Cars with the smallest engines

Size matters, especially under the bonnet when you’re looking for a cheap-to-run vehicle. These small-engined cars fit the bill…

Chris Rosamond
Oct 29, 2021

Car engines generally have been getting smaller. The implementation of turbochargers has allowed for manufacturers to put smaller and smaller engines into their cars without sacrificing much in the way of power, but greatly improving efficiency. Where a Ford Focus would once be powered a 1.6-litre engine, you can now buy a perfectly capable Focus with a turbocharged 1.0-litre engine instead.

As well as cutting fuel costs, smaller engines are an obvious way to reduce emissions, which helps manufacturers to meet governmental targets as well as meaning drivers pay less in car tax. Downsizing has typically been accompanied by turbocharging - which helps to increase the amount of power an engine of a specific size can produce - so drivers haven’t noticed a lack of performance.

The trend for downsizing has been pursued across the board, with even the most powerful SUVs, super-saloons and sports cars reducing the number of cylinders in the engine to keep ahead in the emissions game. While monster 12-cylinder and eight-cylinder engines have melted away to be replaced by much more efficient smaller six-cylinder units, many hatchbacks and city cars have in turn downsized from what used to be a standard four-cylinder engine format to having just three cylinders.

In spite of many advances, progress in the race to downsize has fizzled out lately as manufacturers focus instead on hybrid and battery technologies. If you’re on the look-out for a used hatchback or city car, though, it still makes sense to assume that smaller-engined models will be amongst the most efficient out there. It’s not just savings on petrol that make them typically more affordable to run, with many of the smallest engined cars falling into insurance group one for the cheapest insurance cover and potentially qualifying for free road tax.

Our selection of cars with tiny engines features used bargains with both two and three-cylinder engines, and all are under 1.0-litre in capacity. Read on to find out which models have caught our eye, and could potentially save yourself a packet.

Cars with small engines

1. Alfa Romeo Mito

Our pick Alfa Romeo Mito 0.9 TwinAir
Used deals Limited stock

The sporty-looking three-door-only Mito was the Alfa Romeo brand’s attempt at establishing a popular small Alfa Romeo hatchback, a task which it never quite managed, in the UK at least. It wasn’t necessarily the fault of the car, which even a couple of years on from its exit from Alfa showrooms still looks pretty and up-to-date.

The throaty little 0.9-litre 'TwinAir' engine was the smallest Mito engine option, and it suits the car well around town, producing a characterful thrum when you work it hard. That said, it can struggle a little out of town especially if the going is hilly, in which case the bigger 1.4-litre petrol engine or a diesel might be a better bet. The TwinAir version claimed to be able to reach an impressive 67mpg, but in the real world around 40mpg seems more likely as this tiny engine has to work hard to power the Mito around.

If you like the look of the Mito and want the efficiency of the TwinAir engine, there are models available on BuyaCar from not much more than £7,000 - that ought to get you a four-year-old model with low miles that should last for many years to come. A 2018 Mito TwinAir, meanwhile, could be yours for £10,000 or a little more, which equates to around £175 per month on PCP finance.


2. BMW i3

Our pick BMW i3 Rex
Used deals Limited stock

While many BMW i3s are electric only, a browse through BuyaCar reveals this stylish and roomy electric car is also available with a petrol engine - but not necessarily one that does what you think, as the unit is a tiny BMW scooter engine that doesn’t power the car directly. Instead, BMW calls it a 'Range Extender' model, as the tiny 0.7-litre two-cylinder motor is only able to generate electricity to keep the motor running when the battery is discharged.

Because of that, you can keep this electric car running with this petrol backup generator and many i3 owners considered the 'REx' option essential to avoid range anxiety - the mounting sense of panic some electric car drivers feel as their charge level drops with no charger in sight. The REx engine boosted the quoted range per charge from 120 miles to around 200 miles with a full battery and full - small - petrol tank.

However, since 2019 when the i3 battery size was increased to allow an official electric range of 188 miles, the extra value of the REx option became a bit moot and it was discontinued.


3. Dacia Sandero

Our pick Dacia Sandero 0.9 TCe
Used deals Limited stock

The Romanian brand Dacia is these days owned by Renault, which explains how the little 0.9-litre Renault 'TCe' engine found its way into the Dacia Sandero.

The Sandero is incredibly good value even when brand new, and it’s cheap to run too. While it’s practical and roomy, it has rather plain-Jane looks, and the interior fit and finish suggests it’s built down to a price. The fact it's so affordable, however, more than makes up for this.

The 0.9-litre TCe turbocharged three-cylinder isn’t the cheapest option, an honour which falls to the 1.0-litre 'SCe' 75. However the 0.9 TCe has greater performance while matching the basic model’s near 50mpg economy - a 0-62mph time of 11.1 seconds doesn’t make it a rocket ship, but it is usefully nippy and pleasant to drive, with a decent spread of power.


4. Fiat 500

Fiat 500 front three quarters view

Our pick Fiat 500 0.9 TwinAir
Used deals Limited stock

When it was launched a decade ago, Fiat declared that its tiny new 0.9-litre two-cylinder engine was the greenest petrol engine in the world. It was the smallest offering in a family of engines that used Fiat tech and power-boosting turbocharging to great effect. In fact, it was generally considered the pick of the engines offered in the diminutive Fiat 500 city car.

You can’t buy a new one now, because the firm ditched the distinctive sounding 0.9-litre 'TwinAir' option in favour of a 1.0-litre hybrid entry model that has three cylinders and makes a very different sound, but if you’re searching out used Fiat 500s, it’s certainly worth looking out for.

With 85hp the 500 TwinAir is a peppy little machine, that’s more fun to drive than its 11-second 0-62mph time might imply. Fiat also claimed that up to 70mpg was possible, but with the engine's enthusiasm to work hard, it’s doubtful you’ll get anywhere near that, as you're likely to be having too much fun whizzing around to get the best fuel economy.


5. Fiat Panda

Our pick Fiat Panda 0.9 TwinAir
Used deals Limited stock

Unlike in the 500, its smaller stablemate, Fiat’s Panda city car is still available with the popular 0.9-litre TwinAir engine. Nowadays though, you can only order it new in the Panda 4x4, which is an interesting if slightly too far left-field option for many - a four-wheel drive off-road city car.

However, there are still nearly new standard Panda TwinAirs in circulation, and you might find a stylish 2020 City Cross model available from around £13,500 with not much more than 1,000 miles on the clock. If you’re tempted by the rugged looks of the City Cross - which has an off-road feel but does without four-wheel drive.

If you drop the budget to £8,000, meanwhile, you should be able to find a 2019 Panda TwinAir in basic Lounge trim with average mileage for a year-old car. That's a low price for a car that should look and feel practically new.

Whichever Panda TwinAir you choose, you’ll be driving a car with perky performance that’s economical and fun to drive too. And while the Panda itself may not be the newest supermini on the block, its characterful charm mean it has weathered the passing years very well.


6. Renault Captur

Our pick Renault Captur 0.9 TCe
Used deals Limited stock

The Renault Captur small SUV was launched in 2013, and one of the compact SUV’s best aspects was Renault’s efficient and sporty sounding three-cylinder turbocharged 'TCe' engine. With only a tiny 0.9-litre capacity to play with, the engine’s performance in the Captur was pretty impressive. Not rapid, with a relatively slow 0-62mph of 13.1 seconds, but on the road it felt punchy enough and suited the Captur’s relaxed character. Decent claimed fuel economy of 45.6mpg was enough to seal the deal for many.

A new generation Renault Captur was recently launched, and while the design and interior were extensively refreshed, the popular 0.9-litre three-cylinder engine was consigned to the past. Nowadays there’s a 1.0-litre petrol version instead.


7. Renault Clio

Our pick Renault Clio 0.9 TCe
Used deals Limited stock

The Renault Clio provides much of the engineering for the Captur above, which is a high-riding SUV spin-off from the French manufacturer’s popular supermini. As a result, the Clio leads where the Captur follows, and that means a new Clio arrived in 2019 with the firm’s new 1.0-litre petrol engine that sounded the death-knell for the small but mighty 0.9-litre TCe engine.

This engine was a little peach in the previous generation Clio; responsive in traffic and perfect for short journeys around town, although it does have a characteristic three-cylinder thrum at motorway speeds. It was available in two power outputs of 75hp and 90hp, and the punchier version is more fun to drive, without making too much of a difference to the fuel economy, so that's the one we'd choose. Around 47mpg was quoted for both, which means that fuel bills should be low for both.


8. Smart ForFour

Our pick Smart ForFour 0.9
Used deals Limited stock

The latest Smart models are only available with electric power, but the previous generation was available up until 2019 with an efficient three-cylinder 0.9-litre petrol engine or a cheaper, less efficient and less powerful 1.0-litre unit.

Both engines were available across the Smart range, which included the ForTwo two-seater hatchback and cabriolet models, and the much more practical ForFour - a five-door hatchback.

With 90hp the 0.9-litre - again with power-boosting turbocharger - is a much better match for the car than the larger but less powerful 71hp 1.0-litre, and it’s almost five seconds quicker on the 0-62mph acceleration test - taking 11.2 seconds compared to a sluggish 15.9 seconds. However, both models are similarly frugal, and should be able to deliver 50+mpg if driven carefully so again your fuel bills should be low with either.


*Representative PCP finance - Ford Fiesta:

48 monthly payments of £192
Deposit: £0
Mileage limit: 8,000 per year
Optional final payment to buy car: £2,923
Total amount payable to buy car: £11,926
Total cost of credit: £2,426
Amount borrowed: £9,500
APR: 9.9%

BuyaCar is a credit broker, not a lender. Our rates start from 6.9% APR. The rate you are offered will depend on your individual circumstances.


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