Small cars with big engines

Each generation of car seems to get smaller engines to boost economy, but what if you want a small car with a mighty engine? Check these out

Gavin Braithwaite-Smith
Oct 27, 2021

Do you enjoy going under the radar? Consider yourself to be something of a dark horse? You may well enjoy driving fast, but perhaps you don't want to be parading around in a sparkly sports car. If that's the case, then you'll probably be interested in driving a small car with a big engine. They might look unassuming and inconspicuous on the outside, but they're outrageously fast when you put your foot down.

At BuyaCar, we have deals on a range of small cars with big engines that wouldn’t look out of place parked outside your local corner shop. So you could happily go about your life in peace, only to leave rivals in your dust when you pull away from the traffic lights. In many ways, a fast hatchback is the perfect way to mix an easy life with limitless entertainment from behind the wheel.

The options we've laid out below are quick and engaging enough to drive to put a smile on your face, but small enough to cope with our congested streets and narrow country lanes. In all cases, the engines might be large, but the prices are anything but.

From rapid 3.0-litre hatchbacks to pleasingly old-fashioned 3.7-litre compact sports cars and even a potent 2.2-litre diesel hatchback, which offers the kind of punch you'd expect from a much larger car, with the fuel economy you normally only get with a smaller model, there are plenty of options. Keep reading to find the best big-engined small car for you.

Small cars with big engines

1. BMW M140i

Used deals Limited stock

Could this be the ultimate hot hatchback? Power in the M140i is sourced from a sonorous 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine pumping out a mighty 340hp, which sounds like it should reside in a serious sports car rather than a three- and five-door hatchback. This motor is potent enough that the M140i can accelerate from 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds, which is the same time as a Porsche 911.

Unlike other hot hatchbacks, the BMW sends its power to the rear wheels, which means it’s great fun to drive on a twisting country road, with no sense of the steering wheel tugging in your hands as you accelerate, as is often the case with powerful front-wheel drive hot hatchbacks. Not that this exhilarating performance comes at the expense of comfort. On the contrary, the M140i is just as calm and relaxing as the regular BMW 1 Series hatchback if you drive more sedately.

The range-topping version of the new BMW 1 Series - the BMW M135i - is four-wheel drive and powered by a much more mundane 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine - as is the case with most high-performance hatchbacks. This means that the M140i feels like the last of a dying breed, with its large, musical-sounding engine, a serious amount of power and a challenging drive for keen drivers, as all this power goes only to the rear tyres. A future classic in the making, then? Not bad for the price of a new Ford Fiesta.


2. Nissan 370Z

Used deals from £20,990
Monthly finance from £0*

Talking of dying breeds, there’s something delightfully old school about the Nissan 370Z. It’s amazing to think that it’s been on sale for well over a decade - a huge amount of time in car terms. But don’t let that put you off - there’s a lot to love about the 370Z.

It’s powered by a whopping great 3.7-litre six-cylinder engine producing a mighty 326hp. The engine is mounted at the front, with power sent to the rear wheels, so it feels like the kind of sports car your dad would have owned in the 80s and 90s. Unlike pretty much all powerful petrol cars these days, the Nissan does without a turbocharger, which makes it feel more analogue. Rather than offering a big chunk of power at low engine speeds, you have to work the engine hard to unlock the power, making it a more dramatic drive.

In standard guise, the Nissan 370Z will hit 60mph in just 5.5 seconds. Opt for the more powerful 339hp Nismo version, and the 60mph time will be polished off in a mere 5.0 seconds. That's decently quick, but there's more to this Nissan than just the numbers - it really involves you in the driving process compared with most new cars. Take a look at the prices on BuyaCar - you might be pleasantly surprised at how affordable the 370Z is, too.


3. Ford Focus ST

Used deals from £21,490
Monthly finance from £334*

In an era of hatchbacks with downsized petrol and diesel engines, there’s something satisfying about driving a Ford Focus ST with a 2.3-litre engine. Yes, this isn't the biggest engine in the world, but it is a unit it shares with the entry-level Ford Mustang and the old Focus RS - both of which are engaging drivers' cars.

That’s some pedigree. It means that the Focus ST offers impressive pace, regardless of whether you opt for the spacious hatchback or the more practical estate version. An impressive 280hp is enough to propel the Focus to 62mph in 5.7 seconds before going on to reach a top speed limited to 155mph.

Highlights include 19-inch alloy wheels, a prominent rear spoiler, sports suspension, Recaro partial leather seats, a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and a head-up display, which beams driving information onto the windscreen. In short, the Focus is a pleasingly sophisticated machine, but is also more exciting to drive than many modern high-performance hatchbacks.


4. Mazda 3 2.2D

Used deals Limited stock

The previous-generation Mazda 3 was a stylish and well-equipped alternative to cars like the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf. Launched in 2013, it was available with a choice of two petrol engines and a pair of diesels. It was also strong value new and even more affordable as a second-hand purchase.

Surprisingly, it’s the 2.2-litre 'Skyactiv-D' diesel engine that earns it a place here. Not only is the Mazda 3 2.2-litre diesel the quickest car in the range - accelerating from 0-62mph in a brisk 8.1 seconds - but it’s also only slightly less economical than the 1.5-litre diesel. However, it’s so much quicker - and offers power across such a broad range of engine speeds, making it effortless to drive - that we think you’ll be happy to live with the slightly reduced fuel economy.

Indeed, the 2.2-litre diesel is one of the finest modern diesel engines, especially following the 2016 update to the 3 range. Small tweaks helped to make it respond even quicker to the accelerator and boosted refinement at low revs engine speeds. If you want a potent, economical and fun to drive diesel, this is a great choice.


5. Audi RS3

Used deals from £26,500
Monthly finance from £0*

Fancy a family hatchback or saloon with the power to rival a Porsche 718 Cayman or Boxster? The Audi RS3 can do just that, courtesy of a 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine developing an enormous 367hp. If you’re fortunate to be in a position to buy the latest RS3, you’ll have access to 400hp of firepower. That's even more muscle than the already pretty powerful 3.0-litre BMW M2 below.

The five-door RS3 is known as the Sportback, but it’s also available as a good looking saloon, which offers a sleeker outline. It’s powerful enough to hit 62mph in just 4.3 seconds, or significantly less in the 400hp version, with the four-wheel drive system helping to minimise wheel spin and rocket you up to speed.

Yet despite the potent performance, the RS3 remains as practical as a regular Audi A3, albeit with a slightly firmer ride. Still, that’s a small price to pay for an engine that sounds as good as Audi’s very distinctive five-cylinder unit.


6. BMW M2

Used deals from £29,995
Monthly finance from £0*

We offer no excuse for including another BMW on the list of small cars with big engines. The M2 feels even more special than the M140i, as it's an even higher performance model, albeit a less practical two-door one. It’s designed to take on the four-wheel drive Audi RS3 and much smaller-engined Mercedes-AMG A45 - which is something it does with rear-wheel drive for a more traditional sports car feel.

The 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine produces a mammoth 370hp, which is enough to propel the M2 to 62mph in just 4.3 seconds. A Competition variant produces even more horsepower, but prices haven’t dropped to an affordable level, so if you're on a budget, you'll want to stick to the standard car.

It might be the smallest member of the high-performance BMW M range, but the M2 is more than capable of holding its own. Indeed, thanks to its rear-wheel drive handling and cornering balance, it’s more a rival to the likes of the Porsche 718 Cayman and Alpine A110 than it is to most family hatchbacks.


7. Jaguar XE S

Used deals from £24,394
Monthly finance from £0*

We’re stretching the definition of a small car by including the Jaguar XE, but hear us out. Let’s not forget, the XE is a compact upmarket saloon - and its sleek lines make it look smaller than it actually is - so a 3.0-litre six-cylinder supercharged petrol engine does seem like overkill.

Not that we’re complaining. The sporty XE S feels a touch more special than the regular XE saloon, courtesy of some cosmetic upgrades inside and out. You also get an electric tailgate, keyless start and entry, an uprated sound system, heated sport seats, automatic air-conditioning and sports suspension.

Your biggest challenge will be finding one, however. These were expensive cars when new, and sales were limited. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the XE S is available on BuyaCar for around half the price it was when new, and its 3.0-litre engine kicks out up to 380hp - a hefty amount for a car of this size.


8. Ford Focus RS

Ford Focus RS front three quarters view

Used deals from £27,443
Monthly finance from £0*

We like to end with a wildcard, and this is wild in all senses of the word. The Ford Focus RS is a brutish hot hatchback powered by a 2.3-litre turbocharged engine and kept on the straight and narrow by a four-wheel drive system.

The headline figures are impressive: 350hp, 0-62mph in 4.7 seconds and a top speed of 165mph. If you go easy on the throttle - good luck with that in a car that goads you into driving quickly like this one - it could return 36.7mpg. There’s even a drift mode for when you want to go sideways. On a track, obviously.

Although the boot is smaller than the regular Ford Focus - due to the space taken up by the four-wheel drive system - the RS is a car you can use everyday. Just be warned: everybody will want to race you at the traffic lights.


*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.


Latest best cars & vans

  1. Cheapest car brands

  2. Best vans for towing

  3. Best cars for short journeys