Car evolution: how our cars have grown bigger, faster, safer and better

We line up some of the UK's best selling cars against their original counterparts to see how far car design has come

Cars are getting bigger - there's no getting around that. Some of the UK's best selling models are now far larger than their predessesors two, three or four generations ago. 

We at Auto Express get regular comments from readers via email and on our social media channels complaining about just this. There are those who feel new cars have become too cumbersome and it's been well reported that some models are now getting so big that they're struggling to get into parking spaces

Despite all this, manufacturers will tell you that cars are growing in size for very good reasons - one of the key ones being safety. Advances in safety tech mean that cars have to have thicker pillars between windows, chunkier doors to make way for stronger bracing and fatter bumpers and wings to accommodate crumple zones. It might mean a tighter squeeze through certain slim streets or in multi-storey car parks, but it also means that you and your passengers are better protected than ever should the worst happen. 

With all this in mind, we've compared some of the UK's best selling new cars against their original counterparts to see just how much they've grown over the years and what else has changed.

Scroll down to see our findings as we compare old with new and chart the evolution of our cars...

BMW 3 Series

It's more than 40 years since the 3 Series made its first appearance. And the latest Mk6 retains obvious design cues from that model – namely the BMW kidney grille. With MacPherson front struts and disc brakes, the original E21 earned a reputation for great handling, and this has carried on to the current F30. Of course, they’re very different inside. The E21 had a big centre console, with rounded-off edges for safety. Today, safety kit includes blind spot warnings and lane assist.

Model BMW 316 (E21) BMW 316d Sport
Length 4,355mm 4,633mm
Width 1,610mm 1,811mm
Height 1,380mm 1,441mm
Weight 1,010kg 1,495kg
Power 89bhp (1.6-litre) 114bhp
0-60mph 13.8 seconds 10.7 seconds
Top speed 99mph 125mph
Price today From around £7,250 £27,920


The original Austin Mini was a car true to its name, but since BMW took over the brand in 2000, it’s grown with each generation. At 3,821mm, the latest MINI is nearly a metre longer than the original. The Austin Mini was intended as a budget buy for the whole family, and MINI’s emphasis on offering a lot for the cash hasn’t been lost over the years; the current generation remains one of the best value-for-money cars for driving fun. 

Model 1966 Austin Mini Cooper MINI Cooper 1.5-litre
Length 3,054mm 3,821mm
Width 1,410mm 1,727mm
Height 1,350mm 1,414mm
Weight 636kg 1,160kg
Power 55bhp 134bhp
0-60mph 12.9 seconds 7.9 seconds
Top speed 88mph 130mph
Price today From around £6,500 £15,775

Renault Clio

The current Clio isn’t much faster than the original, but it’s certainly much safer. Euro NCAP awarded the Mk1 supermini just two stars for adult occupants in its crash test back in 1997, and an appalling one star for pedestrian safety. However, despite poor safety features, it was still crowned European Car of the Year in 1991. In comparison, the latest fourth-generation Clio scored a full five stars – so while some cars haven’t progressed a lot in speed, they’ve leaped light years in safety. 

Old vs new: Renault Clio Mk4 vs Mk1, Mk2 & Mk3

Model 1991 Renault Clio 1.4 Renault Clio Dynamique Nav Tce 90
Length 3,709mm 4,063mm
Width 1,616mm 1,732mm
Height 1,360mm 1,448mm
Weight 930kg 1,009kg
Power 75bhp 89bhp
0-60mph 10.9 seconds 12.2 seconds
Top speed 109mph 113mph
Price today From £600 £15,015

Volkswagen Golf

Seven generations on and the Golf has put on some weight. At 1,395kg, the Mk7 is now nearly twice as heavy as the original, but there’s a good reason for this. It’s around a metre longer and has a lot more kit and safety systems on board. The original’s plastic-heavy interior has been replaced by a stylish layout with a 5.8-inch touchscreen. The Mk1 Golf was known for its early adoption of diesel power, and the current range is one of the best, with its efficient and refined TDIs.

Model Volkswagen Golf 1.5 S Volkswagen Golf 2.0 TDI 150 Match
Length 3,708mm 4,562mm
Width 1,610mm 1,799mm
Height 1,409mm 1,481mm
Weight 805kg 1,395kg
Power 70bhp 108bhp
0-60mph 12.5 seconds 11.2 seconds
Top speed 97mph 120mph
Price today From around £3,300 £23,050

Fiat 500

Fiat's original Cinquecento started out with a 500cc air-cooled two-cylinder engine and is considered one of the first ever city cars. It’s now 60 years since the first models rolled off the production lines, and while the current car is much bigger – it’s over half a metre longer – it looks remarkably like the original. Maintaining the iconic design isn’t the only thing Fiat has done, as the current range retains its agility in town, nipping in and out of traffic, especially in 0.9-litre TwinAir guise. 

Model 1957 Fiat 500 Fiat 500 0.9 TwinAir
Length 2,970mm 3,571mm
Width 1,320mm 1,627mm
Height 1,325mm 1,488mm
Weight 470kg 980kg
Power 13bhp 103.5bhp
0-60mph N/A (62.4 secs to 50mph) 10 seconds
Top speed 53mph 117mph
Price today From around £6,000 £17,380

What do you think of the growing size of cars these days? Do you have any other examples of when cars have grown significantly throughout the generations? Let us know below!

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