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According to the dictionary, both of these terms refer to the same object: car/automobile.

Now, I understand that 車 is also used in compounds to provide the "vehicle" part as in 電車, but I'm just referring to the meaning "car" in this question.

Is there really a difference between these two terms? Register? Formal/informal? None?

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自動車 is more formal, following the general trends for Chinese-based compounds. It is also used in compounds such as 営業用自動車 (company car). Also following the trend, the Chinese-based compound is more specific: 自動車「<エンジンの力で車輪を回転させ、レールや架線を用いない路上で走る>車 の総称」 is a special kind of 車. Compare 車 「車輪を回転させて動き、人や荷物を運ぶもの。現代では普通自動車をさす。平安時代には牛車(ぎっしゃ〉、明治・大正時代には人力車をさした。」  It can also mean 「車輪。軸を中心に回転する輪。」 –  blutorange Jul 23 '13 at 13:12
    
@blutorange: Comments are not for answers. –  istrasci Jul 23 '13 at 15:16
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What is the difference between automobile and car ? –  oldergod Jul 24 '13 at 0:23
    
@oldergod At first I thought it was the same (and register-wise, it probably is similar to that), but dictionaries sometimes give both of those terms also for just 車. –  Alenanno Jul 24 '13 at 9:07
    
@Alenanno Dictionaries often provide a number of synonyms for an entry, but that doesn't mean that these synonyms are equal. –  Earthliŋ Jul 25 '13 at 16:32
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Nowadays, 自動車 is used in much the same context as "automobile", just as 車 is used in the same way as "car". Indeed, the kanji that make up 自動車 literally translate to "automobile". Generally speaking, if you can't decide which is more appropriate to use in a given situation, just imagine if in English you would say "automobile" or "car".

That said, 自動車 has more of a technical connotation to it. You'll primarily see it in technical documents, official forms (such as insurance forms), and the names of companies (e.g. 株式会社西田自動車). "Car" is more common in casual speech.

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車 has the meaning of something that moves via wheels. For example before the cars ever existed, when people used the word "車" they almost always were referring to 牛車.

自動車 as its name implies means something that uses wheels (like 車) and those wheels are driven using an engine or motor.

Nowadays, 車 always refers to 自動車 and is more commonly used in speech。 

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Your differentiation based on historical use, although technically correct, also gives the wrong impression that '自動車' might be a somewhat more appropriate term for '車'. In practice, saying '自動車' anywhere outside of an official form will get your friends laughing at you. It sounds really formal. Compare to the everyday use of 'vehicle' vs. 'car'. –  Dave Jul 23 '13 at 15:45
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Or automobile vs car. "I am going to go drive my automobile!" –  snailboat Jul 23 '13 at 23:50
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@snailboat: Note that 自動車 originates from the English word automobile. –  Jesse Good Jul 24 '13 at 0:06
    
@JesseGood Ah, yes, that is why it came to mind :-) –  snailboat Jul 24 '13 at 0:08
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While 自動車 directly translates to "automobile", the usage can be different from English, and I don't think it's quite that formal. For instance, in Japanese, the norm in casual conversaton for "driving school" is 自動車学校, or "automobile school". To say to your friends you were going to 車{くるま}学校 would sound awkward. (運転学校 doesn't seem to be used much.) –  Dave M G Jul 24 '13 at 3:59
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