Are we seeing the long, slow death of the city car? They may be the smallest cars on the market, but such vehicles have until recently also proven some of the most popular, only outsold by their slightly larger sisters the superminis.
Their popularity has been based on one simple fact – they’re cheap. The typical city car buyer tends to be a young person looking for their first car, or elderly people not needing space to carry the family around, or a second (or third car) for a household.
Traditionally city cars have also been fitted with small, not very powerful petrol engines which, as a result, use very little fuel and produce low emissions figures – so seemingly the perfect choice in these cost and environmentally-conscious times?
Yet over the past three years, city cars have started disappearing – and increasingly rapidly. Car manufacturers appear to be in an unseemly rush to get out of a market that has previously produced some of their biggest volumes. Why? Having decimated other markets such as large family cars (goodbye, Ford Mondeo), are the SUVs that seemingly everyone wants these days now marching all over the city car sector?
Well no, actually, SUVs aren’t to blame the slow demise of the city car – what has turned manufacturers off is the cost of meeting increasingly strict emissions legislation.
City cars in our Expert Rating Index
While city cars and superminis dominated the popularity charts for years, big sales didn’t translate into big profits for their makers. In a hugely competitive market mainly consisting of buyers with limited budgets, they had to be priced to compete, which meant very little mark-ups for their manufacturers.
A few years ago the European Union announced its intention to fine manufacturers who could not achieve average CO2 emissions across their range of 95g/km. All cars on sale had to be modified to have any hope of their makers meeting the targets. And weirdly the rules are most demanding for the small low-powered cars, those producing low emissions anyway, making it tougher, and so more expensive, to modify them.
With the small cars earning very little money anyway, the extra cost of modification made them a far less viable proposition for their manufacturers. Back in 2019, Peugeot boss Carlos Tavares was quoted as saying that all ‘A-segment’ cars would disappear because there would be no profit in them. “Putting the price up makes them sustainable but then younger generations cannot afford them,” he said.
Small cars are also more difficult to electrify. Battery packs and electric motors are expensive, which makes them very uncompetitive in such a price-sensitive market. And hybrids are just as problematic – as well as the cost of a (smaller) battery and electric motor, there’s very little room in which to fit it all in.
So the future looks bleak for the city car, particularly as it’s been made clear that the emissions regulations and penalties are only going to get tougher. Search for new city cars online and you will find many a manufacturer now describing superminis such as the Mazda2 and the Dacia Sandero as ‘city cars’ when they really aren’t.
There still could be some hope for a future revival, however – if someone can invent a very small, very light and very cheap battery pack…
Despite all this there are still come city cars to be had, and good ones too. Let’s have a look at the leading city car manufacturers, and what’s on offer today.
Used to sell: The C1 (above), a joint effort with sister brand Peugeot and Toyota, also producing the almost identical and equally successful Peugeot 108 and Toyota Aygo.
Sells now: Citroën no longer lists the C1, thought you may find one or two still in dealer stock. The brand now describes the C3 as its ‘city car’, which it patently isn’t, and is about to introduce a tiny new electric model called the Ami, which is actually a quadricycle rather than a car. What’s a quadricycle? Well, it has two seats, left-hand drive, a range of just 60 miles and a top speed of 28mph, which means it’s only going to be useful in an urban environment. But, crucially, a quadricycle doesn’t have to meet the same safety regulations that a normal car does.
Used to sell: The Fiat 500, a model that scores on its lifestyle appeal as much as its small-car credentials, and the slightly larger and more square Panda.
Sells now: The 500 is still in showrooms and likely to carry on for a while yet. It now runs a mild hybrid petrol engine, and sits alongside the all-new and fully electric Fiat 500e (above). The ancient Fiat Panda is still around too, also powered by a mild hybrid engine and still available with a 4×4 option. It has a zero-star crash rating, though, so probably best avoided.
Used to sell: The Ka, a curvy city car once famously described as looking like a teapot by Jeremy Clarkson at the UK motor show.
Sells now: No city cars – the Ka, latterly dubbed the Ka+ in its unloved second generation (above), disappeared in 2020. Now the smallest available model is the Fiesta supermini, which has just ben updated – although current waiting lists apparently stretch for months due to ongoing supply problems.
Used to sell: The Jazz, a car that sort of plugs the gap between city car and supermini in the Honda range and has long had a reputation as the preferred transport of the more mature driver.
Sells now: You can still buy the Jazz and it continues to maintain its fan base, but it’s not Honda’s smallest car any more, that going to the quirky, electric but limited-range Honda e.
Used to sell: The i10, launched in 2004 to replace the Atos and scoring on its interior space.
Sells now: Hyundai stills sells an i10 – in fact, an all-new third-generation version was launched in 2020 and is flying in the face of trends, with Hyundai insisting that the little car is still a very important part of the line-up even as it expands its electric Ioniq range.
Used to sell: The Picanto, a city car which is a model not paid a lot of attention to but which should be. Like its sister, the Hyundai i10, the little Kia is one of the most spacious in the class.
Sells now: The current Picanto has been on sale since 2017. It’s powered by a 1.0-litre petrol engine and, at under £12,000, still fulfils the city car aim of being among the cheapest new buys. It’s one of Kia’s global models and thought to have a future with hints of an electric version being produced.
Used to sell: The 108, the almost identical triplet to Citroën’s C1 and the Toyota Aygo.
Sells now: The 108 and sister Citroën C1 have now ceased to exist as the model reached the end of production. The factory was sold off to Toyota to build the new Aygo X (see below), but the joint venture programme for Peugeot and Citroën to take their own new-generation city cars was not renewed.
Used to sell: The Twingo, which passed through three generations – the final of which was a joint venture with Mercedes that also resulted in the Smart Forfour.
Sells now: The Twingo was taken off UK sale in 2019. Renault now offers the Zoe as a city car model which, as a small electric vehicle, is ideally suited to urban driving. However, the Zoe is actually about the same size as the Renualt Clio supermini, so larger than a typical city car. It also has a zero-star safety rating from Euro NCAP, so probably not a good choice if you enjoy living.
Renault is planning an all-electric revival of its famous Renault 5 city car in the next few years, which could share its platform with a budget electric city car from Dacia.
Used to sell: The Arosa – a badge-engineered version of the Volkswagen Lupo was SEAT’s small car until VW stopped making the Lupo in 2004. In 2011 SEAT returned to the market with the Mii, effectively an identical sister to the Volkswagen Up and Skoda Citigo. There was an electric version as well, but it vanished at some point last year.
Sells now: Nothing for the moment, although a rebadged version of the forthcoming Volkswagen ID.1 (see below) could be forthcoming. The smallest car in the range is the supermini-sized SEAT Ibiza.
Used to sell: Like SEAT, the Skoda Citigo was a clone of the Volkswagen Up, first introduced in 2011. Again, there was a short-lived electric version called the Citigo iV.
Sells now: Like SEAT, we may see a Skoda-badged version of the forthcoming electric Volkswagen ID.1. For now, the smallest Skoda is the supermini-class Skoda Fabia.
Used to sell: The Smart Fortwo and Forfour (above) were – as the names suggest – two-seat/two-door and four-seat/four-door city cars. The Fortwo went through three generations, with the most recent being launched in 2014.
The Forfour was re-introduced for a second time in 2014 after the flop of the first version, which was sold between 2004 and 2006 and was basically a rebadged Mitsubishi. The later one shared its chassis with the Fortwo and the Renault Twingo, and proved rather more popular.
Both models ended in 2019 when Smart stopped making petrol-powered cars as part of a range overhaul.
Sells now: You can still buy electric versions of both the current Fortwo and Forfour, although probably not for too much longer as they are both old models and are thoroughly outclassed by newer electric cars.
An all-new small crossover called the Smart #1 was launched in early 2022, and marks yet another fresh start for Mercedes’ perpetually struggling small car company.
Used to sell: The Aygo (above), product of the highly successful tie-up with Peugeot group that also produced the Citroen C1 and Peugeot 108. Toyota’s small car was one of the most popular especially among young, cash-strapped buyers.
Sells now: Toyota replaced the Aygo with the all-new Aygo X, a small crossover. It’s slightly larger and now has a pseudo-SUV style, but it’s basically a fairly convenional city car underneath.
Used to sell: The Viva, a car aimed squarely at low-budget buyers; the Adam, a lifestyle-pitched small car; and the Agila, bridging the gap between city car and small MPV.
Sells now: All three were gone by 2020 and Vauxhall’s smallest car is now the Corsa supermini. Don’t hold your breath waiting for any new city cars.
Used to sell: VW’s city car history includes the oddly-named Lupo and from 2005 the equally uninspiring and Brazilian-built Fox. The Volkswagen Up (above, in GTI spec) launched in 2011, proved far more popular with both critics and car buyers.
Sells now: The Up is still with us – VW took petrol versions off sale in 2019 in favour of the electric e-Up, but then appeared to change its mind, and today both three and five-door petrol models are on the VW website, while the e-Up now seems to have vanished. However the model’s days are numbered, likely to be replaced by a new electric small car, the Volkswagen ID. 1, in 2025 with sister brands SEAT and Skoda potentially offering their own versions.