Top 10 best city cars 2023

Open gallery Close News by James Disdale 11 mins read 2 June 2023 Share

The law of unintended consequence can be cruel – you only have to look at the city car sector to understand that. At a time when we’re being encouraged to consume less, these penny-pinching machines that use the least materials to build, and use very little energy when running, are being squeezed out by low CO2 legislation that has contrived to make a 2500kg plug-in hybrid SUV a more ‘environmentally acceptable’ choice. Hey ho.

Still, small cars aren’t going down without a fight, and despite the increasing challenge of making these mini marvels meet lawmakers demands the current crop are some of the best ever. Anyone that reckons downsizing means you’ll be shackled with a cramped, spartan and cheaply engineered tin box should think again. 

In fact, such has been the pace of change in this class that most in our list (there is one exception) could cope as everyday transport regardless of whether you spend the day darting around the urban jungle or pounding up down motorways.  What’s more, with their skinny tyres, low mass and peppy engines, these machines often deliver driver thrills way out of proportion to their humble place in the automotive pecking order.

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Our top 10 is packed with charming city cars that mix low running costs with a surprising sheen of sophistication that often makes them a more compelling proposition for supermini models in the class above, which cost quite a lot extra for very little material gain. As a result, our advice is to snap one up now before it’s too late.

1. Hyundai i10

For some manufacturers a city car should be a cheap machine, engineered down to a very low price. However, with the Hyundai i10 you get the sense that the brand has applied the same high standards as they would to a Santa Fe, just on a smaller scale. As a result, this third generation runaround has a sheen of sophistication that makes it feel far more expensive than the £15,000 price of entry would have you believe.

Interior quality and general desirability have increased significantly, as has practicality (this is now one of the most accommodating cars in its class, rivalling models from the class above) while its sharp exterior has plenty of chic visual appeal. It’s well-equipped too, with even the entry level SE Connect offering air-con, electric windows, a leather wrapped steering wheel, reversing camera and Bluetooth connectivity. Really, what more do you need?

Yet this is mere showroom tinsel – it’s the grown-up way the i10 drives that’s the true indicator of class-leading excellence. It rides absorbently, if a little noisily and firmly on range-topping 16in wheels, but is refined and relaxed on a run, while the compact dimensions and light controls make it a doddle around town. It handles crisply with a decent dose of agility, while the ability to drive to its limit of grip at sensible speeds is a revelation in this day and age, where even a compact hatch clings on harder than a Nineties supercar. 


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Then there is its 82bhp atmospheric four-cylinder engine (now something of a rarity in cars of this size), which offers decent drivability and useful real-world performance. Less potent but more characterful is the thrummy 1.0-litre three-cylinder. Whichever you choose you’ll get one of the best manual gearboxes in the business (really), it’s light and precise shift allowing satisfying, wrist-flick changes.

It might not have the star appeal of the Volkswagen Up GTI models behind it, but as a well-rounded, sensible, well-equipped city car, it takes pride of place at the top of the class.

Save money with new i10 deals from What Car?

2. Volkswagen Up

The Up may be the smallest car on offer in the Volkswagen range, but it doesn’t miss out on all the hallmarks that the marque is renowned for. Although it is not the most revolutionary in the segment, the Up beats its closest rivals on finish and outright desirability.

That said, a recent rationalisation of its engine line-up means it’s no longer our go-to pick of the segment. There’s nothing wrong with the smooth and eager 59bhp three-pot, but efforts to make it Euro 6 compliant have resulted in longer gear ratios that have blunted its previously peppy performance. Of course, there’s always the go-faster Up GTI, but that’s a slightly different kettle of fish. Speaking of which, with its punchy 113bhp turbocharged three-pot and endearing handling, this sportier strain of city car has a strong claim for being the driver’s choice in the segment, although it’s pricier.

Yet the core of the VW remains as compelling as ever, its rational wheel-at-each-corner stance and boxy exterior allowing you to carry four adults in surprising comfort and squeeze more than you’d think into the 250-litre boot. There’s a pleasing simplicity to the dash layout too, yet this still feels like a high quality VW product too. It drives like one too, with impressive refinement, a composed ride and accurate handling. 

It’s not quite the gamechanger the original Mini was in 1959, but the Up remains one of the most cleverly conceived and executed cars of the last decade or so.

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