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Cars & travel.

3 August 2021

Best small cars for 2021

Looking for a great small car? The best small cars are affordable, reliable and easy to drive, yet feel secure on a motorway
Daljinder Nagra
Best small cars 1

The best small cars are loved by their owners. And for good reason: they're compact enough to be easy to drive in town and just large enough to be comfortable on long-distance trips. 

Plus they're affordable to buy and run, and practical so they cope well with everyday duties. From shopping and the school run, to ferrying around friends or even a daily commute, the best small cars are up to the job.

You'll find our top recommendations for the best new and used small cars in the tables below. Plus we reveal some small cars that you should avoid.

Only logged-in Which? members can view our recommendations below. If you’re not yet a member, join Which? to get instant access to our best small car reviews.

The best new small cars

  • 73%
    £16112.00

    It’s getting larger with every successive generation, but there’s no doubting this remains an entertaining and high quality, premium small car. High emissions in our tests, which are more stringent than official ones, prevent it from being a Best Buy.

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  • 69%
    £15484.00

    This small five-door hatchback is well made, with a high-quality interior and classy exterior design. It's roomy up front, fun and economical to drive, and comes with plenty of standard equipment. Rear passengers will be a tad cramped, though.

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  • 67%
    £17865.00

    Lots of small cars appeal to the heart with cutesy styling and endless customisation. This supermini appeals to the head, instead. It may not have the most exciting interior (though we're fans of the sharp exterior styling), but it does have a decent amount of passenger space and is engaging to drive. It doesn't quite make the grade as Best Buy but is still worth a look.

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The best used small cars

There are many exceptional small cars out there available to buy used - make sure you avoid the duds by choosing one of the top-performers below.

  • 72%
    £4886.00

    This small hybrid hatchback has all the practicality and ease of use of the standard combustion version, but with much-improved fuel economy. If you’re an urban driver, expect to make significant savings. It’s also one of the easiest small cars to get into and out of, and very reliable as it ages.

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  • 72%
    £6777.00

    Performance and handling are the name of this small coupe’s game. It’s also returns decent fuel economy. It's a Which? Best Buy, but the odd-shaped boot and cosy cabin limits overall practicality.

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  • 70%
    £3202.00

    This is a really good small car choice and gets most things spot on. It's a Which? Best Buy. Its used model reliability is also particularly strong.

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  • 70%
    £5254.00

    This supermini is a firm favourite with Which? members, and it’s now topped the satisfaction rankings for small cars. Aside from low running costs, it impressed with its quality, refinement and comfort. It also delivers on the practicality front, with a unique rear folding seat system.

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  • 67%
    £2571.00

    This model's popularity is not without reason. This is amongst the most well-rounded small hatchbacks available. It doesn't just do the day-to-day stuff well, either. It's an absolute riot to drive, no matter which version you choose.

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Not found the car for you? Click to jump straight to all our small car reviews

What to avoid when buying a small car

Small cars are, well, small, but that doesn't mean they need to feel cramped. We've found models that are deceptively spacious with more legroom than you would expect from the outside. That said, we've found cars that are a tight squeeze for two occupants, let alone five. 

Some manufacturers see the small car moniker as a challenge, adding creative storage solutions and smart folding seats. But other manufacturers see it as an excuse, creating cars with puny, badly-designed boots with high lips that make them difficult to load. 

Being smaller and lighter than most cars doesn't mean a low-powered engine will suffice. Our testing has uncovered engines that struggle to get their cars going. The city car excuse of being designed for only driving around town doesn't hold water with small cars. 

They should be as comfortable on a motorway as they are weaving down narrow streets. If the engine can't manage this, then you'll be moving through the gears too often to maintain your speed.

Finally, no matter how small a car is, there is no excuse for it to be unsafe. Our independent testing has uncovered cars that have sub-standard crash safety. This includes one popular model that we've made a Don't Buy.

Below, you'll find three of the worst small cars we've tested. These models shouldn't be considered, no matter how tempting the price tag.

Small cars to avoid

  • 45%
    £13009.00

    This isn't the sharpest city car to drive, nor the most commodious or comfortable. Its fashionable charm and low running costs have proved very popular, but poor crash protection seals its fate as a Which? Don’t Buy.

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  • 45%
    £12956.00

    There's plenty to like about this small hatchback: it's well equipped, spacious and looks good. Unfortunately in its standard trim it comes without any desirable active safety tech, which reduces its safety score to the point we can't recommend it.

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  • 38%
    £17465.00

    The Smart EQ Forfour might seem the ideal tool for nipping around town, but in reality it's very cramped, has a limited battery range and isn't what you'd call comfortable. One to avoid.

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  • 6%
    £11645.00

    It might be spacious and reasonably practical for its size, but there’s very little else to recommend about this small hatchback. It’s been on sale for far too long, and has fallen way behind the times, particularly in terms of safety. It’s one of the lowest scoring cars we’ve reviewed – avoid like the plague.

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How to buy the best small car

Whether you're downsizing or looking to save money on running costs, we'll help you navigate the journey of buying a small car so you can find the best one for you.

Are small cars cheaper to run?

Small cars are generally cheap to run. But if you’re particularly concerned about running costs, consider fitting low rolling-resistance tyres, which require less energy to turn. Opting for the smallest wheels possible will also minimise the energy needed to get your car going.

Fuel bills may be low, but don't assume that insurance for small cars will also be cheap. Higher performance versions of the Mini, for instance, are ranked as high, or even higher, than some BMW 3 Series models.

To minimise the potential for high insurance premiums, choose a model fitted with autonomous emergency braking (AEB). This reduces the likelihood and severity of low-speed collisions and cars fitted with it can normally be insured for less.

Are small cars reliable?

Choose your small car carefully. Based on our latest reliability survey, this car class has a good sprinkling of unreliable models – including one model where almost 60% of owners in our survey had to take their car to the garage. 

However, it's also home to the most reliable used model. So make sure you know which cars you can rely on, and which you can't. We only recommend reliable cars.

Would you be better off with a city car?

If most of your driving is done around town, you may wish to consider a smaller city car. While they normally don't offer quite as much interior space, their smaller external dimensions make them more manoeuvrable and easy to park. 

They're normally equipped with frugal three-cylinder engines, which will likely lower both your fuel and annual road-tax bills. Plus city cars can offer fantastic value for money, provided you pick the right model. Through our lab and road tests we've discovered city cars with sub-par safety and rough, dirty engines.

We'll help you work out which supposed bargains are the real deal, with our independent expert reviews - see the best city cars.

Can you fit a child car seat in a small car?

Small cars might not make ideal family transport, but nearly all models are available with five doors and most now come with lsofix mounting points on outer rear seats. 

So you needn't necessarily trade up to a bigger car to transport your children. 

Whatever car you choose, make sure your child's car seat is a Best Buy. Our independent crash tests have uncovered child car seats that will put your child at risk. See our best child car seats.

Are small cars safe?

Small cars are inevitably built to a price – but there's no excuse for car manufacturers to skimp on safety equipment to keep costs low. 

We've found that cheaper versions of some models are missing active safety technology, such as AEB – without this it’s now near impossible to get a full five-star Euro NCAP crash safety rating. 

We automatically class any car that gets three stars or less a Don’t Buy car.

Don't assume small cars are impractical as family cars

The modest dimensions of small cars doesn't mean they will prove impractical as family runabouts. 

Many, such as the Skoda Fabia, offer a spacious boot thanks to clever packaging. Others such as the Honda Jazz have innovative interior storage solutions, such as clever rear seat bases (named 'magic seats' by Honda) that flip up to create a large vertical load space. 

Don't forget that some small car models are available as an estate, including the Fabia and the Mini Clubman.

Why you should consider a newer, turbocharged engine

If you're planning to venture beyond the city limits, you may find that a smaller petrol engine runs out of puff on faster roads, on steep inclines or when the car is fully loaded.

Most manufacturers are making their smaller engines more powerful and efficient with turbos. Older non-turbo motors (usually fitted to the cheapest models in the range) are still available and are usually best avoided, unless a low price is your ultimate concern.

When we test cars, we look at in-gear acceleration and see how well a car accelerates. This simulates moving to a faster lane on the motorway or overtaking a slow-moving vehicle on a country road. 

You should always test drive your desired car on a variety of roads before you buy. Plus use our small car reviews to choose a model that excels in our tests.

We test cars more thoroughly than anyone else

Our tests go further than those carried out by other organisations, and because Which? is independent, you can trust our reviews to give you the full, honest and impartial truth about every car we test.

Every car we review is subjected to more than 100 individual tests in a lab, on a test track, and on real roads – and we really clock up the miles, driving around 500 miles in every car we test.

Testing in controlled lab conditions means the results we collect are directly comparable between different cars, helping us determine exactly which models are better and why, and helping you find the perfect car for your needs.

And, so you know which cars are likely to prove reliable for years to come, we also gather feedback from thousands of UK car owners through the Which? Car Survey, using it to generate detailed reliability ratings for the cars we test.

To take the guesswork out of choosing your next car, join Which? and you'll receive access to all our expert reviews and advice.