Best small cars to buy 2021
Small cars come in all kinds of shapes, if not sizes. Here we highlight the best new small cars on sale
City cars and superminis make up the bulk of new car sales in the UK – and with good reason. The best small cars on sale are cheap, practical, easy to drive on congested modern streets and – as modern superminis and city cars become more sophisticated, refined and safe – they increasingly represent genuine alternatives to larger hatchbacks, saloons and even SUVs.
Cars like the Renault Clio and Ford Fiesta have come a long way over multiple generations and now are just about as practical, spacious and comfortable as family-sized hatchbacks from a few years ago. Similarly, city cars like the Kia Picanto and small crossovers like the Citroen C3 Aircross prove there’s remarkable breadth of ability across the small car segment.
Small cars also make a lot of sense when it comes to running costs and maintenance; small, efficient engines return great fuel economy and emit low levels of CO2 for cheaper first-year road tax, small wheels mean cheaper tyres and most are subject to the lowest tier of servicing pricing at a main dealer. Insurance should also be cheaper than that for a car from the classes above.
This top 10 features a range of the best superminis, small cars and small EVs that we’ve tested. All offer a great balance of practicality, economy, comfort and a decent driving experience, with each offering a different take on a similar recipe. Whether its a sporty drive, comfortable ride or an uncompromised focus on value, there’s a small car to suit all tastes and budgets.
- Renault Clio
- Ford Fiesta
- Dacia Sandero
- Volkswagen up!
- Hyundai i10
- Kia Picanto
- SEAT Mii Electric
- Citroen C3 Aircross
- MINI 5-dr hatch
- Peugeot 208
Scroll down to read more about the best small cars to buy now...
1. Renault Clio
Launched at the end of 2019, the fifth-generation Renault Clio has many of its rivals beaten in key areas including equipment levels and overall driving experience.
We found the Ford Fiesta more fun to drive in the supermini class, but the Clio is still a joy behind the wheel thanks to its advanced platform. The steering gives plenty of feedback and there’s a well-judged balance between body control and comfort.
The Clio is available with four different petrol engines and a diesel, while there is also a new E-Tech hybrid version to choose from. We liked the TCe 100 - which uses a turbocharged petrol developing 99bhp, but the 129bhp 1.3-cylinder four-cylinder TCe petrol engine makes better use of the fine chassis.
The interior is where the Clio really shines. Even in the basic-spec ‘Play’ version, the quality of the cabin is impressive for a car of this size and standard equipment includes cruise control, LED headlights, autonomous braking, lane keep assist and traffic sign recognition.
At 391 litres, boot space is bigger than you get in a Fiesta and with the rear seats folded there’s a healthy 1,069 litres available.
2. Ford Fiesta
The latest Ford Fiesta is a formidable small car that sets new standards in the supermini class. The small Ford is great fun to drive. Slightly lightened steering on the current car makes city driving easier but it still retains enough resistance to provide plenty of feedback when enjoying the UK’s twistier roads.
The 1.0-litre EcoBoost engines (which make up the core of those offered) are cracking units. The power produced ranges from 94bhp to 153bhp, with a 123bhp version nestled nicely in-between.
As both the petrol and diesel engines included in the range are very frugal (the 94bhp EcoBoost petrol can return 55.4mpg on average with a manual gearbox), they help keep running costs down.
The Fiesta is a great place to spend time, boasting a welcome improvement to interior design and quality over the old model. The amount of quality soft-touch materials has been increased, helping accentuate the more modern layout. There is also a touchscreen infotainment system that’s simple and easy to use.
3. Dacia Sandero
By far the cheapest car on this list, the Dacia Sandero is a full-sized supermini that’s priced below most city cars. Now based on the current Renault Clio (the old Sandero was based on a decade-old Clio), the new Sandero is a little less sophisticated than some of the latest crop of superminis but still holds up well against its more polished competition.
Go for the most modern 1.0-litre petrol and you’ll be met with a supermini that’s good to drive and comfortable, even if it’s not the most refined car in its class. The Sandero is a no-frills new car that prioritises value for money, but cheap does not equal nasty in this instance. Do bear in mind that the Sandero only has a two-star safety rating from Euro NCAP, however.
Prices start at just under £8,000 for the Essential version, while the top-spec Comfort cars are priced at around £11,500 and come with cruise control, rear parking sensors, a 7-inch touchscreen and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity.
4. Volkswagen up!
The standard up! comes with a 64bhp 1.0-litre engine, while the GTI version uses a 113bhp 1.0-litre TSI unit. A frugal all-electric e-up! model is also available, providing low running costs and a range of up to 159 miles.
The up!’s party piece is managing to feel like a much bigger car than it really is thanks to a mature interior and refined driving experience. It’s still a small car however and there are only four seats, so those in need of a central rear seat will be best stepping up to the supermini class.
With a classy image and an interior unmatched in this segment, the up! offers an air of impressive quality compared to its close rivals. The residuals should be better for buyers too, thanks to the more premium badge.
The up! won our best City Car award in 2017, 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, bringing deserved recognition for its impressive breadth of abilities and demonstrating that it can compete in the tough small car segment as well.
5. Hyundai i10
Hyundai has added tech, space and fun to its i10 city car to create a convincingly well-rounded package. The third generation Hyundai i10 made a good first impression when we drove it earlier this year with plenty of gadgets available on mid-range SE Connect and Premium models plus a light, airy cabin across the range.
The charms of the i10 don’t stop at its relative roominess (it’s class-leading 252 litres of boot space is only 40 litres less than a Ford Fiesta) as the i10 is also fun to drive. A quicker steering rack inspires confidence on a twisty road and makes the i10 feel agile in the corners.
A choice of two petrol engines are offered through most of the i10 range - a 66bhp 1.0-litre unit which can feel sluggish on motorways, and an 83bhp 1.2-litre which is £500 more expensive. Both are frugal engines, but we’d stick to the manual gearbox as the automatic isn’t the smoothest during shifts. Top-spec N Line versions include a more powerful 99bhp 1.0-litre variant, although this means an increase in price to over £16,000.
The i10 is larger than the old model and more comfortable too, while the Premium trim adds luxuries such as heated seats and a heated steering wheel. Considering this is on top of an eight-inch display complete with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth and a DAB radio, the i10’s potential gadget list is impressive.
6. Kia Picanto
The Kia Picanto offers lots of kit and a driving experience more akin to that of a car from the class above. A recent facelift has seen more efficient engines and improved on-board tech added to the range, while Kia’s excellent seven-year warranty also features – a great incentive if you plan on keeping your car for more than the usual length of a PCP finance deal.
Practicality is good for a car of this size too; all come with five doors and there’s enough space for two adults to sit relatively comfortable in the back. The boot measures in at 255 litres – considerably more than the 211 litres offered by the MINI 3-door from the class above.
The Picantos range is quite long, going from the base-spec '1', '2', '3', X-Line, X-Line S, GT-Line and GT-Line S. We’re particularly fond of higher trim levels in the Picanto as these offer a good amount of kit and represent good value. Go for 3 trim and you get a standard 8.0-inch infotainment screen with Android Auto and Apple Carplay connectivity, cruise control, auto-folding mirrors and a reversing camera.
7. SEAT Mii Electric
We’ve always been Mii fans, and the electric version just adds a relaxed, comfortable nature to the drive. It's supremely comfortable, and able to maintain its composure over the bumps and potholes of UK roads, delivering an impressive level of refinement for something so small.
With an 82bhp motor and the typical instant acceleration associated with electric drive, the Mii is a great urban option, and you'll be able to thread your way through tiresome town traffic with ease.
There’s plenty of leg and headroom in the driver’s seat, while SEAT has decided not to offer a convoluted infotainment system in the cabin - instead the Mii is equipped with a smartphone cradle, so you can use your own Bluetooth-connected choice of nav.
The Mii comes in a single-trim package for £20,300, after HMRC’s £2,500 plug-in car grant. That may seem a little expensive for a city car, but it has an impressive amount of big-car kit and, don't forget, you’ll be saving plenty of cash on fuel.
8. Citroen C3 Aircross
The Citroen C3 Aircross might look like a chunky SUV on the outside, but compact dimensions and competitive pricing mean it’s a rival for superminis.
A huge amount of practicality helps the appeal of the C3 Aircross with sliding rear seats offering a boot space of up to 520 litres. Folding those seats flat opens it up to 1,289 litres. As a result of the car’s raised floor, headroom is a bit tight for rear passengers but there’s ample legroom with no transmission tunnel to contend with.
With plenty of options for personalisation and funky SUV looks, the Aircross stands out in this list, but unfortunately the higher ride means it can’t match superminis for driver engagement. There’s a strong range of petrol and diesel engines on offer with the 109bhp 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol our pick of the bunch. If efficiency is your main concern, the 98bhp 1.6-litre BlueHDi diesel will return up to 62.7mpg.
The C3 Aircross can outshine its supermini rivals with its ability to travel over rough terrain. There’s no four-wheel drive option available, but Citroen’s Grip Control traction control system will help boost the Aircross’ off-road credentials.
9. MINI 5-Door Hatch
Even though the third-generation MINI looks similar to its ancestors, the UK favourite is more refined, bigger and features an all-new turbocharged engine line-up. The five-door model remains cheaper than the much larger Clubman while offering practicality that’s normally hard to come by in the MINI hatch range.
The engine line-up includes three-cylinder petrol and diesel engines which have been designed by parent company BMW – another first. The models in the MINI range start with the most basic One, then go up to the Cooper, followed by the sporty Cooper S.
The interior maintains a raft of retro touches and includes air-con, Bluetooth and DAB radio as standard. While some may argue the designers have played it too safe with the new interior, the old design was incredibly popular, and offered something different for motorists in the small car market.
Further points in the MINI’s favour include the addition of extra customisation options, which allow drivers to really put their stamp on their new car thanks to 3D-printed parts, custom door lights, and much else.
10. Peugeot 208
We praised the Peugeot 208 when we first drove it in 2019 for its impressive exterior and interior design, build quality and range of petrol, diesel or pure-electric powertrains.
The supermini segment is one of the toughest and the new 208 certainly targeted the higher-end of the sector. Equivalent Renault Clios come in around £3,000 cheaper so you’d expect the 208 to excel in every area to make up for the deficit.
Thankfully, the Peugeot 208 has one of the best interiors in the supermini class, arguably the car’s stand-out feature. There’s piano black plastic which looks the part, although it might not be the most durable material, and the cabin feels well put together. Configurable ambient lighting is a nice touch, too. Space inside is adequate and the boot is average-sized for the class at 311 litres.
Driving the Peugeot 208 is a nice experience but it does highlight how polished the Ford Fiesta’s chassis is. The 208’s steering is short on feel, a deficiency which is amplified by the small steering wheel. The 128bhp 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine is excellent, however, and if you match it to the eight-automatic gearbox you have a remarkably refined powertrain.
Best small cars: buying advice
It’s worth starting your hunt by having a clear idea of your small car needs before you start. Consider your likely mileage, number of passengers, boot space requirements, number of required doors and any must-have features or options.
Consider your budget, and remember to think about fuel and insurance costs, too. Modern petrol engines have come a long way in the last few years, especially in smaller models – as such, diesel-powered small cars are becoming increasingly difficult to recommend. We recommend only choosing one if you plan to do mostly long-distance motorway work. Small turbocharged petrol engines are designed to provide decent performance without sacrificing economy – they are great all-rounder options for mixed driving.
One of the most important aspects of buying a new car is a test drive; a car that fits your needs on paper may not feel that way in person. Be sure to test your small car on roads similar to those you plan to do most of your day-to-day driving on – it makes sense to get an accurate idea of what to expect once you buy.
Keep an eye out too for great deals – small cars are often subject to some of the best discounts. Deposit contributions and 0% finance deals are common, as are insurance deals.
Now read our list of Best new cars for under £150 a month...