by Lem Bingley
Since the 1970s, the vast majority of small cars have followed the same formula: a small, transverse engine up front, driving the front wheels; plus a compact hatchback body behind, maximising space for passengers.
This article assembles three intriguing small cars that each rewrites that template in some significant way. We have a petrol-electric hybrid, a battery-powered EV and a rear-engined runabout. Each is a remarkable car in its own right, impressive enough to have scored five out of five in its GreenMotor review. And all three can now be found without too much trouble as a more affordable secondhand purchase, saving thousands off the original price.
Toyota Yaris Hybrid
As you might expect, the resulting Yaris Hybrid offers exceptional fuel economy – the official combined cycle score was 80.7mpg and 79g/km of CO2 when the car debuted in 2012. Facelifted editions from mid-2014, marked out by a new interior and bigger front grille, did even better, achieving a remarkable 85.6mpg and 75g/km.
Real-world economy will tend to fall short of the 80s, but mid-60s miles per gallon can be achievable if you drive with care. There’s also a selectable Eco driving mode to help encourage economy. And it’s reassuring to know that, unlike a diesel supermini, the Yaris Hybrid emits virtually none of the NOx and particulate pollution that chokes our urban air.
Under its short bonnet the Yaris Hybrid houses a four-cylinder, 1.5-litre petrol engine tuned for economy, plus a 44kW (59bhp) electric motor, hooked up to a nickel-metal-hydride battery stashed under the back seats. The combined power output is 98bhp, and getting to 62mph takes 11.8 seconds.
Toyota hybrids drive much like ordinary automatics, making for a relaxing experience in most circumstances, though hard acceleration will produce a fair amount of noise. With the hybrid drive keeping revs high while the car speeds up, it can sound and feel a little odd to those accustomed to the more progressive engine note of a manual car. At low speeds, meanwhile, the engine will tend to switch off entirely, allowing you to creep around in silence on the electric motor alone.
The battery gets all of its power from regenerative braking – you don’t need to plug the Yaris in between journeys. A needle on the dashboard shows how much charge is being recaptured when slowing down, but without it you’d never guess that the brakes were doing anything unusual.
Today, a new Yaris Hybrid costs at least £16,495, but the oldest 2012 examples can now be found for about £7,000. The model has sold reasonably well, so it shouldn’t be hard to find a good one – the Toyota approved network has plenty, or you could buy a used Toyota Yaris Hybrid 2014 model at Hertz Rent2Buy, where a little under £9,000 is enough for a two-year-old car with around 25,000 miles on the clock. The standard Toyota warranty lasts 5 years, and hybrids registered before April 2014 came with an 8-year battery guarantee.
The cheeky third-generation Renault Twingo is a firm GreenMotor favourite, providing a surprisingly spacious interior, decent pace, a lot more refinement than you might expect and bags of quirky character.
The car’s most arresting trait is an engine in the boot. Unlike almost every other car of its size, the Twingo is a rear-engined vehicle with rear-wheel-drive. As a result the luggage compartment floor is quite high set, but thankfully the car itself is quite tall overall, meaning boot capacity is actually better than some front-engined alternatives like the Toyota Aygo.
All Twingos have five doors for easy access to the back seats, maximising practicality.
There are two engine options for Twingo buyers, both three-cylinder petrol units. The more powerful of the pair is an 898cc turbocharged engine producing a peak of 90bhp, but the less powerful 999cc unboosted engine, producing 70bhp, is well worth considering. While it will take 14.5 seconds to reach 62mph, it’s a lot cheaper both to buy and to insure than the more powerful edition. With optional stop-and-start, the 70bhp car is rated at 67.3mpg and 95g/km of CO2.
The Twingo is very easy to drive, with light steering and good visibility, and is amazingly comfortable for such an inexpensive car. The optional powered fabric roof is worth looking out for – it opens in about 10 seconds, even on the move, and imparts a real fresh-air feel.
A brand new Twingo with the SCe Stop & Start engine costs from £10,995. The earliest examples from 2014 now cost as little as £6,000. A year-old example from a Renault dealer with a big fabric sunroof can be found for around £8,500.
A lot of small cars are a family’s second vehicle: doing the school run, nipping to the shops, commuting to work and never tackling the longer journeys shouldered by bigger and more expensive family cars.
This is a niche into which pure electric cars might easily slot, and one of the most persuasive for this role is the Renault Zoe. It offers zero tailpipe emissions and, if you buy your electricity from a green supplier, it will keep your conscience as clean as practically possible.
Official tests suggest a 130-mile range between charges, but Renault wisely suggests 90 miles is more realistic in mild weather, dropping as low as 60 miles in winter. It can take up to nine hours to fully recharge the battery from a household socket – best done overnight – but a dedicated wallbox can speed things up considerably, while the fastest charging points can provide an 80% top up in as little as half an hour, for cars equipped with the fast-charging option.
The Zoe is exceptionally quiet and smooth to drive. The interior is cheerfully designed, though it’s probably worth avoiding cars with the lightest dashboard plastics, as they can create unwelcome glare in the windscreen.
Zoe is not a quick car per se – it needs 13.5 seconds to reach 62mph and top speed is capped at 84mph – but the electric motor feels very brisk and responsive at urban speeds. Only a lacklustre feel from the brake pedal lets the side down, though actual stopping power is reasonable and it’s always good to know that Renault achieved a five-star crash-test result from Euro NCAP when the Zoe was new.
A new Zoe costs from £13,945 while the oldest Zoe models, from 2013, now start at about £6,000.
Buyers of used cars may also need to budget for battery rental – a monthly fee charged by Renault even for secondhand owners. Some cars will have been sold outright originally, while others will come with the need to hire the battery, so it's vital to ensure you know what you're getting into when buying a used Zoe.
The cost of battery hire varies, much like a mobile phone agreement, according to how much you want to use the car and how long you’re prepared to commit. A 36-month agreement for under 3,000 miles per year costs £45 per month, while a 12-month, 12,000-mile deal costs £113 per month. There are lots of options in between these two extremes.
The main benefit of the rental arrangement is that the cost of any battery repair remains Renault’s responsibility. It says it will repair or replace any battery that offers less than 75% of its capacity when new.