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Cars & travel.

20 September 2021

Best small cars for 2021

Looking for a great small car? The best are affordable, reliable and easy to drive, yet feel comfortable and secure on longer journeys
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.

If most of your driving is done around town, you may wish to consider a city car. These are the smallest models on the road and typically trade some practicality and long-distance comfort for even smaller dimensions, making them supremely easy to drive in congested city centres.

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.

Regardless of which best suits your needs, you shouldn’t settle for a small or city car that’s unreliable, inefficient or has substandard build quality. You'll find our top recommendations for the best new and used models in the tables below. Plus we reveal the 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 new electric small cars

You don't need to opt for a large car to ditch internal combustion for good. There's a growing number of excellent small EV hatchbacks available, offering great convenience around town. Find out more in our guide to the best electric cars.

  • 72%
    £26000.00

    Unlike its petrol-powered counterpart, this all-electric hatchback can't be penalised for high-emissions, and its high quality cabin and punchy driving experience make it a strong contender as an green, urban runabout. It's a deserved Best Buy, but you will have to consider its relatively small driving range if you regularly do longer journeys.

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  • 72%
    £26150.00

    This EV is near identical to its petrol-powered sibling inside and out. That's no bad thing, as it has eye-catching styling and one of the best interiors in the small car class. Rear passenger space is tight and the ride isn't the plushest, but otherwise it's difficult to fault.

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  • 68%
    £30087.00

    This premium manufacturer’s first attempt at an electric hatchback is impressive. It has decent range and performance, and an upmarket feel. It’s also nippy, with a tight turning circle, and is a treat to drive in town. A range extender hybrid version was originally available for those who regularly travel further afield, though all new models are battery electric only.

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  • 63%
    £22236.00

    This electric hatchback offers a decent driving range for an affordable EV supermini. On top of that it's also very pleasant to drive, with peppy performance and a reasonably comfortable ride.

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The best new hybrid small cars

If an electric car doesn't fit into your motoring lifestyle, a hybrid model could reduce both your fuel bills and your carbon footprint, compared with a conventional petrol or diesel model.

  • 75%
    £19021.00

    This supermini makes a strong case for itself as an urban runabout. Not only is it very fuel-efficient, it feels well made and comes with all the essential safety and comfort technology fitted as standard.

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  • 74%
    £17790.00

    The latest iteration of this impressive small car comes as a hybrid only, which provides decent fuel economy, if not the most refined driving experience. Regardless, its ease of use and tremendously practical interior - which is fitted with plenty of kit as standard - make it a deserved Which? Best Buy.

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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.

This is especially true of city cars, of which some can only comfortably carry four passengers – and even then they may not want to be there for very long.

Some manufacturers see the small car moniker as a practicality challenge, adding creative storage solutions and smart folding seats. But other manufacturers see it as an excuse, creating cars with small, 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. While small and city cars are designed for urban use, they shouldn’t leave you struggling to get up hills at motorway speeds. If the engine can't manage this, then you'll be moving up and down 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.

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

Small cars to avoid

  • 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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  • 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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  • 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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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 (Autonomous Emergency Braking) – 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. City cars often fall foul of this as their low prices often prohibit the inclusion of active safety technology.

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.

Small cars haven’t been neglected in the switch to sustainable mobility. There are several excellent hybrid and electric models that could severely reduce your running costs, particularly around town.

However, if you're planning to venture beyond the city limits, you may find that a less powerful 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.

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 in terms of insurance risk, so choose carefully.

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.

Are small cars practical?

The modest dimensions of small cars doesn't necessarily 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.

Even if you need to carry children in child car seats, you can get away with a small car. Most models are five-door and come with Isofix points for easy and secure seat installation.

You're unlikely to be able to fit a child seat in the centre rear seat, though, as the seat base is usually too small. 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.

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.