Small cars – the sensible choice all round for the new, young driver
As a new, young driver, it makes good sense all round for you to spend your first few years motoring in a small car. But it’s not just about the low purchase price, or even the lower insurance premium for that matter…
Being of tighter dimensions, with minimal overhang front and back, and benefiting from a proportionately greater glass area, small cars tend to give you superior visibility, making you more aware of your surroundings (whether it’s other road users, pedestrians or gateposts). As a result, you’re more inclined to make more informed (i.e. safer) judgements and decisions.
Small car controls tend to be more straightforward and lighter too, which is a bonus, allowing you to ‘hone your craft’ and master the fundamentals of clutch control, gear changing and steering. There are also fewer distractions in most cases (less gadgets and buttons), which should lead to better concentration. And let’s not forget, room is at a premium, so you’ll be under less pressure to invite loudmouth passengers along for the ride.
The chances are that for your first few years on the road, journeys will probably be shorter, increasing in distance as your confidence grows. Small cars are primarily designed for the short trip. As such, their lighter, higher revving 3 to 4 cylinder engines don’t require too much ‘juice’ – far less thirsty than slab-side saloons, bossed by motorway ‘captains of industry’.
The good news is that there are more small cars to choose from now than ever before. So you can pick one to suit your style, as well as your pocket. Here are just a few ever-popular models to consider, all of which should give years of faithful service and provide many fond ‘first car’ memories to treasure forever.
RENAULT CLIO (1.2 petrol) (98-01)
‘Classless chic’ is how the evergreen French favourite is often described. And it’s true. In its native land, the Clio is just as likely to be seen whirling about madcap city streets as it is parked outside a chateau. The 1998 model moved the game on a little from its celebrated predecessor, with greater equipment levels, enhanced build quality and a softer, quieter ride giving it an overall more substantial and refined ‘feel’. You get plush seats, generous head and legroom, loads of luggage space via the hatch and various pockets and recesses to stuff your snacks and belongings into. There are a plenty of different trim levels to look out for (RN, RT, RXE, ‘Special Editions’ and ‘Collections’), but even in ‘basic’ spec. you’ll have all you need for the routine run.
The 1.2 engine is typically dependable, producing an ample 60bhp and 45mpg, if driven sensibly. For your safety, there are side impact bars, driver’s airbag as standard (passenger airbag 2000-on) and ABS is fitted to most cars. Security measures include an immobiliser and ‘unique-fit’ stereo system, whilst some of the top-end models have an alarm. Appearance-wise, don’t be put off by scratched bumpers and interior trim marks – all but the most cherished examples have them in abundance.
TOYOTA AYGO (1.0 petrol) (05-on)
Funky, feisty, urban whiz-bang, fun to drive and look at, ultra-cheap to run and with bomb-proof reliability, Toyota’s Aygo has been winning the hearts and minds of the mean and trendy all over the world since its birth in 2005. Whilst you can’t pile much through the wee glass-door hatch, which has barely enough room for your gym bag, you can pile on the miles with confidence, safe in the knowledge that the Aygo will prove a trusty pal that will get you into all the right places (in more ways than one.) The 3-cylinder engine fizzes along nicely and its pin-sharp power-steering lets you get in and out of the tightest spots with ease. There’s kit aplenty – many models boast CD players and air-con, whilst nearly all have electric front windows (the 5-door models have retro ‘push-out’ frames for back seat passengers.) The split rear seat (folds down for bigger shopping loads) accommodates two adults in surprising comfort – but there’s no room (or belt) for a third. Running costs? With up to 65mpg, Group 1 insurance and just £20 annual road tax, you’ll struggle to find anything cheaper to run. Each year has seen its share of ‘specials’, like the ‘Blue’, ‘Black’, Go!’ and ‘Ice’ complete with goodies like alloy wheels and rev counters, but an Aygo of any description is a safe, solid bet.
VW GOLF HATCHBACK (1.4 petrol) (04-08)
Even more dependable and desirable than the outgoing version, the 2004 Golf made even greater strides down the fairway in the ‘hatchback world championship’. Front wheel drive, 5-speed and 5-star Euro NCAP-rated for crash safety, the Golf carries more features and gizmos than a car of this size has a right to. We’re talking about ABS (with electronic brakeforce distribution), ESP, multiple airbags (including headrests), semi-automatic air-con, electric front windows, electric heated door mirrors…the list goes on. Widely acknowledged as an ‘excellent drive’ and with a roomy cabin that oozes that fabled Golf ‘bank vault’ quality, it’s small wonder that this is the must-have choice of the thrusting young executive. The options list was extensive, so few cars are exactly the same. But even the ‘entry’ level ‘04 model could boast a 73bhp, 38mpg and 102mph – more than adequate to waft four adults (plus luggage) along in accomplished style from autobahn to city strasse, with the driver having most of the fun poised securely behind that chunky wheel, every well-weighted switch and control within reassuring reach. Ideal for running back and forth to college, with enough space to carry ‘student essentials’, or the perfect ‘business commuter’ for the management trainee, with its unstinting performance, economy, reliability and, of course, that famous badge, the Golf has always represented extraordinary value for young drivers – and probably always will.
FORD KA (1.2 petrol) (09-on)
If the original, much loved Ka was a cute little chap, happy to buzz around the playground, aeroplaning in and out the traffic, then this is its more mature, ‘filled out’ brother. Now in ‘junior school’ and mixing it with the big boys, the new generation Ka is a self-assured, well-accomplished character indeed, as comfortable purring along the motorway as it is bobbing down the back streets. It might well share the same 1.2 powerplant as the FIAT 500, but it still has that unidentifiable ‘Ford-ness’ that’s been tried, trusted and enjoyed by millions of UK motorists for generations. Costing buttons to run and a cinch to drive, with a beautifully built cabin and oodles of trim options, it’s no surprise that the Ka is on the ‘wish list’ of many new, young drivers. You can expect 55mpg from the frugal 68bhp engine, which shouldn’t make too big a dent in the wallet or purse. As for ‘basic kit’, well the ‘Studio’ certainly is basic, but you still get a CD player and iPOD connectivity. With the ‘Edge’ you’ll enjoy air-con, electric windows and mirrors and a 50/50 rear split seat. The ‘Zetec’ adds a leather steering wheel, 15-inch alloys and front fog lights to the luxuries, whilst the range-topping ‘Titanium’ boasts 16-inch alloys, chrome door handles and climate control. Light steering and slick gearshift make all variants a hoot to drive and doddle to park.
CITROEN C1 (1.0 petrol) (05-on)
Built in the same factory as Toyota’s terrific Aygo and Peugeot’s punchy 107, the superb Citroen C1 shares all the same attributes as its different badged cousins, yet is the cheapest to buy of the trio. At first glance, side by side all three models look identical (they are, after all, 90% the same). But glance again and you’ll soon see that each has its own distinctive features, especially around the tailgate/rear light area and front grille. The names too have their own individual appeal – in the Citroen’s case you can plump for monikers like ‘Vibe’, ‘Rhythm’, ‘Airplay’, ‘Cool’ and ‘Code’, each of which has its own ‘limited edition’ colour scheme and trim list. Some have air-con, electric windows and iPOD connectivity; others have side rubbing strips and colour-keyed mirrors and door handles. All have essentials like driver and passenger airbags, ABS and power steering. Bags of fun to drive and manoeuvre, you’ll have little difficulty finding a big enough parking space. The C1 doesn’t pretend to be the quickest or quietest on the motorway, but it’s in its element around town, where you’ll be darting around with a constant grin on your face. It’s no load lugger either – don’t get caught out at the flat-pack superstore. But the dainty glass hatch opens wide enough for one or two shopping bags and the back seat(s) drops to take more. If you regularly carry passengers, the 5-door is easily the best.
VAUXHALL ASTRA (1.4 petrol) (04-10)
Motor journalists all seemed to reach the same conclusion about the ‘new’ Astra when it was launched back in 2004 – ‘a vast improvement over the last one.’ And sales reflected this, in fact, they still do today – there’s plenty of them out there to choose from. In essence, the model is better built, better equipped and feels a lot bigger inside. Trim quality is ‘upmarket’ on a par with Ford’s equally popular Focus, which makes it a pleasant environment to spend time in at the wheel. All variants have ABS, side airbags and power windows. Further up the range, (the likes of Club, Design, Elite) you’ll find air-con, leather upholstery, alloys and electric folding mirrors, amongst other luxuries. Of course, no Vauxhall line-up would be complete without a ‘sports’ version – the SXi won’t disappoint with its variable chassis settings and Electronic Stability Program. Practicality comes as standard, with a useful hatch area and sufficient room to carry up to five adults in relative comfort. In terms of performance, you can expect up to 88bhp from the 4-cylinder unit, together with 46mpg and 112mph. All in all, the Astra remains a firm favourite with UK buyers and fleet operators. Lots of colours, lots of options and lots about – have a good look and buy wisely for years of early motoring pleasure.
None of these vehicles sound right for you? Take a look at our Insurance Group 1 Buyers Guide.