Dinky car revolution: Why more drivers are swapping their gas guzzlers for cute compacts

There's a terrible secret that the car-makers don't really want you to know about, or at least properly appreciate. You don't need a big car. Not just in the sense that you don't actually need four-wheel drive to nip down to Sainsbury's (as Alexei Sayle pointed out some many years ago), or that you don't need a V12 twin turbo-charged piece of Italian lunacy to nip up the M6 to see your mum (especially given that you shouldn't really be doing more than 70). Or even that you don't need seating for seven in your mega-people carrier when you have a family of four. No: You don't need a big car – and you shouldn't even desire one – because small cars are so fantastically good these days, as well as greener, cheaper to run and easier to park in clogged up streets. The scrappage scheme, the still stratospheric cost of fuel – all contribute to the small car revolution. Perhaps more of us are being persuaded, by attractive design and harder economic times, that, no, we don't need such a large set of wheels as maybe we'd assumed.

At a time when the car industry has had its tyres slashed by the recession, city car sales are powering ahead, double where they were last year and three times their level in the last gasps of the boom, in 2007, while sports car sand SUVs are slumping. Smaller cars dominate the sales charts as never before. Suddenly the Hyundai i10 is the best-selling car in the UK to private buyers, a parking space once reserved for bigger Fords and Vauxhalls. The scrappage scheme has been responsible for some of that buyer enthusiasm for smaller, cheaper models. A discount of £2,000 on the £236,400 list price of a Bentley Brooklands obviously doesn't provide much additional incentive for you to acquire that admittedly impressive personal transport. But £2,000 off the £7,200 cost of a Hyundai i10 or a £6,495 Kia Picanto makes for a more tempting proposition. As you say goodbye to your creaky old motor you are welcomed to a world of manufacturers' warranty and effortless assured reliability. Indeed, in the slightly bizarre event that you traded in a 1980s vintage Rolls-Royce Silver Spur for a Renault Clio you would miss little in the way of creature comforts or much performance, though you'd miss the Flying Lady guiding you down the highway.

Even if you don't take much interest in cars, you cannot have failed to notice the new trendy gorgeous little cars that have been appearing on our roads. We've had the cute little Smart car for a decade now, and the revamped retro Mini for almost as long. But now they've been joined by some notable others – Fiat's reborn 500, the Toyota iQ, Alfa Romeo MiTo as well as a still-fresh looking trio of cars that are basically the same ultra-capable city car underneath – the Citroen C1/Peugeot 107 and Toyota Aygo. Even the G-Wiz, a gawky-looking electric car, is at least a triumph of sorts, a practical green car you can use today.

Back in the real world, new generation models of hatchbacks' such as the Vauxhall Corsa, Ford Fiesta, Honda Jazz and Volkswagen Polo are offering levels of safety and comfort that were the preserve of limos only a couple of decades ago – and with vastly more reliability and resistance to rust. Even carphobes have to admit that these are remarkable feats of design and engineering. You no longer have to rough it in a smaller car, or risk life and limb. You can plug your iPod in and hear the music even when your little car is maxing it. Electric windows are taken for granted now, as are air conditioning and the use of higher quality, more tasteful materials to furnish your cocoon. Even the cheapest small cars on the market come with anti-lock brakes, and most with some level of sophisticated electronic stability control governed by an underbonnet computer with the sort of processing power that was once reserved for Apollo space programmes. Tick the options list and cruise control, rear parking camera, sat nav and much else can all be fitted to your small but perfectly formed package.

But today's small cars don't give that much away to their bigger brethren either. When BMW set out to reinvent the Mini in 2000 they did more than skilfully to reinterpret the famous little car's "design cues". In the old Morris factory at Cowley, renamed BMW Oxford plant, they systematically went about ensuring that their new small car would be built to the same standards as a BMW 7-series saloon, and not suffer from the old bugbears of its much loved predecessor – "Fred Flintsone" rusted out floors, flaky door bottoms and a mud-trap rear subframe that had a life of but a few years. Even the oldest "new Minis" haven't yet started to corrode much. And the average Lexus driver will recognise in another Toyota group product, the iQ, much of the care and quality they are used to in their ultra-solid saloons. Slightly higher up the price bracket, the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and the BMW 1-series try to pull off the same trick. They're too big really to be called city cars, but they also demonstrate the general trend towards downsizing that has attracted even the most prestigious makes.

Indeed, if you really want the ultimate in tasteful surroundings in a dinky package, you may not have to wait that long for Aston Martin's take on the idea – the Cygnet, a reworked Toyota iQ with a hand-crafted interior and an Aston trademark grille (a few Minis were coach-built like that in 1960s and 1970s by the likes of Wood and Pickett for Peter Sellers and John Lennon, a sign of things to come perhaps). Aston Martin know that their customers are usually wealthy enough to own more than one car, and often have a smaller model to tootle around town in. They also know that they need to protect their brand's "equity", so even if you have the requisite £20,000, you can only have one if you already own a "proper" Aston or you order a DB9 or a Vantage. Indeed you could buy one of each, like a set of Louis Vuitton luggage.

Today's small cars are of course usually much bigger and heavier than their forbears, which upsets purists. The new Toyota iQ is, interestingly, exactly the same length as the original Mini designed by Sir Alec Issigonis in 1959. Yet the iQ has less room inside for people and their bits and bobs, and is realistically best thought of as a three-seater. The iQ is also wider than the Mini, perhaps because we're broader then we used to be, but also to aid the car's handling. Both the Fiat 500 and Austin Mini were a fraction of the weight of their modern descendants, and were even grater miracles of packaging – room for four adults at a pinch plus some luggage. But we demand much more safety and convenience today – airbags, crumple zones, air conditioning, bigger, plusher seats, – so the old way of making small cars, a truly minimalist philosophy, has had to be compromised. Even if you wanted to reintroduce the 1959 Mini today you couldn't, because it would comprehensively fail all the crash and pollution tests.

But still, the downsizing trend is clear enough to see. There are other signs of it. Where once 4x4s were all lumbering vast machines, today there is a bewildering range of much smaller vehicles that are almost as good at clambering up mountains (though they are of course rarely called upon to do so). They're classified as crossovers or hybrids, combining elements of the hatchback and the traditional SUV. They have names like Toyota Urban Cruiser, Nissan Qashqai, Kia Soul and Skoda Yeti and, in a few months, Mini Crossover, perhaps the ultimate sign of how even those who want a SUV are bowing to economic and societal pressure to drive something more socially and environmentally acceptable. It's worth mentioning that they'll probably do everything that the car that started the recreational SUV trend, the 1970 Range Rover, was capable of, and, in real terms, for a fraction of the cost.

So the lesson of the great small-car revolution is that we have come a very long way in a very short time. Much of progress that has been made in making small cars so usable and, frankly, respectable a choice of wheels is down to government and EU action – mandatory safety and emission standards, for example. But much else is down to the astonishing ingenuity of the world's car designers and engineers. Despite the speed cameras, congestion charges and extortionate cost of fuel, the motorist has never had it so good when it comes to their choice of wheels. He, or she, is having it large – and small.

Small cars, big successes...


Smart ForTwo

Smallest convertible

Daihatsu Copen

Most fashionable

Fiat 500

Best sellers

Hyundai i10, Vauxhall Agila, Ford Fiesta

Made in Britain

Mini, Nissan Micra, Honda Jazz

Most expensive

Aston Martin Cygnet


Nissan Pixo, Suzuki Alto


Alfa Romeo Mito

Not on sale here

Tata Nano, Daihatsu Basket,

Going too far

The Peel P50, Bond Bug

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvSpoiler alert: It has been talked about for months
Arts and Entertainment
James Hewitt has firmly denied being Harry’s father
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
Sir James Dyson: 'Students must be inspired to take up the challenge of engineering'
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - West Midlands - OTE £35,000

    £27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Area Manager is required to ...

    Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - Yorkshire & Humber - OTE £35,000

    £27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Area Manager is required to ...

    Recruitment Genius: Embedded Linux Engineer - C / C++

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A well funded smart home compan...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Software Engineer - Python / Node / C / Go

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: *Flexible working in a relaxed ...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?