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Car buying tips

How to buy the best small car

By Martin Pratt

Article 1 of 11

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How to buy the best small car

A small car can still be practical. Our expert buying guide will help you make sure only the right cars make it onto your shortlist.

Buying a small car doesn't have to be tricky. But with dozens of models available, from the spartan to the sumptuous, it's can be more complicated than you might expect. Read on to find out what to look for. 

To see the small cars that excelled in the Which? test lab check out our best small cars page.

1. Downsizing? It's not just about the Audi A1 and Mini

If you’re used to a large car and want something smaller that still offers similar levels of quality, the Audi A1 is currently one of the best picks in the small car class.

However, like its premium rival the Mini, models lower down the trim-level hierarchy can be surprisingly ill equipped, so you could end up spending a lot of money on options to get the specification you desire.

Plenty of less fashionable (though just as worthy of consideration) small cars, like the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo, can be specified with gadgets such as sat nav, MP3 connectivity and other kit at a lower cost.

2. Running costs are key

Small cars are generally cheap to run, but eco-branded models, which usually feature more aerodynamic bodywork and low rolling-resistance tyres (requiring less energy to turn), can be especially frugal. Popular examples include the Seat Ibiza Ecomotive and VW Polo Bluemotion.

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

3. Beware of entry-level models

Most carmakers build a super-basic version of each car that can be touted at a low price, to appeal to fleet buyers and to simply get people into showrooms. In reality, entry-level models are rarely equipped well enough for most people's needs, so it's worth considering exactly what equipment you'll need and what you can live without, to get a realistic idea of the price you'll need to pay.

4. Mini and Fiesta best for driving fun

Opting for a small car needn't mean you should forget any ideas of having fun behind the wheel. Small cars, particularly the likes of the Mini and Suzuki Swift, are amongst the most engaging cars for drivers currently available, and all without the larger running costs and impracticality of a purpose-built sports car.

Buyers interested in driving dynamics should also consider the Ford Fiesta ST and the RS version of the current Renault Clio, though be aware these performance-orientated models will be among the highest fuel consumers and CO2 emitters in their respective ranges.

5. Reliability is high

The Which? Car Survey has shown that small cars tend to be more dependable than large cars, perhaps due to them having fewer things to go wrong. As an added bonus, parts and repair bills will also be cheaper. However, there’s still a big difference between the best and worst in class.

6. Would you be better off with a city car?

If most of your driving is done around town, you may wish to consider a 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, and they're normally equipped with frugal three-cylinder engines, which will likely lower both your fuel and annual road-tax bills. Worth considering in this class are the VW Up!, Kia Picanto and Toyota Aygo.

7. Child car seats welcome

Small cars might not make ideal family transport, but nearly all models are available with five doors and most now come with Isofix mounting points on outer rear seats, meaning you needn't necessarily trade up to a bigger car to transport your children.

8. Is it 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. While the class is becoming increasingly safe in general, cheaper versions of some models are missing basic technology like electronic stability control (ESC), including the Fiat Panda and Suzuki Alto, among others.

9. Don’t assume small cars are impractical

The smaller size of small cars doesn't mean they will prove impractical as family cars, with many, such as the Skoda Fabia, offering 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, Renault Clio and Seat Ibiza, as well as the Mini Clubman.

10. 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, but older non-turbo motors - usually fitted to the cheapest models in the range - are still available and are usually best avoided, unless a low purchase price is your ultimate concern. Check out the performance ratings in our small car reviews, and always test drive your desired car on a variety of roads before you buy.

For the lowdown on hundreds of new and used cars read our expert reviews.