The best 1.5-litre cars from the past and present

In a very special road test, we round up some of the best new 1.5-litre cars available today, plus some old favourites

After nearly 30 years Auto Express has reached its milestone 1,500th issue. That number holds more significance than you might think, too, and has a link to the modern automotive landscape.

As makers look to downsize, many are targeting engines around 1,500cc, so for our 1,500th issue road test we’ve lined up a celebration of the best 1.5-litre-engined cars on sale today. There’s a mixture of hi-tech hybrid powertrains, sporty roadsters, stylish convertibles and practical family transport…

Best-selling cars in the UK

But the 1.5-litre engine is not just the preserve of newer cars. Plenty of manufacturers have opted to install 1,500cc motors into their products over the years, so we’ve also looked at some of the legendary vehicles from the past with 1.5-litre power.

Some, such as Saab’s V4 configuration, have been consigned to the history books, but we are still feeling the legacy of others today, including the Toyota Prius.

What’s clear is that with past and present motors featuring 1.5-litre engines, you can be fairly certain that they’ll have a part to play in the future as well. Here’s to the next 1,500 issues!

Scroll down to read about the best 1,500cc cars on the market, as well as some great 1.5-litre examples from times gone by...

The best new 1.5-litre cars

BMW i8

Model:BMW i8
Engine:1.5 3cyl turbo petrol/electric motor
0-62mph/top speed:4.4 secs/155mph
Annual road tax:£440

When BMW said it was to produce a new carbon fibre sports car, and that it would have a 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine, it shook the establishment. Three years on, the i8 is still one of the most technologically advanced vehicles on sale.

That stems from the battery pack and 129bhp electric motor that supports the 228bhp 1.5 petrol unit, giving this 2+2 sports car a total of 357bhp. Its lightweight carbon construction keeps down the kerbweight to 1,485kg despite the big battery, which helps the i8 to a 0-62mph time of 4.4 seconds; plug the car in and charge it from the mains and BMW claims up to 134.5mpg is also available.

Even if you forget to charge the i8 up you’ll achieve around 45mpg, which is still mightily impressive for a model that packs this much performance.

However, it’s the way the i8 delivers its acceleration that sets it apart from just about anything else on sale. The electric motor has enough oomph to whisk you along at hot hatch pace in near-silence.

Squeeze the throttle to its stop and the six-speed automatic gearbox handles the delivery of power brilliantly, highlighting just how nicely integrated the two power sources are. With its instant torque the electric motor fills in what little turbo lag the 1.5 unit shows, supplementing the power as the petrol engine gets into its stride.

Mounted in the middle of the chassis behind your head, the motor emits a gruff growl to enable the car to sound the part, even though its combustion engine comes from a compact hatchback.

The challenge with a plug-in hybrid such as this is to reduce the impact the heavy battery pack can have on handling, but the bespoke composite chassis hides this mass well. Despite having narrow tyres to boost efficiency, it doesn’t compromise grip, handling and balance too much. The BMW feels rigid and composed, so there’s enough agility and eagerness to keep pace with a Porsche 911 – one of the best sports cars, and with an engine twice the size of the i8’s.

However, back off and the 1.5 petrol cuts out. Carrying on in the knowledge that you’re making progress with zero emissions has its own appeal, and it’s all thanks to the technology on offer.

Volkswagen Golf

Model:Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI EVO SE Nav
Engine:1.5-litre 4cyl turbo petrol
0-62mph/top speed:9.1 secs/130mph
Annual road tax:£140

While clever engine technology might once have been reserved for high-end sports cars such as the i8 opposite, and luxury models from the likes of Mercedes-AMG, more mainstream family cars such as the Volkswagen Golf now feature cutting-edge systems that can boost real-world efficiency without having a detrimental effect on performance.

The German manufacturer’s latest 1.5-litre TSI EVO engine takes VW’s Active Cylinder Management technology a step further and is at its best in the 128bhp guise we’ve lined up here.

If it’s doing between 1,400 and 3,200rpm under a light load, the car can automatically shut down two of the engine’s four cylinders. In addition to that, if the car is fitted with the DSG automatic gearbox, this engine can also disable all four cylinders on the move as part of a coasting function to further improve fuel consumption and emissions.

When you’re cruising along on an average road at constant speed you’ll be hard pushed to know if the engine is running on two or four cylinders because it’s so smooth and refined.

There’s certainly no jerkiness or awkward cut-outs as the ECU switches between employing a full complement of cylinders and using only half of them, or even none at all – all you’ll notice is a little icon in the instrument cluster pop up to point out that the TSI unit is doing its party piece.

While this is the stand-out feature of VW’s 1.5 turbo petrol unit, there’s far more to it than just a set of switchable fuel injectors. It’s a sweet motor that revs nicely, delivering a linear hit of power from low down right round to its red line thanks to another innovation that’s rarely seen on mainstream engines: a variable-geometry turbocharger.

No matter whether it’s linked to a DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission or a six-speed manual as we’ve tested here, the engine and gearbox work well, offering performance, efficiency and refinement.

We voted the Golf 2017’s Best Compact Family Car at Auto Express’s New Car Awards, because it serves up plenty of comfort, with enough practicality for a family of four thanks to its spacious cabin and 380-litre boot capacity, solid driving dynamics and plenty of tech inside to match what’s going on beneath the bonnet.

MINI Convertible

Model:MINI Cooper Convertible
Engine:1.5-litre 3cyl turbo petrol
0-62mph/top speed:8.8 secs/129mph
Annual road tax:£140

MINI’s stylish Convertible is one of the best models in the business. In Cooper form here, it shares its 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine with the BMW i8, although it does without that car’s electric assistance.

That doesn’t stop it from delivering one of the most individual and enjoyable driving experiences on offer today for the money. Although the drop-top weighs 120kg more than the hatch due to the roof mechanism and body strengthening required to ensure the MINI’s chassis is as rigid as possible, the 134bhp 1.5 still delivers enough poke to make this car fun.

Removing the hood (which is possible in 18 seconds at up to 18mph due to the electric operation) immediately makes the Convertible feel faster than it is, plus it gives greater access to the muted exhaust burble, as well as a few faint hisses from the tiny turbo that bolsters performance. There’s a dynamic compromise that you’ll notice the first time you hit a patch of ruffled tarmac, but it’s not as bad as in some small cabrios.

The manufacturer has preserved what makes a MINI fun with this Convertible. The steering is precise and weightier than you might imagine, while the car corners flat and level, even if the sportier suspension set-up does mean the odd heavy clonk vibrates through the structure.

There’s clever tech that belies its price tag, though. The climate control remembers your preferred settings for when the roof is both in place and stowed away, switching between the two when you hit the button.

There’s also a built-in system offered as part of the satellite navigation that will warn you of approaching inclement weather, so you can get the top up in plenty of time before the rain starts. Although the rear seats might be little more than a token gesture and boot space is pretty paltry, if you concentrate on what makes a cabriolet enjoyable – the engine, the drive, the stylish looks and some fairly advanced features that ensure it’s easier to live with – then the MINI Cabriolet is a great choice with the 1.5 Cooper engine.

Mazda MX-5

Model:Mazda MX-5 1.5 SkyActiv-G SE-L Nav
Engine:1.5-litre 4cyl petrol
0-62mph/top speed:8.3 secs/127mph
Annual road tax:£140

Mazda’s MX-5 is an icon. It’s the world’s best-selling two-seater roadster, with the Japanese company having shifted more than a million units during the model’s 18-year lifespan.

For the fourth-generation ND version that launched just a few years ago, Mazda developed a new engine, bolstering the line-up earlier this year with the retractable fastback RF model that took our Best Roadster crown back in June. Alongside the venerable 158bhp 2.0-litre motor, a 129bhp 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine was launched – and it’s actually the smaller-capacity unit that’s the more satisfying engine of the two.

The 1.5 has more than enough power. Less torque than the 2.0-litre means you have to rev it a little harder, but there are rewards to be had in doing so because the 1.5 is smoother than the larger unit.

Keep your foot down hard and the engine zips through the rev range with a sporty rasp from the exhaust. It thrives on revs and thanks to the snicky and superbly accurate six-speed manual box, you can make swift changes with the minimum of movement.

The standard soft-top model is one of the best convertibles around, with a superbly simple manual roof arrangement that can be raised or lowered in less time than the electrically operated RF’s. That model has the edge when it comes to looks due to its supercar-style buttresses, but the dynamic behaviour of the two variants is identical.

Accurate steering with just the right weight and level of detailed feedback goads you into driving harder, making the most of that crisp powertrain. There’s no denying there’s some roll, but this nicely controlled slack in the suspension means the MX-5 is still comfortable for daily use and longer journeys, despite its cramped cabin.

There are some compromises to be made, then, but not when it comes to enjoyment – and it’s the 1.5-litre engine and that beautiful gearbox that are at the heart of the MX-5.

Renault Megane

Model:Renault Mégane Sport Tourer 1.5 dCi Dynamique S Nav
Engine:1.5-litre 4cyl turbodiesel
0-62mph/top speed:11.3 secs/116mph
Annual road tax:£140

The spacious and stylish estate version of Renault’s Mégane, which is badged Sport Tourer, is available with one of the best 1.5-litre engines around. It’s the first and only diesel in our line-up here, and despite some recent bad press for the fuel, there’s still lots to like.

Not least that the 1.5-litre dCi 110 model has years of development behind it, making it one of the most refined and economical diesels on offer. There’s plenty of smooth performance, with a decent level of low-down torque meaning you don’t have to work the gearbox too hard. This is useful because the six-speed manual isn’t the best transmission in its class, but the flexibility of the engine ensures it isn’t as big a problem as with some other brands.

Rev it out and the motor gets a little coarse, but pretty much every four-cylinder diesel does, so use that torque and keep the revs low and the Mégane’s engine is nicely refined. This also plays to one of the dCi unit’s great strengths: efficiency.

Renault quotes 76.4mpg and 96g/km CO2 emissions, so if you’re after practical family transport to run as a company car, with its 580-litre boot the affordable Sport Tourer will be a brilliant bet.

Our experience shows that even in real-world driving the Mégane delivers decent efficiency, as we recorded economy of around 50mpg on test, so it’ll keep your bills to a minimum. Yet there’s more to the car than just cheap motoring: it’s comfortable, with a loping ride quality in Sport Tourer form that makes long-distance journeys easy.

Go for Dynamique S Nav spec – our pick of the range – and the 8.7-inch R-Link 2 touchscreen tablet infotainment system means there’s technology to match the comfort and refinement on offer. It’s usable, if not the slickest set-up around, but focus on what makes the Mégane a brilliant family estate, and in 1.5 diesel form there aren’t many packages that can match the Renault’s all-round ability.

Vauxhall Insignia

Model:Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport 1.5 Turbo SRi Nav
Engine:1.5-litre 4cyl turbo petrol
0-62mph/top speed:8.4 secs/138mph
Annual road tax:£140

It might still bear the Insignia badge, but the latest incarnation of Vauxhall’s large family hatch, the Insignia Grand Sport, is a giant leap on from its predecessor. A new engine made its debut in this car, too. Vauxhall’s 163bhp 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol unit is a match for the 1.5-litre turbos offered by the likes of VW and Skoda, with plenty of smooth, easy performance matched by a level of refinement that a diesel motor couldn’t hope to match.

Combined with the Grand Sport’s long-legged cruising ability and enough comfort (even without adaptive dampers) to rival some full-on exec saloons, it’s stylish and practical thanks to its huge hatch and 490-litre load bay.

You can add incredible affordability to that list of attributes, too, as the Insignia Grand Sport is priced from £20,530 with this 1.5 petrol in attractive SRi Nav spec, which is loaded with equipment. Its closest rival, the Skoda Superb SE Technology, costs from £22,630, but doesn’t get as much kit and has a less powerful 1.4 TSI turbo petrol.

We’d stick with the manual to keep costs down, because while Vauxhall’s six-speed auto is good, the manual offers a relatively refined shift and decent performance.

Go for SRi Nav trim (which is shown in our pictures) and the car gets Vauxhall’s OnStar concierge package, bringing executive features for a much smaller budget, with the set-up allowing sat-nav destinations to be downloaded to your car. The system can even ring the emergency services automatically after a crash.

Diesel isn’t dead yet but smooth, refined and efficient petrols such as this 1.5 in a low-priced but relatively premium-feeling product make it an attractive car for private buyers and company users alike.

And the best 1.5-litre cars from the past...

Toyota Prius

Engine: 1.5-litre 4cyl petrol/electric hybrid

Power: 110bhp0-62mph: 10.9 secsTop speed: 106mph

Loved by Uber drivers and early hybrid adopters, the second-generation Prius was the car that arguably began today’s electric revolution. It made hybrids mainstream, proving that they were reliable, economical and didn’t have to cost the earth to buy or run. It’s a shame the car wasn’t a match for its more traditional rivals in its day, but it’s clear the effect that the Toyota has had. It’s an iconic 1.5 and influences the modern Prius, which is a fantastic machine.

Honda CR-Z GT

Engine: 1.5-litre 4cyl petrol/electric hybrid Power: 122bhp0-62mph: 9.0 secsTop speed: 124mph

Hybrid sports cars are becoming more common, as the BMW i8 in this test proves – but the Honda CR-Z is still something unique: an affordable coupé with a clever eco powertrain. The 1.5-litre engine is supplemented by a small electric motor to improve power and efficiency. It was a little disappointing to drive, but was recognisably a Honda due to its engineering integrity. It even inspired the firm’s current range, including the new NSX supercar.

VW Beetle

Engine: 1.5-litre flat-four petrolPower: 53bhp0-62mph: N/ATop speed: 78mph

One of the most recognisable cars ever, the Volkswagen Beetle is a true motoring icon. It was available with several engines, one being an air-cooled 1.5-litre four-cylinder, arranged in a ‘flat’ configuration. The rear-mounted unit allowed that curvy body that gives the car its unmistakable shape. It was never actually called the Beetle; its official name was the Type 1, with its nickname coming from its bug-like styling. It had one of the longest production runs ever, being built from 1938 to 2003.

Saab 96

Engine: 1.5-litre V4 petrol

Power: 64bhp0-62mph: 16.5 secsTop speed: 96mph

The Saab 96 is one model that you might not have heard of, but those in the know will tell you that it was powered by an interesting engine. The 1.5-litre petrol motor had its four cylinders arranged in a V-shape – the V4 configuration is unheard of in the car world these days. The engine was developed by Ford, but the funky looks of the 96 were all Saab’s own work and highlight the now-defunct Swedish brand’s philosophy of thinking outside of the box.

BMW 1500

Engine: 1.5-litre 4cyl petrol

Power: 80bhp0-62mph: 15.0 secsTop speed: 93mph

The BMW 1500 Neue Klasse, as it was known in Germany, is the model that set the template for the brand’s saloon cars and coupés since the sixties. It was a family vehicle for those who loved driving, and BMW has been aiming for that same customer with its 3 and 5 Series models ever since. The little 1.5-litre engine might not boast much by today’s standards, but 80bhp meant it was competitive in its day, and the classy looks still influence BMW’s latest concept and road car designs.

MG Midget 1500

Engine: 1.5-litre 4cyl petrol

Power: 65bhp0-60mph: 12.3 secsTop speed: 95mph

Later versions of the MG Midget were much maligned for their ugly rubber bumpers – they weren’t as pretty as the original cars – but they did gain a larger 1.5-litre engine, boosting performance and helping the convertible to meet emissions regulations. The engine was also used in the Triumph Spitfire 1500 in the same period, and both two-seater roadsters are great examples of the classic British sports car. Thousands were exported to the US to meet growing demand for roadsters in the States.

Celebrating 1,500 issues of Auto Express

The best 1.5-litre cars from past and presentBest cars for £1,500 or lessBest car upgrades: the full car makeover for £1,500Opinion: "They told me AE wouldn't last 15 issues, never mind 1,500"Opinion: "Here's to the next 1,500 issues and a diverse future"

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