You might not believe it, but city cars such as the Volkswagen Up, Ford Ka+ and Fiat Panda could well be facing extinction. It’s not a lack of interest from buyers that looks set to cause their downfall, but new exhaust-emission legislation from the European Union, which – somewhat ironically – has hit tiny cars harder than it has bigger, thirstier ones.
You might find this unfair, perhaps even controversial – and you wouldn’t be alone. City cars after all sell mostly to young and old people; few of them wealthy.
WHAT IS A CITY CAR?
At about 3.5 metres in length, a city car falls into what the industry refers to as the ‘A-segment’. They have adhered to the same formula for years – that being they are small, lightweight, and cheap to buy and run. What has changed is that the latest city cars bring modern safety and environmental standards to buyers who might not otherwise consider a new car.
As far as sales go, city cars represent about eight per cent of Europe’s new car market and up to 15 per cent in Italy, where tiny cars are incredibly popular on their narrow ancient city streets.
EXAMPLES OF CITY CARS
Well-known examples of city cars include the aforementioned Up, Ka+ and Panda, as well as the Renault Twingo, Fiat 500, Toyota Aygo and its spin-offs, the Peugeot 108 and Citroen C1. There’s also the Vauxhall Adam, Hyundai i10, Kia Picanto and the Up’s spin-offs the Skoda Citigo and Seat Mii.
Each one is a miracle of mass production, every part of the process in alignment and pulling together: purchasing, engineering, planning, marketing and manufacturing. It’s the type of thing that Japanese firms are good at and it’s interesting that only Toyota has expressed any enthusiasm for continuing to make this size of car.
“We see a very bright future for the Aygo,” said Matthew Harrison, vice-president of Toyota Motor Europe, in autumn 2019. “We might be on our own, but Aygo volume and segment share continues to grow. It’s a profitable business equation for us – they’re the youngest customers we have; [Aygo] is often their first car.”
WHAT’S CAUSING THE PROBLEM?
Carlos Tavares, boss of PSA, which owns Peugeot, Citroen, Vauxhall and DS Automobiles, points out it’s not the cars that are the problem, but their low weight relative to emissions. “You need to look at the way the CO2 legislation structure is written; the lighter the car, the more demanding the CO2 regulation, so small cars are very demanding on CO2.”
Perhaps the most obvious way to fix this would be to swap the internal combustion engine for an electric motor. While that’s a solution in theory, it’s not so simple, or cheap. Tavares points out that a battery pack can represent 70 per cent of the cost of an A-segment vehicle, which means it has to sell for a high price. This, in turn, alienates precisely the kind of buyers that city cars are designed to appeal to.
For evidence of the kind of price increases switching to electric power can bring, look at the Skoda Citigo. Choose a petrol model and you’ll pay between £9,000 and £12,000. The all-electric Citigoe iV (pictured above), on the other hand, starts from £17,000. So not even Skoda, with its value-oriented pricing strategy, can achieve anything like price parity at this point in time.
Clearly then, while switching to battery power is an option, it’s going to alienate a lot of city car buyers.
10 OF THE BEST CITY CARS YOU CAN BUY TODAY
Whether or not this will all represent the end for the city car class is hard to say. But if you want to experience just how good this class of car can be, we’ve picked out 10 of the very best, from the original Ford Ka to our reigning used city car of the year, the Hyundai i10.
VW UP/SKODA CITIGO/SEAT MII
The Up/Citigo/Mii are among the sweetest and most sophisticated city cars to drive. Although they adhere to the same lightweight, cheap-to-run philosophy as other city cars, they feel more upmarket inside and can cope admirably with motorway mileage. Those seeking a sporty take on the city car formula should look to the Volkswagen Up GTI (pictured above), which uses a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder turbocharged engine that pushes out 114bhp.
Search for a used Volkswagen Up on CarGurus
CITROEN C1/PEUGEOT 108/TOYOTA AYGO
The C1, Aygo and 108 are, apart from some bodywork changes, the same car. Built since 2005, they shared the same Toyota-developed, three-cylinder engine, though for the facelift in 2014 the Citroen C1 gained the option a 1.2-litre naturally aspirated three-cylinder engine sourced through the PSA Group. All the cars share the same underpinnings, bargain-basement running costs and vivacious ride and handling.
Search for a used Toyota Aygo on CarGurus
Toyota’s best-ever city car, the iQ was sold in Europe between 2008 and 2015. It’s a three seater plus one (a small child), almost three metres long on a two-metre wheelbase. It weighs just 860kg and is pretty good to drive, though the engineering was simply stunning; even the tiny heater unit fitted into the asymmetrical dashboard is a thing of great beauty. They’re rare, don’t come up that often and can be pricey. But wow, what a cool thing.
Search for a used Toyota iQ on CarGurus
The Vauxhall Adam was a Corsa-based, German built three-door city car launched in 2012. Its appeal lay mainly in its highly configurable specification; with almost a million combinations of interior trim and exterior specification, this was soft furnishing on wheels. Unfortunately, WLTP exhaust emissions requirements spelled the death knell for this little car, which had only ever sold in modest numbers.
Search for a used Vauxhall Adam on CarGurus
Thanks to a tie up with Mercedes-Smart, the third-generation Twingo is a rear-engined, rear-wheel drive city car with a highly efficient cabin. It’s also pretty good to drive, easy to park, and has an absurdly small turning circle. The 999cc engine is lively enough in such a lightweight car, and second-hand values look very attractive.
Search for a used Renault Twingo on CarGurus
FIAT PANDA 4X4
Launched in 1980, the fact that the Panda is now only in its third generation says as much about the economics of tiny car production as any other statistic. The Panda is small, fun, economical, reasonably spacious and classless. None more so than the 4×4 version, which since its introduction in 1983 has been the bête noir of big heavy SUVs which would struggle to follow the Panda when the going gets rough.
Search for a used Fiat Panda on CarGurus
Launched in 1996, the original Ka proved a favourite amongst the young and old. Small wonder for it was engineered by the same team that bought you the Focus, a car renowned for its brilliant dynamics. That original Ka lasted far longer than Ford thought possible with a sports derivative and even a convertible joining the fray. While these cars suffer from corrosion and some horrible engine options, they are good to drive and arguably even verging on future classic status.
Search for a used Ford Ka on CarGurus
The Suzuki Ignis was first launched in 2000 and was sold all round the world. It came with a variety of engines and there was and still is a four-wheel drive derivative. Suzuki even campaigned the three-door Ignis Sport in the 2002 World Rally Championship. The latest Ignis went on sale in 2016 and unlike previous versions there’s only one engine offered, an 89bhp 1.2-litre with the option of a mild hybrid system. It’s a quirky and likeable car.
Search for a used Suzuki Ignis on CarGurus
In its current third-generation form, the Kia Picanto an attractive city car, with a good spec and a seven-year warranty. Two engines are offered: a 66bhp, 1.0-litre three cylinder, and a 99bhp 1.25-litre four cylinder. Although it’s a reasonably spacious car, the Picanto’s ride isn’t terrific and the driving position with rake-only adjustment on the steering will be problematic for some drivers.
Search for a used Kia Picanto on CarGurus
The Hyundai i10 is the reigning CarGurus used city car of the year. For that thank its combination of interior space, value for money, and its five-year warranty. We also noted that it feels like a grown-up car to drive, with good ride quality and the option of a proven four-speed automatic gearbox. With an all-new model about to arrive in UK showrooms, prices for the outgoing i10 are likely to look even more attractive.
Search for a used Hyundai i10 on CarGurus
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