Car choice: Small is the new large

Size isn't everything; not when micro people-carriers work just like tiny buses. James Ruppert picks a pair of prime movers
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The Independent Online

Ash Akhtar, 32, has been happily driving his 1990 G-reg 1.6 Toyota Corolla for more than six years now. It's done nearly 100,000 miles and has never ever let him down. Toyotas are like that. His wife, however, doesn't like driving it as she thinks it's too long and would prefer something higher up so she can see the end of the bonnet. With a budget of about £2,000, Ash is thinking of a reliable five-door runaround. His grandmother is disabled, and needs to be comfy. A reasonable stereo, good fuel economy and low insurance band are desirable.

First of all, much respect is due to Ash for keeping a Corolla on the road for so long, in line with the indisputable benefits of "bangernomics" (running a car the most cost-effective way). However, I can understand the family wanting something with a smaller "footprint", even though the Corolla wasn't that big. A spacious five-door car that's smaller than a Corolla and costs just £2,000? That sounds pretty much impossible at the moment.

I know Ash has considered a Ford Focus, which would of course be much too big, but then going down the Fiesta route isn't the answer either. That's because the rear accommodation is a bit marginal, especially when Gran's needs are considered. Ash needs small but spacious.

The good news is that small automatically means lower running costs. Insurance, fuel economy and servicing all become friendlier. It is important, though, to choose the right small car that is both reliable and practical rather then just being the right size.

It is probably worth thinking about the micro people-carriers that have been imported from the Far East in recent years. Here, you get reasonable rear legroom, a high driving position and plenty of headroom, so these small cars feel more spacious than they are really are.

A car for the head

In the micro people-carrier market, I would pick the Suzuki Wagon R. Small but spacious, it is well-equipped, with twin airbags. The original model built from 1997 to 2000 is the most affordable, and the GL models have power steering as standard, which makes it even easier to drive. And the high driving position gives Ash and his wife a good view of the road and traffic ahead.

Being a Suzuki, there won't be any reliability issues as long as it is serviced properly. The original 1.0-litre model from 1997 is around for less than £1,000 now. It returns 47mpg, but actually the larger 1.2-litre engine is better. The GL specification has an improved stereo system and a few more comforts, and prices start at £1,200.

Even better is the improved 2000-on model with the 1.3-litre engine, with nicer and somewhat softer styling so that it doesn't look like a shrunken bus. Prices for a year-2000 car with 50,000 miles on the clock will be below £2,000, so within budget.

These second-generation cars have the option of four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission. Standard equipment is good, with group 2 insurance. Overall, it should return about 50mpg in general use.

A car for the heart

While the Suzuki Wagon R looks rather like a little bus, the Daewoo Matiz is something different. It's still a good-looking small car in a market where rival city cars often look like little vans and shrunken people carriers but, best of all, the Matiz doesn't disappoint when it's in its element, around town.

It has a very tight turning circle which, combined with light power-steering, means that tight manoeuvring is never a problem. The engines are very eager, and therefore nippy where it matters. It is a tiny car, but in spite of that it rides reasonably well on good-quality roads, and there's almost a sporty roar to the three-cylinder engine.

In the front, there's enough room for driver and passenger, and the driver is usually comfy enough even though neither the steering wheel nor the seat adjust for height. Running costs are usefully low, with fuel consumption of about 45mpg and an insurance group of 2 or 3.

Incredibly, prices for V-plated cars now start at £700. I found some quite low-mileage, privately owned examples at this level. Reliability records have been impressive, too. Considering the budget, a year-2000 SE with 40,000 miles for £1,895 represents great value for money.

Please write to Car Choice, Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or email James Ruppert at, giving your age, address and phone number, details of the type of vehicle in which you are interested, and budget.