With the small car market stacked with more than 30 new models to choose from, it’s one of the most fiercely competitive segments in the automotive industry.
Small cars have to be incredibly versatile and fill a variety of roles, from economical city runabout to a relatively refined motorway cruiser.
They must also offer a decent amount of equipment, enough boot space for weekly shopping trips and an intuitive, practical cabin to cope with the demands of small families. Value for money is another key area, as the majority of new small cars are purchased on PCP finance.
There’s been plenty of activity in the small car market recently, so here’s our pick of the best and worst cars in the class.
The difference between the best and the worst in this category is one of the most pronounced, so read on to find out the cars you should take a look at and those you should avoid.
The last time we looked at the best and worst small cars, the Audi A1 and Ford Fiesta were both on the top five-star rating.
There’s a new kid on the block, however, and it’s rewritten the rules. The Skoda Fabia is so impressive it’s gone straight to the top of the class and knocked the Audi and Ford down a peg. It also scooped our 2015 overall Car of the Year title.
It’s a super-stylish package for those who don’t want to buy big, but don’t want to trade down on quality.
Materials and build quality are both top notch, while the Fabia should be affordable to run. Resale values will be high, too, while our choice – the 89bhp 1.2 TSI 90 SE version – returns an average of more than 60.1mpg.
Don’t think for a second that it’s slow, though. The peppy engine takes the car from 0-62mph in 10.9 seconds and up to 113mph. It’s not just fun, it’s also refined.
Pick of the range: 1.2 TSI 90 SE
The best of the rest
The Ford Fiesta is still a brilliant supermini that looks cool inside and out and is well equipped.
Refinement is excellent and the Ford is also fun to drive, although some models are short on safety equipment and some of the interior plastics could be a bit more solid.
Pick of the range: 1.0T 100 Ecoboost Zetec S/S 5dr
A small car that’s big on value – the i10 is our 2015 City Car of the Year, taking the Award for the second year running. It’s cheap to buy and run, but you won’t feel short-changed as an i10 owner.
Every model gets plenty of safety equipment and creature comforts, such as air conditioning. The i10 is also a decent car to drive around town and on country roads.
It’s one of the smallest of our top five, so it’s not brilliant on the motorway but you should be able to squeeze in the weekly shopping.
Pick of the range: 1.2 Premium 5dr
The Up set a new benchmark in the city car class when it arrived in 2012 and was good enough to be awarded our overall Car of the Year in 2012. It’s economical, spacious, good to drive and has classy looks.
The Up is a bit pricey compared with some rivals and the 59bhp engine struggles on motorways. The entry-level Take Up model has no rev counter or air-con and comes with manual windows only.
Of the two engines available, the stronger 74bhp engine is definitely the one to choose, because it copes with motorways speed roads better.
Pick of the range: 1.0 75 High Up 3dr
The Audi A1 in five-door Sportback form is the classiest of all the small cars, with a high-quality interior that’s pure Audi but on a smaller scale. It has a strong range of engines in its line-up and offers grown-up, yet engaging driving dynamics.
In petrol form, the A1 is the quietest premium supermini on the market. The diesel variants are rattly and gruff, even when idling.
Three trim levels are available: SE, Sport and S line. However, as you progress up through the trim levels the A1 gets sportier suspension, bigger wheels and a firmer ride.
Unlike the three-door A1, the five-door Sportback has room for two adults to sit reasonably comfortably in the back. However it’s still not quite a match for the best five-door superminis on the market, practicality-wise.
Pick of the range: 1.4 TFSI 125 Sport 5dr
The ones to avoid
The only reason you may consider an electric Peugeot iOn is for the smooth acceleration around town, the ease of operation with no conventional gearbox and the zero emissions. However, at £26,000 it’s eye-wateringly expensive. The iOn is also limited to 100 miles and it feels out of its depth beyond built-up areas.
We’ve got no complaints about the Nissan Micra’s ability around town, but the small hatchback struggles on faster roads and the quality of the cabin trim is poor. The top-spec DIG-S Tekna variant costs £14,445 and at that price key rivals trump the Micra for refinement and superior equipment levels.
The Mitsubishi Mirage comes with a competitive list of safety features as standard and the entire range emits less than 100g/km of CO2, so running costs are low. However, there’s no disguising the fact that the Mirage is a budget car – the interior is miles behind other cars in the class. Seat adjustment and over-shoulder vision are severely limited, too.