Best and worst small automatic cars

There are lots of decent small cars on the market, but if you want a little car with an automatic gearbox, your choices are more limited than you might expect. It is not so much that automatic small cars are not available; more that many of those out there are, quite simply, not very good.

We’ve picked over the available models and have pulled together a list of the small or city cars that we recommend if you don’t want a manual gearbox.

We’ve also picked out some surprising sinners which make no sense at all if you want automatic gears. 

The best

Hyundai i10

We love the i10, so much so that it was our City car of the Year for 2014. The four-speed automatic version is not as economical or green as the manual car, but it is a perfectly capable small automatic car. Performance is sprightly enough, the gearbox works fine in town but motorway and fast-road driving doesn’t cause problems either.

It comes with a generous level of kit, including air-con, remote central locking, electric rear windows and electrically adjustable heated door mirrors. On top of that, it has six airbags, a tyre pressure-monitoring system and stability control as standard. If you must have a small automatic, at less than £11,000, this is great value.

Our pick: 1.2 SE auto

The best of the rest

Audi A1

If you want a premium badge in a pocket-sized package, the Audi A1 is the default choice and happily, this is still the case if you want an automatic gearbox. In fact, the 1.4 TFSI engine is the pick of the available power plants, and the sophisticated S Tronic twin-clutch automatic gearbox is one of the best around.

As with all A1 models, the boot is small and prices are pretty steep, given the modest amount of metal on offer. On the plus side, however, strong resale values, impressive economy and a high-quality cabin make it easy to fall in love with. The S Tronic gearbox is not available in the entry-level SE trim, but the Sport level is well appointed enough. Avoid huge wheels and steer clear of the S-line trim to ensure the ride isn’t uncomfortably firm. 

Our pick – 1.4 TFSI Sport S Tronic

Ford Fiesta

The multi-talented Ford Fiesta does virtually everything well, and that includes providing an automatic gearbox. The Powershift gearbox is not perfect. It is at its best when mated to the impressive 1.0-litre Ecoboost engine, making a formidable, desirable package – and the fab Ford doesn’t lose its excellent on-road balance and poise, either. The combination of the engine and gearbox does punch the price of the Fiesta over the £15,000 mark in our favoured Zetec trim, but robust negotiating will shave a lump off that on the forecourt. 

Our pick – 1.0 litre Ecoboost Powershift

Renault Clio 

In a class filled with talent, the Renault Clio is only a whisker away from the best, but if you want an automatic the little Renault creeps close to the top of the class.

Priced a little more than £17,000, it might seem a lot of money for a baby Renault, but you have to go for lavish Dynamique MediaNav spec to get the frugal diesel engine with the automatic gearbox. Haggle hard and you should achieve What Car?’s Target Price, which shaves £1500 off the price.

Our pick – Dynamique MediaNav 90 dCi EDC auto 

Smart Fortwo

The Fortwo is ideal if you spend a lot of time driving in congested cities. It’s less than 2.7m long and has the best turning circle in the class. By adding a dual clutch automatic gearbox, Smart has managed to make the Fortwo an even more tempting proposition for city dwellers. That is if you can look beyond the price. Adding the automatic gearbox to our pick of the range, the Fortwo 0.9 90 Passion, pushes the price up to an expensive £12,715.

Our pick – Smart Fortwo 0.9 90 Passion Twinamic

The one to avoid

Volkswagen Up

Surely some mistake? Well, we love the Volkswagen Up in almost all guises, but the automatic gearbox option is very disappointing indeed. Rather than Volkswagen’s impressive DSG automatic gearbox technology, the Up gets a primitive robotised-manual gearbox, and the results aren’t pretty.

All the usual Up plus points are in place, including the generous interior space, stylish cabin and comfortable ride, but despite this broad base of talents, we can’t recommend it as an automatic option. Progress is jerky and the gearchange is slow-witted. The Up is a great car, ruined by the awful gearchange. If you can’t manage a manual, buy something else. The same applies to the Up’s cousins, the Seat Mii and Skoda Citigo.

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