Best small automatic cars 2021
You can't beat an auto if you want a relaxed drive. We've picked ten of the best affordable automatics on sale today...
There are lots of reasons for wanting a small car with an automatic gearbox, not least of which is the sheer boredom of sitting motionless in traffic jams every day developing an aching foot from repeatedly pressing down the clutch pedal.
Even drivers who enjoy changing up and down a gearbox manually have to admit there are times when an automatic car would be a blessing – and for lots of commuters ‘those times’ make up most of their experience behind the wheel.
Other people want a compact automatic hatchback or supermini because they’re just not interested in the driving bit at all. For them a car is simply transport from A to B, and the more straightforwardly it can deliver on that promise the better.
Which is why, frankly, small automatic cars used to be pretty horrid. Slower and thirstier than their manual counterparts, with asthmatic, lazy or lurching gear shifts – and you couldn’t even bump start them with a flat battery.
Well you still can’t bump start an auto, but in all other respects the quality of small cars with automatic gears has improved no end. Thanks to the advent of slick changing dual-clutch gearboxes, high-tech multi-speed torque converter autos and even the resurgence of the Constantly Variable Transmission (CVT), nowadays the lot of the small automatic driver is often happier than the driver stuck with an ‘old-fashioned’ manual transmission.
The rise of electric cars is having an impact here too, as EV powertrains don’t need you to change gears for them either. In fact, given the necessity for car companies to eke every last mile out of every litre of fuel these days, in all likelihood, it won’t be long before super-efficient auto transmissions are the rule in the small car sector, instead of the exception.
Whichever automatic gearbox you choose – or if you’re looking at specific types of car whichever gearbox chooses you – they’re all pretty much the same to drive.
Whichever auto you end up with, if it's one of the top 10 small autos we’ve picked for this list, it will be just as good as the manual version to drive – and in many cases better.
The best small automatic cars to buy in 2021
- Renault Clio EDC
- Fiat 500 electric
- Ford Fiesta DCT
- Renault Zoe
- Toyota Yaris Hybrid
- Vauxhall Corsa auto
- Peugeot 208 & e-208
- MINI Cooper auto
- SEAT Ibiza DSG
- Audi A1 S Tronic
Scroll down to read more about all the best small automatic cars to buy now...
Renault Clio EDC
Recent updates for the Clio have brought new kit and a fresh look, along with an updated powertrain range. You can spec Renault's six-speed EDC – dual-clutch – auto with the 1.3 TCe turbo petrol in the top-spec RS Line, or a Constantly Variable Transmission gearbox with the 1.0-litre TCe engine elsewhere in the range.
The best auto option in the petrol Clio range is the 130 TCe warm hatchback which only comes with a six-speed EDC gearbox. It’s a fun driver's car with the option of changing gears yourself with the steering wheel paddles.
There's a £1,400 premium to pay for the CVT box, but like most rivals, there's a penalty in terms of fuel economy. The CVT returns a claimed 48mpg compared to 54mpg for the manual), while there’s no manual option to compare with the dual-clutch 1.3-litre car. With the CVT gearbox optimised for urban use, it’s doubtful whether many who choose it will drive enough miles for consumption to meaningfully affect their choice of transmission. Meanwhile, a hybrid Clio is new to the range, which also features an automatic gearbox.
The latest generation Clio strikes the right balance between handling and ride comfort, and the addition of the auto box doesn't really disrupt the order – if you don’t like the CVT ‘rubber band’ feel there’s a stepped mode which mimics a normal gearbox with stepped ratios. Otherwise, the Clio is a roomy supermini with plenty of kit, which is where it maintains its strengths.
Fiat 500 electric
Having been on sale for the best part of 15 years, the Fiat 500 was due a refresh. Fiat has gone further than just refreshing the paint palette, though, as it has launched a brand-new third-generation 500 that’s looking forwards rather than back. It’s only available as an electric car (although the ageing petrol 500 will still be sold alongside it for a couple more years), and promises an impressive 199-mile range if you pick the bigger battery.
Cheaper trims make do with a 115-mile range, but that’s plenty for a car designed for city streets - and the electric Fiat 500 is best value at the lower end of the line-up. Base-spec Action trim forgoes a radio but plug your phone into the cradle and you’ll have a range of Fiat apps at your disposal. Higher Passion and Icon trims get seven- and 10.25-inch screens respectively.
Designed from the start to be an electric car, the new Fiat 500 offers a similar amount of space as the petrol one. While it’s still a little cramped inside, its compact size means parking is a breeze - and even the cheapest version gets rear parking sensors.
Ford Fiesta DCT auto
The Fiesta is among the UK's best-selling cars, and Ford's seven-speed DCT auto transmission is available to those who are allergic to the clutch pedal. At the moment, you can only get an auto box with the 1.0 EcoBoost 123bhp turbo petrol three-cylinder, although there are a wide range of trim choices available. Ford is in the middle of rolling out mild hybrid tech across the Fiesta range.
You pay a bit more of a premium for the DCT auto than you do on some rivals, but it's a cutting-edge twin-clutch gearbox that shifts as quickly as you could with a manual, if not faster.
But like rivals, fuel economy does take a bit of a hit. Ford has improved this in recent years though, and now the 53.3mpg figure is only 4mpg shy of the manual-equipped Fiesta. Emissions are a little poorer for company car drivers. At least the latest Fiesta's improved interior space and fine handling are retained, making this one best-seller that delivers the goods to justify its position.
If you’re looking for a small automatic car for mainly urban or local driving, and especially if you have access to another vehicle for trips away, the Zoe EV can make a lot of sense as a family runabout.
Unlike some other manufacturers who have electrified versions of their regular models, Renault took an early decision to create a ‘ground-up’ electric design with the Zoe. It’s by no means as radical or funky to look at as BMW’s i3 which takes a similar approach, but it’s a lot cheaper, and in spite of being around for a few years the Zoe has benefited from regular tech updates along the way.
What you get today is an ‘official’ range of up to 245 miles with the biggest 52kWh battery, and that’s using the latest ‘real world’ WLTP figures. That’s easily enough to cope with most people’s day-to-day mileage, even if you can’t be bothered to plug the car in every night. A full charge takes nine hours from a home wall charger, but if you pay extra for the 50kWh charging feature you can use rapid chargers for an 80 per cent top-up in just over an hour.
With 108bhp from the R110 version or 134bhp from the R135 the Zoe is pretty nippy around town, although as with many electric competitors it gets a bit out of breath at motorway speeds. Aside from its drivetrain, the Zoe offers as much practicality as any typical supermini, and with five seats and a 338-litre boot it’s definitely more practical than the VW e-up!
Toyota Yaris Hybrid
There’s no doubt the Toyota Yaris is one of the racier-looking superminis on the road, although sadly the driving experience is worthy rather than fun. That shouldn’t bother you if you’re looking for a small automatic though, when the Yaris hybrid’s eco-credentials should certainly appeal.
As the smallest hybrid on sale today, you won’t be surprised to hear the Yaris is economical, and the claimed 68mpg is definitely impressive.
With light controls, the Yaris is easy to place around town or in traffic, but the ride can be a little too far on the fidgety side for some, and there’s pronounced lean in corners if you’re trying to press on. The CVT gearbox works well at low speeds around town, or when driving gently, but if you want to extract maximum performance then it can cause the engine to seem as though it’s revving too hard for the given speed. You soon get used to it though, and the trade-off is those great economy and emissions numbers.
The Yaris hybrid has all the other benefits the model offers too, including the roomy interior that boasts enough space to rival cars from the next class up.
Vauxhall Corsa auto
The Corsa has always been popular, cheap to run and practical, but it has never really chock full of flair. French group PSA’s recent acquisition of the Vauxhall brand has set about changing all that, and the latest Corsa model rides on a shared platform with the Peugeot 208 – with all the benefits that brings.
The driving experience takes a bound forward, and while it’s still not quite as fun or engaging as the Ford Fiesta behind the wheel, it’s not far off. It’s comfortable too, chasing the class leaders for ride and refinement, and it even looks more stylish – albeit not as eye-catching as its Peugeot sister model.
While the Vauxhall is offered in both petrol and electric guise just like the Peugeot, Vauxhall has opted not to offer the smallest 1.0 petrol engine of its French counterpart, and you can only get auto transmission with the 99bhp version of the 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine. It’s a great choice though, offering smooth changes and a more pleasant experience than the slightly rubbery-feel of the manual six-speed.
An electric Corsa-e model has joined the range for the first time, using the same parts as the Peugeot e-208. While the two cars are very similar, the Corsa’s great value and cheap monthly prices - especially on a lease - are in its favour. In fact, even the electric one can be driven for under £200 per month on a lease deal at the time of writing.
Peugeot 208 and e-208
From a somewhat dumpy-looking also-ran, the latest refresh of Peugeot’s supermini has turned into one of the most eye-catching cars in its class – and a worthy competitor to rivals like the Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio and VW Polo.
The sophisticated styling with sporty grille and ‘fang’ driving lights are matched with an upmarket cabin feel and lots of bang-up-to-date tech including a 3D driver’s display for higher-spec trims. It’s pretty highly specced across the board so there’s no real budget option, but for drivers looking for a classy urban runabout, the 208 has lots to offer.
The eight-speed automatic gearbox is a great choice for this refined and easy-to-drive little car, as the six-speed manual feels a bit rubbery – and anyway, the 208 is set-up more for comfort than sporty driving thrills. You can pick the auto with both 99bhp and 129bhp versions of the 1.2-litre PureTech petrol engine.
Another auto option is the e-208 all-electric version of the Peugeot supermini, which offers all the same appeal from a battery set-up with a 211-mile claimed range and a rapid charging cable that lets you top up with 100-miles worth of juice in 20 minutes.
MINI Cooper auto
The MINI hatch has carved its own niche in the premium supermini sector that rivals can only hope to emulate. Its retro looks and range of personalisation hold plenty of appeal, and as it's the standard-bearer of the BMW Group's front-wheel drive cars, it's been given entertaining handling that lives up to the reputation of both companies.
Our pick of the MINI range is the Cooper, as it delivers all the fun of the Cooper S, but is far better value. The auto box on all the latest MINIs except the high-performance JCW is a dual-clutch Steptronic unit that shifts smoothly and rapidly between its seven-speeds and has paddle-shifters on the steering wheel for fingertip control. The JCW model retains a conventional eight-speed auto box, also with paddle shifters.
Taking away the manual process of changing gears removes some of the enjoyment from the Cooper, and left to its own devices the dual-clutch box doesn’t always know exactly which gear you want to be in. But the paddle-shift allows you to take back control in an instant, so if you're after a stylish and fun supermini which takes the strain out of everyday driving, it's definitely well worth a look.
The other option to consider is the MINI Electric, which has a single speed direct drive transmission that’s effectively just like an automatic to drive.
SEAT Ibiza DSG
We loved the latest SEAT Ibiza when it arrived in 2017 – so much so it won our Supermini of the Year award, in particular, because it introduced much of VW’s latest tech to the class. The Ibiza shares all its key engineering with the VW Polo and Audi A1, and has a seriously grown-up feel – it’s easy to mistake for the bigger SEAT Leon from behind the wheel.
Under the bonnet one of the stars of the show is the VW Group’s three-cylinder 1.0-litre, 114bhp engine, which can be had in the Ibiza mated to the Group’s excellent seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox.
The smooth changing unit is a pleasure to use, and only adds the tiniest of fuel consumption penalties – SEAT quotes 58mpg against 59mpg for the manual. In our book that makes it well worth the extra cost of a little over £1,000, at least for drivers who want a relaxing drive in town or traffic. It’s also good fun if you want to change gears manually and take advantage of the Ibiza’s great handling, which mixes good grip with great body control and a decently comfortable ride. Performance isn’t bad either with 0-62mph in 9.5 seconds, which is only a couple of tenths slower than the manual version, while the 1.0-litre engine feels relaxed and refined at motorway cruising speeds. With the latest VW Group infotainment and safety kit on the Ibiza menu too, it adds up to a great all-round experience.
Audi A1 S Tronic
If the retro looks of the MINI doesn't appeal, then the Audi A1 is your salvation. It offers the same premium quality and personalisation in a package that feels like a proper Audi, even if it shares its running gear with the VW Polo and Skoda Fabia.
That parts sharing stretches to engines and gearboxes, and while Audi brands its auto S tronic, it's the same seven-speed DSG box you'll get in other VW group models, although it's offered on more engines here. The 1.0 TFSI 95PS, 1.0 TFSI 116PS and 1.5 150PS petrols can all be had with it, and it comes in SE, Sport, S line and Vorsprung trims.
The A1 is one of the more expensive superminis around. But it still feels like an Audi inside, with first-rate build quality and plenty of upgrades available. However, keep an eye on the options, because you could easily be spending £30k on a supermini if you're carefree with the options.
What do you think about small autos? Do you own one? Let us know your opinion below...