The future of small cars
Small cars have been the bedrock of Britain’s car-buying habits for decades. Our tight towns and cities, and narrow lanes mean these compact models are a perfect fit for many motorists. But small cars are a big challenge for manufacturers. They’ve always been among the hardest models on which to make a profit, as customers and legislators have demanded more ‘big-car’ features, with little or no increase in price.
So do small cars have a future as the world turns towards costlier electric cars, safety standards insist on more technology and car makers look to maximise their profits? Many manufacturers simply do not think they can make these cars at a price that the potential customer wants to pay for them.
Some brands are getting out of the sector imminently, some are ready to sell you a small EV right now and others are planning to introduce them by 2025, by which time incoming EU7 emissions rules could make small combustion-engined cars more expensive than EVs anyway.
Read on below as we take a look at all the brands that currently make small models and explain where they’ll be in the future…
Abarth takes Fiat’s 500 and turns it into a hot compact model – and that’ll continue in the EV era. CEO Oliver Francois told us: “Abarth is 500, and the current 500 is born electric – and then there are other models coming [from Fiat], so Abarth will have a derivative of one of those.” He also said the Abarths will boast typically extrovert styling.
The most recent small car from Alfa was the MiTo supermini, but thanks to platforms and engines from new parent group Stellantis, the brand is heading back to the B-segment in a different way. It’ll launch a fresh small SUV – a sister car to the Peugeot 2008 and the next Citroen C3 Aircross – in late 2023. It will be available with combustion engines, but may be offered only as an EV in the UK.
As it charges towards an all-electric future, Alpine is pulling in resources from lots of areas. It has a sports car in the works with Lotus, but at the bottom of its line-up will be a hot version of Renault’s reborn 5. The fast EV should have a front-mounted 215bhp electric motor, giving it greater performance.
In the short to medium term, Audi is perhaps the most high-profile brand to abandon small cars altogether. Faced with tightening emissions rules, it no longer thinks it can make money out of compact cars, so the current A1 and Q2 are unlikely to be replaced. Further ahead, it’s conceivable that Audi could make a small pure-electric car, but it’s interesting that the firm has already ruled out joining VW, Cupra and Skoda to develop a car on the upcoming MEB Entry small-EV platform.
BMW was one of the earliest brands to explore small EVs with its i3. But that car has just gone out of production, so when it comes to small, sustainable electric cars, the firm’s i Vision Circular concept is particularly interesting. Built to showcase BMW’s interpretation of a 2040 hatch, it represents what we might see from the company in a few decades. In the meantime, it’ll launch the X1 and iX1 crossover pair later this year.
With promises from the Spanish brand of go-kart-like handling, Cupra is really turning up the heat on its UrbanRebel, having refined the original, outlandish concept to something around 95 per cent production-ready. Set to go on sale in 2025, it looks the part, and with the concept’s 213bhp motor giving a 0-62mph time of 6.9 seconds, it should have show to match the go – which will be around 270 miles on a full charge.
Executives keep saying that Europe’s cheapest EV is “under consideration” for the UK – but those in the know say the Spring is all but certain to make it here, although not before 2024. The zero-emissions small SUV is shorter than many city cars, at just 3.7 metres, and has a mere 44bhp and a modest 27kWh battery. But it also weighs less than a tonne and is capable of more than 140 miles between charges. It could cost as little as £15,000 when it arrives in UK dealers.
Several premium brands are getting out of the smallest car segments, but DS boss Beatrice Foucher recently told us that the French manufacturer remains committed. As such, there will be a successor to the DS 3 Crossback. Given that the range includes an all-electric version, the existing model could last for a while yet. A new-generation model built on Stellantis’s STLA Small platform could arrive in 2025.
Fiat’s goal within the Stellantis group is to focus on city cars up to family hatchbacks. The relaunched 500 has been a success, and now the Italian brand is working on a string of small models using Stellantis tech. They’ll be based on the pared-back, ultra-practical qualities of the Panda, showcased by the Centoventi concept in 2019. Expect a boxy baby hatchback plus a ‘Panda SUV’ – which will potentially be called Punto.
One of the biggest players in small cars is having a serious rethink, as Ford looks to move away from low-margin superminis in its switch to electric mobility. The firm has already confirmed that there will be a pure-electric version of the current Puma, but there’s no word yet on the future of the Fiesta. The famous badge could end up on a small car sharing parts with commercial vehicles, but it could also vanish altogether.
Honda is on an electrification charge, but that doesn’t necessarily mean full-electric. Its hybrid Jazz remains a practical and pragmatic supermini, while the Honda e offers something different when it comes to styling. However, a limited range means this model might feel the pressure from a raft of new all-electric city cars and superminis.
Korean giant Hyundai remains committed to smaller vehicles – but it’s working hard on plans to make more of them electric. That’s likely to mean longer shelf lives for existing combustion-engined cars like the i10 and i20, which will have to last until all-electric models are affordable enough to replace them. The same can’t be said for the Kona, offering a choice of hybrid systems along with pure electric; a new version of Hyundai’s baby SUV will arrive in 2023.
Jeep’s US-centric model line-up hasn’t always worked in other regions, but that’s set to end over the next few years, notably when Jeep gets a baby SUV related to the Peugeot 2008 and Vauxhall Mokka. We’ve already been given a preview of the new model’s looks via a concept, which sports plenty of chunky Jeep styling cues.
By rights, Kia should be preparing to replace its Picanto; the current car has been on sale since 2017, and the company operates quicker model cycles than many of its rivals. But the city car looks set to get a stay of execution, possibly to the end of 2023 or even beyond, as the Korean firm tries to get a pocket-sized all-electric model, likely to be called EV1, to market at a sensible price.
Mazda has an unusual approach to small cars; the firm still sells its self-developed 2, but the 2 Hybrid is a rebadged Toyota Yaris. Mazda is said to be working on a new generation of 2, due in 2024; it’s likely to be offered with its own mild-hybrid tech and possibly as a range-extender EV.
Of all the premium brands, Mercedes is undergoing the biggest transformation, as the firm moves further upmarket, where it can make more money on every vehicle. That will probably mean the end of models like the A-Class and B-Class, as sub-brand Smart moves into this area of the market.
Chinese-owned MG majors on affordability, and an all-electric family hatch in the form of the MG 4 will add a far cheaper VW ID.3 rival to its range. Of course, there’s the ZS EV small SUV too, but whether the firm will offer a fully electric version of its MG 3 supermini in time remains to be seen.
While there will be a petrol-powered version of the next-generation MINI, the EV will move to an all-new platform. The EV is set to go on sale later this year with two battery options. This new MINI represents the brand’s future foundations because, focusing on small cars by nature, there’ll also be a new electric crossover to occupy the space left by a new, larger Countryman.
Following Alliance partner Renault, Nissan will axe its pure-combustion Micra and replace it with a funky-looking EV based on the same platform as the French firm’s upcoming R5 model. That means cutting-edge EV engineering and fresher styling, as our exclusive preview image shows.
While Citroen will move its C3 supermini onto the evolution of Stellantis’s CMP/e-CMP platform to make it more affordable, Peugeot has been building hatchbacks on the first generation of this architecture for years. However, it’s not known if the 208 and e-208 will move onto this new tech or whether Peugeot will hold out for Stellantis’s STLA Small platform for the next versions.
As poster boy for the Renaulution plan, the Renault 5 Prototype looks superb. It caught VW on the hop too, with an all-new EV platform that will deliver a usable range of up to 250 miles. Best of all, bosses have said that the R5 will cost 33 per cent less than the Zoe when it goes on sale in 2024. That was from around £17,500 when first announced, but inflation could see that rise.
SEAT’s Ibiza and Arona have both been facelifted in the past 12 months, so expect them to run for at least another couple of years. That’s probably for the best, because attention is now fixed on getting Cupra’s UrbanRebel to market. SEAT, which has to operate at a lower price point, is likely to have to wait until the middle of the decade before getting its own pure-electric range.
The Czech brand’s interpretation of a car on the Small MEB platform should offer the same attributes its conventionally powered cars are known for. That means usability and range, plus space, comfort and affordability. This will be key for the VW Group’s small EVs, and all small electric cars. But makers need to make a profit, too, and with rising costs we’ll see what pricing looks like when the car goes on sale in a few years’ time.
Reborn brand Smart is all about small, functional models, and with an electric-only future, if any brand has got to nail the brief, it’s this one. The business is jointly owned by Daimler and Chinese brand Geely, the latter giving access to its SEA platform; with a 66kWh battery, the #1 is a radical-looking crossover that packs a potential range of up to 273 miles and plenty of tech on-board.
Known for efficient small models, Suzuki is still focused on delivering hybrid cars. It’s done this in larger models by borrowing tech from Toyota, but the smaller vehicles in the range – Ignis and Swift – are already electrified using Suzuki’s own systems. There’s been speculation that a new EV to replace the Ignis could arrive as early as next year, but the smart money seems to be on the current pair of models continuing until at least 2024, or even 2025.
It’s a case of “Will it, won’t it?” when it comes to a compact car from Tesla. CEO Elon Musk has talked about a hatchback-style offering, but it seems that’s off the table for the minute. However, given Tesla’s success and the tech it could bring to the sector, it’s surely only a matter of time before Tesla confirms a compact model.
At the end of 2021, Toyota released a blitz of EV concepts, including a small crossover as part of its all-electric bZ series. The company’s CEO, Akiyo Toyoda, said that this would be the next bZ model to launch. So we’ll see it soon, and it will be aimed at the European and Japanese markets.
The UK’s best-selling car is a small Vauxhall, so expect to see a supermini in the brand’s product plan for some time. Its choice of powertrains will evolve, however; it’s likely that the next Corsa will use the smallest of parent firm Stellantis’s new platforms to go all electric. Vauxhall is aiming to make its full range electric by 2028, and that means that the recently introduced Mokka will also move to an EV-only architecture.
The forthcoming ID.1 (as we expect it to be called) will be based on the same Small MEB platform as its VW Group siblings. VW knows how to do small cars well, and the up! city car was a perfect example. But the real challenge is for VW to ensure that its EV is not only affordable, but also makes business sense. CEO Ralf Brandstatter told us that the new car would cost between 20,000 and 25,000 Euros when it goes on sale in 2025 – around £17,000 to £21,000 at current exchange rates.
Chinese-owned Volvo has bold plans to expand its range, and while the immediate focus is on a successor to its flagship SUV, the XC90, there’s also a baby ‘XC’ SUV on the way. The EV should arrive by 2024 and won’t be called XC20; Volvo plans to gives its cars names, not number-based badges.
Click here for our list of the best small electric cars…
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