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, Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo 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.
The best small cars to buy in 2020
Scroll down or click on the links above to read more about the best small cars to buy now…
1. Renault Clio
Our choice: Renault Clio RS-Line (130PS)
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 three different petrol engines and a diesel, there will also be a hybrid version to choose from in 2020. 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 or a SEAT Ibiza and with the rear seats folded there’s a healthy 1,069 litres available.
2. SEAT Ibiza
Our choice: SEAT Ibiza 1.0 TSI SE
Even though it has dropped a few places since, it is still one of the most technically advanced superminis money can buy, and in addition to being well engineered under the skin, it comes with great connectivity too.
The practicality of the spacious cabin, which is more than capable of transporting fully-grown adults and their luggage, shows that the Ibiza is not just for younger drivers – a fact reinforced by its availability in five-door trim only.
Also, the Ibiza handles like its sporty looks suggest it should, which is always a bonus for small cars. The performance from the little three-cylinder engines is good, and they only find their voice when being pushed hard.
3. Ford Fiesta
Our choice: Ford Fiesta ST-Line 1.0 EcoBoost (100PS)
The latest Ford Fiesta is a formidable small car that sets new standards in the supermini class. Despite some great competition from the likes of the SEAT Ibiza and MINI 5-door, it continues to show why it has been Britain’s best selling car for years.
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 engine line-up is similar to the outgoing model’s – but this is no bad thing, as the 1.0-litre EcoBoost engines (which make up the core of those offered) are cracking units. The power produced ranges from 98bhp to 138bhp, with a 123bhp version nestled nicely in-between.
As both the petrol and diesel engines included in the range are very frugal (the 98bhp EcoBoost petrol can return 50.4mpg 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.
4. Kia Picanto
Our choice: Kia Picanto 1.0 GDI GT-Line
The Kia Picanto is a direct rival to the Citigo above, offering lots of kit and driving experience more akin to that of car from the class above. The Picanto shares much of its mechanicals with the old Hyundai i10, but a recent facelift has improved the Kia’s drive, more comfortable and better built. 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 MINI 3-door from the class above.
The Picantos range is quite long, going from the base-spec ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, GT-Line, GT-Line S, X-Line, X-Line S, Titanium Edition and Zest. 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 7.0-inch infotainment screen with Android Auto and Apple Carplay connectivity, cruise control, auto-folding mirrors and a reversing camera.
5. Volkswagen up!
Our choice: Volkswagen up! 1.0 up!
The Volkswagen up! has been with us since 2011, but a refresh in 2016 has kept the small German car competitive against fierce city car rivals such as the Kia Picanto and Fiat 500.
The standard up! comes with three engine choices; the three-cylinder 1.0-litre petrol engine is available with 59 or 74bhp and there’s a punchy 1.0 TSI turbocharged engine with 89bhp. Beyond that, there’s the up! GTI, which uses a 113bhp version of the TSI powerplant.
All the engines provide more than enough power for the up!’s lightweight body, with the turbocharged unit particularly nippy of lower revs. While it’s better suited to city-driving, the up! also copes with motorway cruising just fine. The 89bhp 1.0-litre TSI engine can reach over 54mpg on a combined cycle with the 59bhp unit only slightly behind, managing a combined cycle just over 53mpg. The non-turbo engine should be popular with new drivers as it sits in insurance group 1.
An all-electric e-up! will be on sale in 2020 with Volkswagen claiming a range of up to 162 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 in the up! so those in need of a central rear seat will be best stepping up to the supermini class. The boot is spacious for a car of this size and almost matches the Hyundai i10’s 252-litre capacity, but it loses out to the Korean car by 87-litres when the rear seats are folded flat.
The elephant in the room with the up! is it’s near-identical siblings, the Skoda Citigo and SEAT Mii – both of which are noticeably cheaper. But the up! offers up a classier image and the interior is unmatched in this segment. 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 and 2019, showing its impressive breadth of abilities that it can compete in the tough small car segment as well.
6. MINI 5-Door Hatch
Our choice: MINI 1.5 Cooper
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 Cooper S and a range-topping, limited edition GP hot hatch above that.
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.
7. Citroen C3 Aircross
Our Choice: Citroen C3 Aircross Feel PureTech 110 S&S manual
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 70.6mpg.
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.
There are three trim levels – Feel, Flair and Origins. The entry-level Feel gets a 7-inch touchscreen, speed limit sign recognition and speed warning. Mid-spec Flair gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard. Origins receives all the same features fitted to the the Flair model with bespoke paint and interior trim.
8. Dacia Sandero
Our choice: Dacia Sandero 0.9 TCe Essential
By far the cheapest car on this list, the Dacia Sandero is a full-sized supermini that’s priced below most city cars. Loosely based on the Mk2 Renault Clio, the Sandero is far 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 0-9-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 four-star safety rating from Euro NCAP, however.
Prices start at under £7,000 but entry-level Access models are particularly spartan and best avoided unless you really don’t need creature comforts like a radio. We’d go for the Essential, which brings more creature comforts but still offers decent value.
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 not just for fuel and insurance, 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.