SPECS CHECK: Econoboxes Then And Now

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If you’re a child of the 1970s, then you grew up hearing about the roominess of the new small hatchbacks. How do they compare to their counterparts today?

The 1970s was a period of American-car excess. Long hoods, small trunks and tiny back seats were the accepted norm. For example, this 1977 Dodge Charger, belonging to the dude with regulation-’70s Bruce Jenner layered hair, is ready for the disco with its macho 215-inch length, but its rear legroom was a tight 33.9 inches.


Enter the front-wheel drive 1978 Dodge Omni, which at 163 inches was more than 50 inches shorter than the Charger, but it gave up just 0.6 inches in rear legroom. Suddenly it was outre to have a car with a lot of flab; practical was in, and it set the stage for the cars we drive today.


Note that the outdoorsy-roof-racked aspect of this Omni promo shot is reflected in a current FCA product, the Fiat 500L Trekking. So how does the 500L compare to the Omni?


The 500L is more than 12 inches taller but has a headroom advantage of just 2.5 inches. It’s 2.5 inches longer than the Omni, but the Omni has 2.1 more inches of front legroom, which the 500L makes up for with  3.4 inches more rear legroom. It’s four inches wider, and the 500L shuts down the Omni in cargo room by nearly doubling its 12.7 cubic foot measurement.

Over at Chevrolet, there was more talk of the Chevette‘s standard features (like full wheel covers) than its roominess, as it was an antiquated rear-wheel drive design that had the center driveshaft eating up a ton of space.

Still, nothing says a night at the opera like tuxedos, furs and a Chevette, eh?


Today’s Chevy Sonic hatchback most closely corresponds with the Chevette.


The four-door Chevette is six inches longer and about as many inches narrower, and the Sonic is more than seven inches taller. Headroom and legroom measurements are within an inch, but the Sonic trumps the Chevette with three more inches of shoulder room and more than double the Chevette’s pocket-sized trunk space of 8.4 cubic inches.

And Ford? Of course the Escort was its jump into front-wheel drive, and it sold big.


Its analog today would be the Focus.


Compared to the Escort, the Focus is seven inches longer and about six inches wider. Headroom is about the same between them, and while the Focus has 2.2 inches more legroom in front, the Escort almost exactly reclaims that advantage in the rear seat. But as with the other modern entries, the Focus’s strength is in shoulder and cargo room, the latter of which the Focus nearly doubles over the Escort.

So what have we learned? Cars have gotten taller and wider with the expected added roominess, but the added structure required for today’s safety standards cut the interior margins a bit. And it’s interesting that legroom is still a back-and-forth comparison with no clear winners.

Perhaps the greatest loss here is that none of the folks in the econobox promo shots looked like they were going to get as lucky tonight as the Charger dude with that Bruce Jenner hair (and earrings?).  Two women looked on adoringly. Apparently, no amount of space efficiency could bring that.


Tell us in the comments – would your rather drive a wood-sided Omni or a 500L Trekking?