10 best small cars to buy in 2024

25th March 2024
Russell Campbell

Small cars are great if you want a cheap and economical runabout that's easy to park and manoeuvre. Their affordability means they're popular with new drivers but have obvious benefits if you live in town. Sadly, even small hot hatches can be frustratingly expensive to insure if you're a new driver, so while you will find them here, you'll also see cars that can capture your interest for different reasons that won't have alarms going off at your insurance broker. This is Goodwood's guide to the best small cars.


Fiat Panda 100hp

Fiat has mastered the small car better than anyone else, consistently producing small cars that burst with character in a class where nondescript boxes are too often the order of the day. Ironically, the Panda is incredibly boxy, but there's a tightness to its design, which is arm-flailing Italian nonetheless, and the 100hp raises the game with its smart body kit and dinky alloy wheels.

Like the best Italian cars, the 100hp is never happier than being thrashed to within an inch of its tiny little life. Its tiddly 1.4-litre twin-cam has everything you want in an engine, charging towards the red line with an induction bark that could teach some more exotic machine a lesson in engine noise. It's easy to keep the Panda on the boil thanks to its closely stacked six-speed gearbox, and you can carry plenty of speed through corners thanks to its ultra-firm suspension. Used prices start from less than £2,000, but beware, 100hp-specific parts, like the body kit, are hard to come by.


Toyota IQ

If you're a young enthusiast, chances are a used hot hatch sits proudly at the top of your first-car hit list. However, the huge insurance premiums that come with such a machine can harpoon the dream. What to do? Why not choose a genuinely innovative car and revisit the hot-hatch idea a couple of years down the line armed with a no-claims bonus?

The Toyota IQ is the kind of car we're talking about, a clever solution that was arguably ahead of its time when it went on sale in 2008 (although hefty new prices didn't help its cause). Shorter than a Rover Mini but a foot wider, the IQ's front passenger sits ahead of the driver, leaving room for another adult to sit behind. Power comes from a willing three-cylinder that feels quick enough in a car this small and has young-driver-friendly fuel costs.


Renault Clio R.S

The original Renault Clio R.S. can lay claim to being one of the best hot hatches ever made. The Clio weighed just over a ton when safety amounted to now more than a three-point seat belt and an airbag. Yet, it came fitted with a 2.0-litre 16V engine that produced at least 172PS (127kW), enough to get it from 0-62mph in around seven seconds and onto to a top speed that could, if you were brave enough, nudge 140mph. Thanks to wide tyres, sports suspension, alloy wheels and a brooding body kit, it stuck to corners like a limpet and looked the part. Upgrades would come thick and fast, culminating in the 182 Trophy with trick Ohlins dampers that hauled the Clio to an all-new level.

Rust and accidents have claimed many an R.S. Clio, so good examples are getting thin on the ground (the newer but less charming 197 version is cheaper), but you can still get a decent car for less than £5,000.


Ford Sportka

The Ford Ka turned the supermini market upside down when it went on sale in 1996. Sporting the mechanicals of an MK3 Fiesta hidden under Ford's striking New Edge design language, nothing else looked like it, and the big dashboard interior felt far more substantial than period competitors like the Fiat Cinquecento. The best part was how it drove, the Ka showing control and poise that was alien to every other supermini. The only letdown was the ancient 1.3-litre pushrod engine under the bonnet.

The Sportka solved the weedy-engine issue by swapping it for a 1.6-litre that gave you 50 per cent more power and dropped the 0-62mph time to under ten seconds. But the best changes happened to the running gear with lowered suspension, stiffer anti-roll bars and extra bracing, revealing just how good the Ka's chassis was. The Ka's hydraulic steering and snickety gearbox shine a light on just how detached modern hatchbacks have become. Rust is the enemy of the Sportka, but if you can find a roadworthy example, prices start from less than £2,000.


David Brown Automotive Mini Remastered

The small-car driver on a budget probably won't be considering a David Brown Automotive Mini, with prices exceeding £100,000. That's a lot, even if you can afford it, but it doesn't stop us from wanting one. As Singer does for the 911, DBA strokes the classic Mini shape, adding a stunning paint job, bigger wheels and a subtle body kit to a brand-new shell for an OEM++ look that will make every fibre of your being ache with want. And there's more on the inside, where you'll find beautifully tailored (and heavily bolstered) seats, expensive trims and an infotainment screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

You can choose from a range of power plants, including an electric motor, but we'd stick faithfully to the original format. DBA's reworked A-Series is bored from 1275cc to 1.4, releasing 125PS (92kW), meaning this 700kg supermini can scamper from 0-62mph in around seven seconds. This is the money-no-object dream small car.


Volkswagen Up GTI

In a time when hot hatches are getting heavier and more complex, the Volkswagen Up GTI came like a Schmint-enhanced breath of fresh air. Volkswagen got the formula just right. A body kit, alloy wheels, GTI badges and red highlights mean the GTI looks every inch the baby hot hatch, while inside, the company plays on its MK1 GTI pedigree with tartan seats and a golf–ball-knob gear shifter.

While no fireball, the Up GTI is quick enough to have fun in. Its turbocharged three-cylinder packs decent mid-range punch and emits a baby 911 soundtrack that goads you into using every last ounce of performance. Okay, so it doesn't have the engagement of other hot hatch icons on this list, but there's a lot to be said for modern safety and efficiency that can top 60mpg. 


Audi A2

The Audi A2 is another car that makes its way onto this list for being interesting rather than exciting, but it is very interesting. Keen to muscle in on the posh supermini class created by the Mercedes A-Class, Audi threw the kitchen sink at the A2, giving it a spaceframe aluminium chassis that meant some versions weighed less than 900kg – not bad for a five-door supermini that could swallow four adults in relative comfort. It especially wasn't bad because the A2 still felt like an Audi with interior quality that put other small cars, including the Mercedes, to shame.

The fact that the A2 is excellent to drive is of more interest to patrons of this parish. It avoids the understeer that was something of an Audi trademark at the time, feeling light on its feet and eager. It was available with a curious two-cylinder turbodiesel or more conventional four-cylinder petrol, but sadly, we missed out on the 3L model – so-called because it could travel 100km on 3 litres of fuel, equating to more than 90mpg in old money.


Fiat Panda 4x4

This is the second Fiat Panda to feature on this list, but we make no excuses for that because if you want a go-anywhere small car, then the Panda 4x4 is, without a doubt, your best bet. What the Panda lacks in sophisticated four-wheel drive, air suspension, and goodness knows what else, it more than makes up for with its lightweight and manoeuvrability. Let's face it: if you're going to destroy a car offroad, better a £15,000 Panda than a £150,000 Range Rover.

The 4x4 Panda has been around since 1983, but we'd go for the two-cylinder TwinAir model. If you're expecting brilliant fuel economy, then you can forget it. What the twin lacks in frugality, it more than makes up for with fun, producing a putter not dissimilar to a scooter motor with a pillow over its air intake. It's even pretty quick. Prices start from less than £5,000.


Mercedes A-Class

The Mercedes A-Class will forever be remembered for its fateful showing in Sweden's elk test, demonstrating a worrying propensity to tip over during high-speed evasive manoeuvres. Fitting wider tyres, lower suspension and ESP injected the chassis with a newfound stability.

It was supposed to be so different from Merc's revolutionary little hatchback. Its sandwich floor, which hid the engine under your feet, allowing most of the car's length to be dedicated to the wheelbase, meant the A-Class offered E-Class-like rear-seat legroom. Putting a huge crumple zone where you'd usually find an engine also equated to impressive safety. Sadly, the revisions that made the A-Class safe also ruined how it drove, and its eventual replacement was an entirely conventional hatchback. While the A-Class may not have sold in the numbers Mercedes hoped, there is no shortage of examples on the used market, with prices starting from well under £1,000


Renaultsport Twingo

Renaultsport's mastery of the front-wheel drive chassis is legendary. The company's products are often mentioned in the same breath as track-ready specials from Porsche GT, so it's fascinating to think you can have an RS-fettled Renault Twingo for less than £4,000.

Power comes from a 1.6-litre 16V producing 133PS (98kW), which in the 1,049kg Twingo is good for 0-62mph in 8.7 seconds and a 125mph top speed. The chassis is the real treat, though, allowing you to choose between neat-and-tidy corner entry or lairy oversteering depending on what your feet do with the pedals. The standard model gets the comfort-control balance about right, but Cup models deliver near-motorsport levels of body control (though with little semblance of ride comfort). Factor in surprisingly sturdy brakes and red seat belts, and we can't think of a more deserving candidate to top this list.

  • List

  • Road

  • Fiat

  • Toyota

  • Renaultsport

  • Ford

  • Volkswagen

  • Audi

  • Mercedes

  • Renault

  • Panda 100hp

  • R.S. Clio

  • SportKa

  • Up GTI

  • A2

  • A-Class

  • Renaultsport Twingo

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