You might notice that, in addition to length, car makers often show a car’s wheelbase, but what exactly is it? Read our guide to find out
It’s one of those terms that you often come across when reading car reviews or looking at specifications and it can be an important factor to consider when choosing a car, but what a wheelbase is is rarely explained properly. In this advice guide, you’ll find out what you need to know.
What is a wheelbase?
A car’s wheelbase is the distance between the centres of the front and rear wheels. It’s therefore a smaller number than the car’s full length, as measured from its front and rear end.
Wheelbases tend to be measured in millimetres, or sometimes centimetres. North Americans tend to measure theirs in inches, though this should be converted to metric for cars that are sold here.
The car pictured above is a Rolls-Royce Phantom. It’s 5,982mm long with a wheelbase of 3,820mm. That’s gigantic, by the way. You could fit an entire hatchback in that wheelbase.
What are the different wheelbase sizes?
There are no industry standard wheelbase sizes, but a typical city car might have a wheelbase of 2,430mm, while a family hatchback could have a 2,700mm wheelbase, and a large SUV’s might be 2,980mm. That should give you some idea of how unusually large the Rolls-Royce’s wheelbase is.
Why is a car’s wheelbase important?
It’s surprising how many of a car’s qualities are affected by its wheelbase. For many people, the most relevant is interior space. The vast majority of any car’s interior sits between the wheels, so a car with a long wheelbase will tend to have a more spacious interior than a car of the same length with a shorter wheelbase.
In most cases, car designers use a long wheelbase to create an interior that’s essentially one big box, free of any obstructions. That allows the designers to maximise the space available for both people and things.
It’s worth noting that many high-end luxury cars like the Mercedes S-Class (above) and the BMW 7 Series are available in ‘standard’ and ‘long’ wheelbase forms. The long wheelbase gives passengers in the rear even more room, a desirable feature for this kind of car. Similarly, the Skoda Superb has a notably long wheelbase, specifically to create more rear-seat space. Skoda is evidently well aware of the Superb’s popularity with taxi drivers!
Cars with long wheelbases tend to have better ride quality than those with short wheelbases. This is simply because there’s more time between the front and rear wheels hitting any bumps, so the car is less likely to become unsettled. The larger footprint of a long wheelbase car also gives it greater stability in corners, so it feels safer to drive.
On the flip side, long wheelbase cars tend to be less agile. Short wheelbase cars are better for nipping around town and more fun on twisty roads. Still, there are plenty of long wheelbase cars that are a proper giggle to drive – a Bentley Continental GT or Porsche Panamera are good examples.
Long wheelbase cars are often better looking, too. The wheels being further apart gives the space to create an elegant, flowing shape. Which can make the car look longer than it actually is. So, don’t discount a car just because it looks too big for your drive. It may just be an optical illusion created by a long wheelbase.
What size wheelbase is best?
There is no ‘best’ wheelbase size. Different circumstances have different requirements, so consider some of the points raised above about handling characteristics and interior space when choosing a car based on its wheelbase size.
Should I compare wheelbase sizes when choosing a car?
It is probably fair to say that not many people do this, and will be happy with their cars despite this, but considering wheelbase sizes could help you choose between two cars if the decision is a tricky one. The Skoda Superb, for example, is famed for its interior space, which is partly thanks to its long 2,841mm wheelbase. You may consider that this extra room makes the Superb better value than the Volkswagen Passat, which has 2,786mm wheelbase and isn’t quite as roomy in the rear despite being slightly more expensive.
Car wheelbase FAQ
Is it only big cars that have a long wheelbase?
No. Plenty of small cars have a long wheelbase to maximise interior space. What you need to pay attention to is the wheelbase to length ratio.
Here’s an example: the Phantom we saw at the top is 5982mm long and has a wheelbase of 3820mm. So, the wheelbase accounts for nearly 64% percent of the Phantom’s total length.
Contrast that to the Toyota Aygo city car. At 3455mm long, the Aygo is actually shorter than the Phantom’s entire wheelbase! The Aygo has a wheelbase of 2340mm, which gives it a wheelbase-to-length ratio of nearly 68%. Proportionally at least, the Aygo has more interior space than the Phantom.
Do all long wheelbase cars have big interiors?
No. Some front-engined sports cars have a long wheelbase so that the engine can go behind the front axle to improve weight distribution and handling. Take the Mercedes-AMG GT, for example. It’s a two-seater sports car and interior space isn’t exactly important to AMG GT buyers.
Do all short wheelbase cars have small interiors?
No. Taller cars in particular can get away with a relatively short wheelbase because the seats can be mounted higher which creates more space. Car packaging designers are clearly very clever people with a lot of tricks up their sleeves! The Suzuki Ignis (above) is particularly good at this.
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