referred to as a sub-compact sedan. But really it’s more like a medium-sized car.”

Their categories run thus:

Small entry-level cars: These are your Tatas, Kia Picantos and Hyundai Atoz’s.

Small vehicles: Again, referring to the trim of the cars, Koetzee says: “These are like entry-level cars, but not something an entry-level buyer would be able to afford.” Here’s where your Ford Fiesta, Citi Golf and Toyota Yaris fit in.

Medium Lower: ‘Medium’ refers to size, ‘Lower’ refers to trim. I would think Toyota’s Corolla or Yaris sedan (because of their plastic finishings) fit in over here.

Medium Upper: This time we’re talking Ford Focus, VW Jetta and perhaps even BMW 3 series.

Large Lower: Again, similar to the two Medium categories, here’s where your Mazda 6 might fall in along with Toyota’s Camry.

Large Upper: According to finishing, here we find the BMW 5 series, C Class Mercedes, and Lexus.

Luxury category: By far one of the widest categories “in terms of the available vehicles on the market,” says Koetzee. The E Class and S Class Mercedes, VW Passat, uppity Lexus, Maybach (which in my view is a little ridiculous) and, lest we forget, the ever-popular Jaguar range.

Where do they fit?

Moving on to the Sports/Exotic segment, Koetzee says: “It’s difficult to class some cars because they just don’t fit into any conventional brackets. Roadsters, Cabriolets – especially VW’s Beetle – the Mini and Smart ranges all fall into this category. Where else would they go?”

The MPV, or Multi-purpose vehicle class is broken up into two sub-sections. The Compact section – Renault’s Kangoo, VW Caddy and Peugeot Partner – and the Large section – Renault Scenic, VW Caravelle and Mercedes B Class.

The final two segments compartmentalise what I like to call the Brag-factor group: the Leisure segment in which you’ll find anything from the Daihatsu Terios to the Toyota Landcruiser Prado.

“These are vehicles,” says Koetzee, “that people like to think they need because of their rugged lifestyles, when in fact, they never go off-road.”

Case in point: Jeep Grand Cherokee. It’s a Jeep; you expect it to be rough-and-tumble. But it’s so full of luxury. I certainly wouldn’t want my mud flaps snagging on an errant rock as I traverse the Kalahari plains.

For this purpose, the geniuses at Trendline have devised a most fiendish scheme for the Leisure segment. “We’ve broken them up into ATV and SUV sections,” says Koetzee. “Size here has nothing to do with it. The bottom line here is ‘what can it do?'”

The All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) obviously travel on all terrains, have unlimited off-road capability and would probably be the most reliable in getting you unstuck from that devious muddy sink-hole you drove into on your last visit to the Congo jungle.

Sadly, your SUV – or Sports Utility Vehicle – might only get you out of your steep driveway. “These are for the lookers,” quips Koetzee.

Well, there you have it, the categories demystified. Now if only there could be some ingenious way to choose from this glut of vehicles’

December 2006
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