Top five small cars for 2011

Posted on: 09 March 2011 by Adrian Foster

With recent increases in VAT, fuel and running costs, motoring is not getting any cheaper. But according to motor industry expert Adrian Foster there has never been a better time to buy!

Manufacturers and retailers alike are desperate to tempt you behind the wheel of a new or used car with ‘massive clearance sales’, not to mention tempting offers such as 0% finance, VAT refunds, slashing of VED  (Vehicle Excise Duty) dual fuel engine options and lots more. Earlier this month I even witnessed a Hertfordshire-based Honda retailer offering a customer a new car at cost price, simply in order to hit his manufacturer’s sales target for that week! So, it appears that, for the time being at least, the customer is back in the driving seat.

The small car market is, as it were, the biggest in the UK, and that trend looks set to continue into 2011 on the back of the raft of models set for release - such as the Nissan Micra. With the recent addition of Audi and Aston Martin to an already long list of competitors it’s clear that small cars will continue to expand.

So, here are my top five small family cars including some at the top and bottom ends in terms of budgets and a few of my favourites thrown in for good measure ...

Volkswagen Golf: The nation's favourite

Volkswagn GolfThey aren’t cheap to buy, or to run, but somehow a Volkswagen retains that ‘hewn from solid metal’ feel that you used to get with a Mercedes-Benz. All but the least-powerful petrol versions are fine options, while even the cheapest S specification includes air-conditioning, remote central locking and plenty of safety features. My favourite model is the turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol in match trim, but check out the BlueMotion engine models if fuel economy is a priority. Some rivals offer a little more space in the cabin and boot, but the Golf isn't small and is unrivalled in its winning combination of comfort and control. Build and parts quality are top-notch, while the popularity of the car means resale values remain strong.

Pros: The Golf is refined, well made and comfortable and is fun and engaging to drive. The interior is classy and practical and feels as if it will last forever. Residual values are strong, and every car comes with lots of safety equipment.

Cons: The most basic models in the range don’t have a lot of power or kit and the styling is underwhelming, both inside and out. No longer, then, ‘The People’s Car’ in terms of price or value for money.
Price range: £13,410 - £31,680 Web: Volkswagen Golf

Renault Clio: The spacious choice

Renault ClioThe latest Clio is one of the best small cars around in terms of cabin room thanks to a long wheelbase, which means generous rear passenger space. It's also very refined and comfortable, helped by good noise insulation, quiet engines and a cosseting ride. A maximum five-star Euro NCAP crash rating means it's incredibly safe too.

Cabin quality is much improved over the previous Clio and the design and finish have an upmarket feel that few alternatives can match. The previous generation Clio is still sold as an entry-level version of the model but is now badged as the Clio Campus.

Choose the right one (1.2 Turbo Dynamique TomTom) and the Clio is one of the finest cars in the class. It's quiet, comfortable and classy, yet cheap to run.

Pros: The Renault Clio is quiet, comfortable and nimble to drive as well as classy, practical and safe. Your daughter will want to borrow it all the time.

Cons: Prices could be cheaper and the entry-level versions are a little too basic. The hard dashboard material used on the cheapest cars spoils the otherwise user friendly interiors. There's also a bewildering choice of models and poor resale values.

Price range: £8,595 - £18,535 Web: Renault Clio

Vauxhall Astra Hatchback: The popular choice

Vauxhall AstraThis latest model builds on that strong Vauxhall reputation while adding some much needed refinement and driver appeal. It has a much sleeker appearance than its predecessor, although some would argue that this modification has made it become a bit anonymous.

The cabin is a big step forward with a more upmarket look and feel, while passenger space for those in the back has also increased. Its real forte is long distance cruising, thanks to a superbly smooth and quiet ride, while there's a good choice of economical engines including the low emissions 1.3 CDTi ecoFLEX. It's composed and agile on the move, but the steering is somewhat lifeless, meaning the Astra isn't as enjoyable to drive as some alternatives.

Pros: The Astra looks good inside and out and its cabin is now built from high-quality materials. It’s better at shutting out road noise, too, and the ride is superb.

Cons: It’s expensive to buy and doesn’t hold its value well. The steering is vague, the dashboard ergonomics are a matter of taste and the back seats may be too soft for some.

Price range: £13,995 - £24,845 Web: Vauxhall Astra

Mazda3 Hatchback: The stylish choice

MazdaIt speaks volumes about the quality available in the family hatchback class these days that a car as brilliant and appealing as the Mazda3 doesn't sell in greater numbers. Sharply styled and keenly priced, the Mazda's positive qualities far outweigh any negatives. Entry-level S versions feel relatively basic, while the more expensive TS and Sport models, with their alloy wheels, climate control and upgraded stereos, feel well equipped.

The interior can feel a little dark and claustrophobic, especially in the rear, and there are one or two rather fiddly buttons. Of all the engines, the 1.6-litre diesel boasts excellent economy, although the smooth 2.2-litre diesel is significantly faster. This car has a fresh and funky approach in an otherwise conservative market, the Mazda3 backs up its snazzy looks with a sporty drive, so long as you avoid the 1.6 petrol engine. It’s great value and should prove reliable, too.

Pros: It’s a super-stylish small hatchback that majors on build quality, value and reliability. All 3s are comfortable to drive, with responsive steering and plenty of grip. Equipment levels are high across the range.

Cons: The 1.6 petrol engine has only average pace, and while the ride is firm, there’s a fair bit of road noise. Space in the rear is no more than okay and the cabin is rather dark.

Price range: £14,750 - £23,155 Web: Mazda 3

Kia Cee’d 2: The Wild Card

KiaIt's only three years since Kia launched its European-designed and built range of Cee'd hatchbacks, but despite excellent build quality and even better value for money, Kia remains the Cinderella in the UK market. 

For buyers who think Kia is merely a manufacturer of cheap cars, the Cee'd will come as a real surprise. The styling is neat, it's spacious inside and the interior is modern and well finished. It won't win any awards for driver appeal but it is safe and comfortable with a good range of engines including two excellent diesels.

The jewel in the crown however is the seven-year/100,000 mile warranty which comes as standard and can be transferred to subsequent owners. The second generation Cee'd comes with changes to the exterior styling, improvements to the interior and the introduction of a new economical engine with stop/start technology called ISG.

If you are looking for a well-priced and economical family hatch, the fact that the Cee'd comes with a seven-year warranty should be reason enough. Combine this model's neat drive and highly efficient yet vibrant engine and it's hard to argue any other way.

Pros: Improved appearance, spacious interior, gutsy engines and generous equipment levels. The real pro is the seven-year/100,000 mile warranty.

Cons: It's not as refined or as good to drive as the best in its class. The driving position could be better and re-sale values are still weak despite the guarantee.

Price range: £12,270 - £18,005 Web: Kia Cee

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