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Automobile size: A matter of definition; Standards: What the EPA considers a compact or subcompact may well grow larger in the vocabulary of rental-car companies: Strategies


Size doesn't always matter. Except when it comes to rental cars. For safety's sake, I want to drive something as big as I can afford, or at least as big as what I drive at home -- a Ford Taurus.

According to the U.S. government's EPA standards, my Taurus is a midsize car. So when I went hunting for a rental car recently, I set my sights on at least a midsize.

But as I called around to do a little comparison shopping, I found that the EPA's midsize is not necessarily a rental-car company's midsize. For instance, when I asked for a midsize at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, I was told that would be a Chevrolet Cavalier, a Pontiac Sunfire or a Toyota Corolla. Surprise! The EPA classifies the Cavalier as a subcompact and the Sunfire and Corolla as compacts.

Why the difference in labels between the rental industry and the EPA?

The EPA groups vehicles by the amount of space inside. That's why cars such as the Cavalier -- and even the Ford Mustang -- are considered subcompacts. Compacts, according to the EPA, have a little more interior space. These, according to the agency, are cars such as the Ford Contour, Oldsmobile Achieva and Pontiac Grand Am.

Some cars can be either subcompacts or compacts, according to the EPA's list of '98 models. For instance, a Ford Escort wagon, ranked as a compact, has more interior space than a four-door Escort, ranked as a subcompact.

One thing's for sure: My Taurus is a card-carrying member of the EPA's midsize class. But, according to Hertz, it's a full-size car. The Chevy Lumina, also classified by the EPA as a midsize, is considered full-size by Alamo.

Hertz spokeswoman Lauren Garvey couldn't say why the rental agency drops the EPA labels in favor of its own. She said that before deciding how to categorize the vehicles, Hertz looked at other rental companies and how they were labeling vehicles that were similar in size, wheelbase and passenger capacity.

"Our midsize is very similar to what Avis or National might offer," she said. "We look at the [rental] industry standard, basically, and we match up accordingly."

Enterprise, which provided me a Cavalier when I asked for a midsize car, actually classifies the sedan as an "intermediate."

Enterprise spokeswoman Christy Conrad said the rental agency bases its vehicle categories on such things as cabin size, trunk size, style, equipment packages and cost of the car.

So what's a shopper to do? Ask questions. Don't assume the midsize the reservationist offers is same size vehicle as the one you've got sitting in the driveway. Ask what models the company offers in the category you want.

To get you started on your way, here's how Enterprise, Hertz, National and Alamo group some of the cars they have in their fleets:

* Economy: Geo Metro, Ford Aspire

* Compact: Cavalier (Alamo, National), Ford Escort, Toyota Tercel

* Intermediate or standard: Cavalier (Enterprise), Corolla, Grand Am, Ford Contour, Sunfire, Oldsmobile Achieva

* Full-size: Chevy Lumina and Monte Carlo, Buick Century and Regal, Ford Taurus

* Premium: Pontiac Bonneville, Buick Century Wagon and LeSabre, Ford Crown Victoria

* Luxury: Buick Park Avenue, Cadillac DeVille, Lincoln Town Car

* Sport-utility or standard four-wheel drive: Chevy Blazer, GMC Jimmy, Ford Explorer

* Premium four-wheel drive: Ford Expedition (Hertz)

* Minivan or van: Chevy Venture, Ford Windstar, Chevy Astro, GMC Safari

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