Best small cars to buy in 2019

30 Jul, 2019 12:29pm Dean Gibson James Howe

Small cars come in all kinds of shapes, if not sizes. Here we highlight ten of 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. They’re cheap, practical, easy to drive on congested modern streets and – as modern superminis and city cars become more sophisticated – can easily stand in for much larger cars as an owner’s only vehicle.

Cars like the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo have come a long way over multiple generations and now are just about as practical, spacious and refined as family cars from a few years ago. Similarly, city cars like the Skoda Citigo boast a remarkable breadth of ability and a dose of big-car character that makes the smallest cars on sale more flexible than ever.

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.

• Best hatchbacks on sale

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 2019

1Ford Fiesta
2SEAT Ibiza
3Skoda Citigo
4Volkswagen up!
5Kia Picanto
6Mini 5-Door Hatch
7Dacia Sandero
8Volkswagen Polo
9Citroen C3
10BMW i3

Scroll down or click on the links above to read more about the best small cars to buy now...

1. Ford Fiesta

Our choice: Ford Fiesta Zetec 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.

Best selling cars in the UK

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 49.6mpg 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.

2. SEAT Ibiza

Our choice: SEAT Ibiza 1.0 TSI SE

The SEAT Ibiza is a former favourite of ours. Due to its well-timed launch (before that of the new Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo) it enjoyed a period where it was King of the Hill for small cars.

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.

Best hot hatchbacks on sale

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. Skoda Citigo

Our choice: Skoda Citigo 1.0 74bhp SE L GreenTech 5dr

As one of the Skoda Citigo, SEAT Mii and Volkswagen up! triplets, the Citigo automatically has fierce competition as all three offer the same great design, surprising amount of space and low running costs. The only major difference between them being the badges…

The Citigo is by no means the most fashionable city car, but it is well proportioned and looks neat from most angles. On top of that, the upright lines and simple detailing mean this car has been designed to maximise interior space.

Best city cars on sale

The 2017 refresh brought LED running lights (standard on SE and above), a couple of vibrant colour choices. To appeal to fun loving customers, there are a range of extras you can opt for, such as sporty stripes and white finished alloys.

Around town the light controls and good visibility work well, and out on open B-roads the agility and eager performance make for a good driving experience. Underneath the bonnet there is the choice of a 59 or 74bhp versions of a 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine. These suit the needs of a small car very well, reaching 62mph from a standstill in 13.5 seconds and returning as much as 53.3mpg (if specced in 74bhp GreenTech trim).

4. Volkswagen up!

Our choice: Volkswagen up! 1.0 75 High 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. 

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. 

5. Kia Picanto

Our choice: Kia Picanto 1.0 GDI 2

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 Hyundai i10, but following a recent facelift the Kia is nicer to 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.

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 and auto-folding mirrors. 

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 is a relatively recent addition, and it 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.

On top of this, the new 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. Dacia Sandero

Our choice: Dacia Sandero 0.9 TCe Ambiance

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.

8. Volkswagen Polo

Our choice: Volkswagen Polo 1.0 TSI 95 SE

The VW Polo stands out with its good driving experience and plethora of on-board tech (including the fantastic Active Info Display). The ride is comfortable, the build is solid and VW has created a great all round supermini.

The Active Info Display, which is offered as an option, replaces the traditional dials behind the wheel with an 11.7-inch screen, which can show sat-nav, speed, and other information you need as a driver.

Best first cars on sale

Based on the MQB platform, the current Polo is lighter, longer and lower than the model which came before – which translates into a bigger boot and more legroom. Inside, a full redesign has seen larger screens introduced.

There are a large range of engines available (including petrol and diesel models), starting with a 64bhp 1.0-litre, and moving all the way up to a 1.5-litre petrol offering 148bhp.

Once more, cars can come with ‘Sport Select’, which includes adjustable dampers to alter the characteristics of the car when using the different driving modes - a feature that helps set the Polo above many of its rivals.

9. Citroen C3

Our choice: Citroen C3 Puretech 110 Flair

A supermini in the same mould as the larger Citroen C4 Cactus, the Citroen C3 is a small car that has been developed with comfort and practicality as top concerns. Outside there’s tough SUV-like styling with trademark ‘airbump’ cladding on some models, while inside the C3 gets wide, comfy seats and a practical, spacious interior.

All engines are relatively economical, but it’s worth picking the most powerful petrol engine for its welcome turbocharged punch. Badged as the 1.2 PureTech 110, the engine is only available on Flair models and above, but is worth the extra over its naturally aspirated alternatives. There’s a decent 1.6-litre diesel too if you plan on doing big mileages.

Elsewhere, the C3 gets a 300-litre boot and well-shaped rear bench that can just about seat three adults.

10. BMW i3

Our choice: BMW i3 120Ah

Recently upgraded with a larger battery, the BMW i3 remains one of the best EVs on sale. The latest version offers an effective range of 193 miles – an improvement of almost 30 per cent over the old model.

Two models are available – a standard car with 168bhp or the sporty i3s with 181bhp. Both offer a combination of modern styling, a sophisticated interior and great off-the-line performance that makes town driving a breeze – and even quite fun. You’ll need to account for charge times – 15 hours for a full charge via a mains supply or just 40 minutes if you have rapid charger access.

That wood-and-leather interior looks great and is a lovely place to spend time, but it’s practical too – good leg and head room is on offer for four occupants, with loads of cubby holes and cupholders spread throughout. The boot is on the smaller side though, at 260 litres.

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.

Buying a new car – your complete guide

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.