SUPERMINIS ROCK. Drive a really good one and you may find yourself considering anything bigger or more expensive as pointlessly profligate. They weren’t always this way, though. Twenty years ago there were no supercool shopping cars made by premium brands such as BMW’s Mini and Audi. And those that did exist — the Ford Fiestas and Renault Clios of their era — were noisy and uncomfortable.
How have they become so good? One reason is that for years it was not superminis but family cars that were consistently the bestselling vehicles, attracting the biggest slice of manufacturers’ investment. Now superminis outsell family cars so more money than ever is being pumped into their development.
As buyers downsize and search for cheaper motoring in the face of rising costs expect the popularity of these cheap-to-buy and cheap-to-drive runarounds to rise further, attracting even more innovation.
1 Mini Hatchback
Look in the hot hatchback and coupé section and you’ll see that the Ford Fiesta ST sits higher up the charts than the Mini Cooper S. But here the roles reverse. The reason is simple: away from the tyre-burning world of hot hatches, the rest of the Mini range is in a different league from its rivals and the car must now stand as the most desirable small hatchback of its time.
Clarkson says … “Even if you’re a 22-year-old girl who works in a nail salon you are buying a Mini because deep down you know its predecessor won the Monte Carlo rally three times”
The Hatch has all the talents you expect in a Mini: BMW build-quality and a funky interior, and the lowered-powered versions are genuinely fun to drive, in some ways more so than the Cooper S, thanks to a new range of characterful three-cylinder 1.2 and 1.5-litre engines. These can generate astonishing numbers, such as those of the mid-range Cooper: top speed of 130mph, less than eight seconds to 62mph and more than 60mpg. This latest Mini also has superb ride quality — something its predecessor lacked. In short, it’s all the pleasure of the old Mini, with none of the pain.
- Price: £13,750-£20,050
- Our pick: Cooper, £15,300
- Engine: 1499cc, 3 cylinders, turbo
- Acceleration: 0-62mph: 7.9sec
- Top speed:130mph
- Fuel | CO2: 62.8mpg | 105g/km
2 Ford Fiesta
Six years after it first went on sale, the latest Fiesta is still vying for the top spot. There are two reasons for this longevity: the sound design it was given when launched in 2008 and a process of continual improvement ever since. This is the affordable car with an answer to everything. It’s good-looking enough to make a fashion statement yet is sufficiently functional to fulfil its primary purpose of being a shopping car. Its brilliant 1-litre engine gives superb performance and fuel economy.
- Price: £9,995-£19,250
- Our pick: Fiesta 1.0T EcoBoost 100PS stop-start 5dr, £15,545
- Engine: 999cc, 3 cylinders, turbo
- Acceleration: 0-62mph: 11.2sec
- Top speed: 112mph
- Fuel | CO2: 65.7mpg | 99g/km
3 Dacia Sandero
How can we ignore a car that costs less than some manufacturers charge to put fancy brakes on their vehicles? Quite easily, if the Dacia Sandero were as bad a car as used to emerge from eastern Europe. The factory might be Romanian but the car is entirely credible. Don’t expect any frills — even a radio is an option on the entry-level Access model — but you will get a well-built car with five doors and good space inside. It’s no rocket ship but if you just want simple, honest, cost-effective transport, Britain’s cheapest car is also one of its best.
- Price: £5,995-£10,345
- Our pick: Sandero Ambiance TCe90, £7,595
- Engine: 898cc, 3 cylinders, turbo
- Acceleration: 0-62mph: 11.1sec
- Top speed: 109mph
- Fuel | CO2: 56.5mpg | 116g/km
4 Volkswagen Polo
The VW Polo is the world’s most sensible car. The ride comfort is good, there is precious little noise on the move, there’s enough space for four adults plus some luggage and it is frugal to own and run. All these things are endearing traits in a supermini.
The reason it falls behind the Dacia is that it’s not great value for money. Also, a Fiesta is better to drive and the Mini puts a smile on its owner’s face in a way that no Polo could ever manage. But if none of that matters to you, this is probably the most obvious choice of any small car on sale.
- Price: £11,100-£19,715
- Our pick: Polo 1.2 TSI 90 SE 5dr, £14,360
- Engine: 1197cc, 4 cylinders, turbo
- Acceleration: 0-62mph: 10.8sec
- Top speed: 114mph
- Fuel | CO2: 60.1mpg | 107g/km
5 Vauxhall Corsa
First, a word of caution about which new Corsa not to buy: many of the cheaper versions of this popular small car will come with suspension and steering that are distinctly lacklustre when deliveries start early next year. Other versions, including the more expensive Limited Edition and SRi VX-Line, will have sport suspension and steering, and they’re great. Make sure you find out which one yours has before buying.
All Corsas offer decent build quality and have more space inside than a Mini or Fiesta.
- Price: £8,995-£16,235
- Our pick: Corsa 1.0 115PS ecoFlex SRi VX-Line stop-start 3dr, £14,460
- Engine: 998cc, 3 cylinders, turbo
- Acceleration: 0-62mph: 10.3sec
- Top speed: 121mph
- Fuel | CO2: 57.6mpg | 114g/km
6 Toyota Yaris
For Relatively spacious; cheap to run; five-year warranty
Against Lacks the fun driving experience of a Mini or Fiesta and the quality of a Polo
7 Citroën DS3
For Funky styling; fun to personalise; supple ride comfort
Against Only available as a three-door; not as good to drive or as well made as a Mini
8 Peugeot 208
For Good looks; quite frugal
Against Rear seats are cramped; poor location of dial above steering wheel
9 Audi A1
For Great looks; classy interior,; good choice of engines
Against It sits on a Polo platform; very expensive; cramped cabin
10 Suzuki Swift
For Stands out from the crowd; peppy engines; fun to drive
Against Drab interior design; not much space inside; quite expensive
Vote for your favourite!
Top 100 Cars 2014 sections
- Introduction by Jeremy Clarkson
- Top 10 4x4s & SUVs
- Top 10 Electric Cars & Hybrids
- Top 10 Supercars
- Top 10 City Cars
- Top 10 Sports Cars & Convertibles
- Top 10 Family Cars & Estates
- Top 10 Superminis
- Top 10 Executive & Prestige
- Top 10 Hot Hatches & Coupés
- Top 10 MPVs
- Driving.co.uk exclusive: Vote for your favourite of Top 100 Cars 2014
- Driving.co.uk exclusive: Used alternatives to the winning cars
Top 100 Cars 2014: the fine print
Top 100 Cars is compiled by Andrew Frankel, Joseph Dunn, Dominic Tobin and James Mills. Prices are correct at the time of going to press; fuel-economy figures are for the combined urban and extra-urban cycle (source: Newspress); electric-car prices quoted include government grants where applicable.