My layman's impression is that when people say 'automobile', they mean exactly the same thing as a 'car', except they're trying to be more formal.

Is that right? Or are there other differences?

  • A layman would be happy to call an 18-wheel tractor-trailer or a 40-seat bus an automobile, but wouldn't call them cars. – Dan Bron Sep 22 '15 at 5:21
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    @DanBron - Most folks in the US would not call either of those an "automobile". – Hot Licks Sep 22 '15 at 11:58

The terms are roughly synonymous, but do have distinct uses that set them apart from each other as well. They both point to classes of vehicles, however the complete range of vehicles that would be encompassed be each term form distinct but overlapping sets.

Firstly car can refer to objects that aren't automobiles - railway carriages for example:

Full Definition of CAR

1 : a vehicle moving on wheels: as

  • a archaic : carriage, chariot

  • b : a vehicle designed to move on rails (as of a railroad)

  • c : automobile

2 : the passenger compartment of an elevator

3 : the part of an airship or balloon that carries the passengers and cargo

source: Merriam-webster.com

Secondly automobile can be used as a general classifying term that is inclusive of vehicles other than cars (and not inclusive of non-wheeled, non-self-propelling instances of "car", such as airship gondolas etc.) as per:

Classes of Automobile

source: http://what-when-how.com/automobile/general-classification-of-automobiles/

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  • If you elaborate and substantiate your final para, you'll earn an upvote from me, at the very least. – Dan Bron Sep 22 '15 at 8:24
  • I've taken the liberty of including the diagram you found directly into your answer, then upvoting you. If that's a bridge too far, I won't complain if you rollback. – Dan Bron Sep 22 '15 at 8:46
  • Thanks for that - I was busy editing myself, so I didn't rollback, but did lose some of your effort sorry. – bruised reed Sep 22 '15 at 8:47
  • I love your additional edits. This is a very helpful, comprehensive, and well-sourced answer now. If I had another +1 to give, I would. Well done. – Dan Bron Sep 22 '15 at 8:50

I'd say there is no difference in meaning. The two term came into use meaning "a motor vehicle with four wheels; usually propelled by an internal combustion engine; " about the same year (1895/1896). I agree with you that automobile may sound less colloquial, car is the more used expression.


  • "self-propelled motor vehicle," 1895, from French automobile, short for véhicule automobile.In English other early forms were motorcar and autocar.


  • c. 1300, "wheeled vehicle," from Anglo-French carre. Extension to "automobile" is by 1896, but from 1831 to the first decade of 20c. the cars meant "railroad train."


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  • Is a public bus (say, the M86) an automobile? Is it a car? – Dan Bron Sep 22 '15 at 7:32
  • I'd say It is a public vehicle. Are you referring to the expression 'streetcar'? – user66974 Sep 22 '15 at 7:34
  • No, a streetcar is a trolley; a different use of car (what the Brits call a carriage, one independent part of a train). I was asking because people I know (i.e. laymen) would be happy to call a bus an automobile, but not a car, so they're different. Yes, a bus is also a public vehicle, but then so is the Staten Island ferry, and it is neither an automobile nor a car. By a similar thought process, my friends who bought a fancy and expensive SUV would be unhappy if you called it a car: they'd insist on truck or SUV; but nevertheless it is an automobile. Similarly for a pickup. – Dan Bron Sep 22 '15 at 7:36
  • Those are interesting nuances which are probably confined, for the moment, to those whose car is their 'religion'. I know a few of them. Generally speaking, by layman I mean someone who is not that much into motors, I think the two terms mostly coincide. – user66974 Sep 22 '15 at 7:46

Merriam Webster make you suppose that automobile is the normal word for car. This is a weak point of dictionaries that they don't hint at the main variant. Google Ngram shows that the normal variant is car. And automobile is a relatively seldom used variant in written language. It is much too long for spoken language.


Have a look at synonyms for car at Merriam Webster or The Free Dictionary.

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