Are Cars Getting Bigger?

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Have you noticed that cars from the 1980s and 1990s and prior were much smaller? If so, you’re right.

Here’s proof.

Toyota RAV4

Length x Width (mm)


1994 Toyota Rav4 (4 door)

4150 x 1695

1150 kg

2019 Toyota Rav4 (4 door)

4570 x 1855

1620 kg

The numbers mean that since launch in 1994, the RAV4 has grown 20.5% in size and put on a massive 40.8% in weight.

Going back to the mid 1970s, the Volkswagen Golf shows even more size and weight gains.

Length x Width (mm)


1975 VW Golf Mk1

3705 x 1610

800 kg

2019 VW Golf Mk8

4284 x 1789

1300 kg

The Golf has grown 28.48% in size and 62.5% in weight.

The Ford Ranger is yet another. Released in 1983, the first generation Ranger was much smaller than its younger sibling.

Length x Width (mm)


1983 Ford Ranger

4460 x 1699

1146 kg

2020 Ford Ranger

5446 x 1977

2200 kg

The popular Ranger has grown 42.09% in size and a mindblowing 91.97% in weight.

The numbers above are based on mid-range trim levels.

Why are cars getting bigger?

Like the US, Europe and, in more recent times Asia, Australia has developed a love affair with SUVs and utes. The two vehicle types made up over 50% of all vehicle sales in Australia in 2020.

In the 1980s and 1990s, sedans and hatchbacks ruled the streets with the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon leading sales for years. Today, the Toyota HiLux, Ford Ranger and Toyota Rav4 are the big sellers in Australia.

Cargo and passenger room are key aspects for car buyers today which has led manufacturers to look for ways to improve it.

In 1990, there were roughly 500 million cars driving on Earth’s streets. Today, that figure is around 1.4 billion – a 180% increase. The numbers mean that as more households have access to a private vehicle, more families are getting on the road and that means space, comfort and safety are key for selling vehicles.

All the extra weight needs more power

Power gains are also massive when comparing cars of the past to modern vehicles. Research, development and refinement have allowed for more power to be extracted from engines without using more fuel, in fact, often less.

The Toyota Yaris is a good example.

Launched back in 1999, the Yaris came with around 87 horsepower, however, today a range-topping Yaris GR delivers a staggering 268 horsepower. That means a potential 208% power increase.

The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is yet another;

  • 1994 C-Class - 148 hp
  • 2020 C-Class - 255 hp

The 2020 model is 72% more powerful.

Acceleration matches power gains

Car buyers pay attention to reviews and statistics when researching their next vehicle. That means manufacturers have to ensure new models outperform old ones.

Often measured in 0 to 60 mph time (around 96.5 kph), acceleration shows how drivetrains, transmissions and suspension systems, as well as engines, have improved over the years.

Here’s an interesting comparison showing the huge improvements over the years.

A 1980 Porsche 911 runs 0 to 60 miles per hour in around 6.1 seconds, only just beating a 2021 Toyota LandCruiser, a vehicle not at all known for fast acceleration, which does the 0-60 mph in 6.7 seconds.

A Mazda MX-5 from 1992 does the 0-60 mph in around 9 seconds. In 2019, Mazda had the MX-5 down to 5.8 seconds, a 35.5% increase in acceleration.

Cars would need more petrol to haul more weight, faster

They don’t. Automakers have managed to make larger and heavier cars accelerate faster with more power for LESS fuel.

Fuel consumption is typically calculated as liters of petrol used per 100km of distance travelled.

A 1988 Toyota Corolla uses around 7.7 litres / 100km, the 2021 model is rated at 6.0 L/100km, a 22% improvement.

Although not really a fair comparison, 2021’s hybrid Corolla is rated at 3.6 L/100km which is over 53% more fuel efficient than the 1988 version.

How have manufacturers achieved this wizardry?

Modern manufacturing techniques allow designers to accurately measure and predict key data like heat transfer and stress. Today’s engines and drivetrains have weeded out many of the problems from the past, for example, cooling hotter parts much more effectively.

Fuel injection is something that has played a large part in modernising and improving vehicle performance. A fuel injection system uses sensors and sophisticated pumps to precisely atomise fuel into the cylinders allowing for clean and efficient burns.

A carburetor, on the other hand, is an analogue fuel delivery system.

These rely on air forced through a narrow section of an intake to suck fuel in. Put your foot down on the accelerator and the airflow increases, sucking in more fuel.

Carburetors were pretty much globally phased out in cars over the 1990s. One of the last vehicles to be sold in Australia with a carburetor was the Mitsubishi Express van which became EFI (electronic fuel injection) in 2003.

Government regulations have also helped cars improve over the years

Global safety standards have become more stringent in recent decades. For example, side intrusion and other anti-intrusion bars are found throughout modern cars, especially in side doors.

Their job is to absorb the kinetic energy in a collision, something safety standards have demanded more so in recent years.

Other safety and driver assist features like adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist and the array of cameras that modern cars have adds to the weight.

Fuel has also improved in terms of quality of safety as governments have mandated that lead and (some) other toxic chemicals be removed or reduced.

Oil companies refine much purer fuel than in the past allowing cars to burn petrol more efficiently.

Lead was especially bad. In the 1960s, children living in areas with high exposure to vehicle emissions reported higher rates of behavioural disorders, low IQ, reading and learning disabilities, and nerve damage. This was mainly caused by low-level lead exposure. Leaded petrol was completely banned in Australia after 1 January 2002.

Catalytic converters also play a huge role in making emissions safer.

Does newer mean better?

Older vehicles create huge amounts of nostalgia for consumers as many new car buyers think back to cars they loved as teenagers or were ferried to school in.

Manufacturers know this. Ford is bringing back its beloved Bronco, Toyota brought back its Supra in 2020, Land Rover introduced a new Defender in 2020, Nissan also has a new Z sports car on the horizon.

However, old cars simply weren’t as safe or reliable as they are today. In fact, there’s been a 68.5% drop in road fatalities in Australia since peaking in 1970.

From 1995 to 2020, the number of registered vehicles in Australia increased by around 80% but, over the same period, road fatalities per 100k inhabitants in Australia decreased by around 59%

18.2 road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants is the world average, Australia sits at 4.6 per 100,000.

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