Fiat 500 0.9 Twinair Lounge
List price when new £12,265
Price today £5000
Available from 2007-present
Still the most fashionable small car, the 500 is served here with Fiat’s efficient Twinair engine
Honda Jazz 1.3 Hybrid HE
List price when new £15,995
Price today £7250
Available from 2011-2015
It’s pricey to buy, but the Honda Jazz is impressively practical – and as a Hybrid, it should be cheap to run
Mini One 1.6D
List price when new £14,480
Price today £5500
Available from 2007-2014
With a diesel engine, the cute, chunky Mini gains even lower running costs without sacrificing any of the usual fun or style
Volkswagen Polo 1.2 TDI Bluemotion
List price when new £15,480
Price today £6500
Available from 2009-present
Crisp and classy, the Volkswagen Polo in Bluemotion form is also staggeringly efficient
Price today is based on a2011 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing
A used small car with low fuel consumption and emissions might be one of the most sensible ways of getting around, but it also sounds like a recipe for drab, dull motoring.
The thing is, though, it doesn’t have to be. Take the Fiat 500 and Mini, for example. Here we have two of the most fashionable and fun small cars money can buy, yet the former is available with a weeny two-cylinder turbo petrol engine, and the latter can be had with a frugal diesel, both of which keep your fuel and tax costs to a minimum.
You can even have a hybrid in this class, if you want it, in the form of the Honda Jazz. With its futuristic mono-box styling and range of striking colours, it’s almost as eye-catching as its two rivals – and as with all Jazzes, it promises to be extremely practical, too.
Then there’s the Volkswagen Polo, which has always been one of the classiest small cars going. This Bluemotion version teams a startlingly efficient diesel engine with hot hatch styling cues, meaning it manages to look the part as well as saving you money.
But which of our foursome does the best job of blending style with good sense? Well, with all of the usual What Car? test facilities at our disposal, it’s time to find out.
What are they like to drive?
Clearly the jury’s still out on how to make a small car super-frugal without also making it as dull as ditchwater, because we’ve got four cars and four different ways of powering them.
The Jazz gets most of its 87bhp go from a four-cylinder 1.3-litre petrol engine. However, a 14bhp electric motor is on hand to boost acceleration when necessary – this motor also acts a bit like a dynamo to generate electricity for the batteries under braking.
The Jazz also has a continuously variable automatic transmission. Simply put your foot down and the revs shoot up, and stay up, until you get to your desired speed. You get there reasonably quickly, too, although throttle responses are noticeably sharper when you select the Sport setting.
The Hybrid was launched at the same time as a series of updates were applied to the second-generation Jazz, and one of the big changes was a notable improvement in the ride quality compared with earlier versions. The pay-off is a bit more body movement on faster roads, but the overall balance is vastly improved.
Sadly, though, Honda’s efforts to improve the Jazz’s steering were less successful. It’s nice and light at parking speeds, but feels vague and slow-witted on winding routes, undermining confidence in bends.
The Mini takes a more traditional approach to power and efficiency, with a 1.6-litre turbodiesel engine and a six-speed manual gearbox. Its diesel engine is only slightly more powerful than the Jazz’s petrol unit, with 89bhp, but the Mini weighs a lot less and it’s quite a bit perkier. In fact, the Mini will leave all its rivals trailing if you rev it hard through the gears, and it’s also an extremely flexible performer.
What’s more, the Mini’s an absolute hoot when the road turns twisty. Its body is always kept under tight control, and its steering is lightning-fast and brimming with feel, so you’re encouraged to really chuck the car into bends. The ride isn’t as comfortable as the Jazz’s, but it’s still on the forgivable side of firm.
The three-cylinder 1.2-litre diesel engine in the Polo is far less impressive than the Mini’s, producing just 74bhp. What’s more, it has significantly less torque, and you have to wait until higher revs before you feel its full effect. It’s hardly surprising that the Polo is less responsive, although you can’t strictly compare its in-gear acceleration times to the Mini’s because the Polo has a five-speed gearbox instead of a six-speeder.
If comfort takes precedence over agility, the Polo is the best bet of our quartet. Despite the fact that this Bluemotion model has lowered suspension to reduce the Polo’s ride height and cut aerodynamic drag, it’s still brilliant at absorbing lumps and bumps.
It also feels pretty unperturbed by bends, but the steering is slow and its assistance can vary from being light to heavy just when you least expect it.
The 500 also has a five-speed ’box, but instead of a diesel engine it uses a two-cylinder petrol with a tiny 875cc capacity. Fiat has turbocharged it to boost power to a respectable 84bhp, but there’s just 107lb ft of torque so it takes an age to build speed. Once you’ve managed to get the 500 moving at a reasonable lick, though, you’re liable to want to slow it back down again, because it tends to wander around at high speeds, and the vague steering tends to make you over-compensate when bringing the car back into line. What’s more, the ride jiggles your eyeballs at any speed, and bigger bumps thump through to your spine.
Fortunately, the news isn’t all bad: that steering may feel overly light on the motorway, but it adds to the little Fiat’s frisky character around town. What’s more, the 500 is surprisingly grippy in bends and this Twinair model feels even more lithe and agile than other 500s we’ve driven.
Sadly, however, it’s also far more noisy. With this engine, the 500 produces an unusual puttering noise in town and a loud, uncultured rasp at speed. What’s more, there’s so much wind and engine noise on the motorway that you and your passengers will need to raise your voices to hold a conversation.
The Jazz isn’t exactly music to the ears, either. It lets in even more wind noise than the 500 at the national limit, and although you can barely hear the engine when you’re cruising, it sounds like a vacuum cleaner that’s about to explode if you ask for a burst of acceleration.
Fortunately, the Jazz is far more likeable when you’re just bumbling around town because its engine is very quiet at lower speeds, and in contrast with some other hybrid Hondas, the Jazz’s electric motor cuts in and out very smoothly.
Road noise is well suppressed in the Polo, too, and there’s just a hint of wind noise from around the door mirrors at motorway speeds. However, the diesel engine in this Bluemotion model is very grumbly at all speeds, and it transmits unpleasant vibrations through the pedals.
The Mini could hardly be more different. Wind- and road noise are loud enough to make long journeys tiring, but the engine is so refined that you almost forget it’s a diesel. The Mini also has a slicker, more satisfying gearshift than its rivals.
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