Best cars for the city

Looking for a car that’s up to the challenge of city life? Here are eight contenders that are ready to go into battle

Gavin Braithwaite-Smith
Nov 23, 2020

Choosing the best car for the city isn’t as easy as it used to be. Small, easy-to-drive models are normally the best choices, but it's no longer that simple. Congestion charges, pedestrianised zones, bus lanes, restricted parking, speed humps and cycle lanes are just some of the obstacles that might leave a driver feeling particularly unwelcome.

Some cities are planning a total ban on certain types of vehicle. Take Bristol, which is set to ban diesel cars from entering parts of the city centre as early as 2021. A wider Clean Air Zone (CAZ) will extend to other parts of the city, too.

If you’re planning ahead, you really ought to consider a low-emission car to minimise the hassle you face driving into different cities or, better still, an electric vehicle. This way, you’re future-proofing yourself against city centre bans or emission-based congestion charges.

When we say electric vehicle, we're talking about fully electric cars; plug-in hybrids are impressive on paper, but not that much more efficient than a conventional petrol or diesel model if you fail to charge the batteries regularly, while conventional hybrids have smaller batteries and an even more limited electric range.

Before long, it's likely that hybrids will be taxed in ways that zero-emission electric cars aren't, too. So, if you want to do everything you can to protect yourself from emission charges and congestion zones, an electric car is likely to be the best bet. However, there are a number of more affordable petrol cars that are great value now and should make great city cars for many years to come, too.

Here we’ve selected eight affordable cars that are perfect for the city. Chances are you want something that’s small, easy-to-park, nippy and fun-to-drive. If it's stylish enough to turn a few heads, well that’s an added bonus. For more inspiration, check out our guide to the best cars for London.

Best cars for the city

1. BMW i3

Used deals from £13,995
Monthly finance from £228

The BMW i3 isn’t the cheapest electric car you can get, but you might be pleasantly surprised to discover how affordable it can be. Early examples are available for less than the price of a Ford Fiesta, which is a small price to pay for a car that still looks like it’s from the future.

Back in the present, the BMW i3 boasts space-age styling and one of the most eye-catching interiors you’ll find in a car of any price. There are a pair of touchscreens in place of traditional dials and switches, along with a clever use of sustainable materials. It’s like sitting inside one of the homes you might have seen on Grand Designs.

Be aware when looking at used models that not all versions offer the same electric range. Newer versions offer a strong 195 miles of electric range per charge, but if that isn’t enough for you, you can get a 'Range Extender' model, which can travel up to 276 miles on a single charge and a full tank of fuel, as it has a small petrol engine that can keep the electric motor running even if the batteries have run out of charge.

Opt for the all-electric version and you’ll pay nothing in road tax, you shouldn't have to pay anything to enter most low-emission zones, and you can have that smug feeling of doing your bit to improve local air quality. 

BMW i3 BUYERS' GUIDE

2. Fiat 500

Used deals from £4,490
Monthly finance from £94

If you want to turn the streets of Manchester into Milan, Norwich into Naples and Reading into Rome, the Fiat 500 is the car for you. The chic Italian city car is the vehicle to choose if you want something that’s small enough for the congested streets, but certainly won’t cramp your style.

Dedicated followers of fashion will love the 500bydiesel with its denim-effect upholstery, or the 500byGucci and its black and white Gucci paint, but all versions of the 500 look good and feature the same fun-to-drive handling. Whether you’re commuting or nipping to the shops, you will enjoy driving the Fiat 500.

We’d avoid the entry-level Pop, because while the low prices look tempting, the absence of air-conditioning could leave you feeling a bit hot and bothered in summer. Also look out for the 500C, which features a full length canvas roof for some open-top fun.

FIAT 500 BUYERS' GUIDE

3. Citroen C4 Cactus

Used deals from £6,799
Monthly finance from £133

You see those panels on the side of the Citroen C4 Cactus? They’re called 'Airbumps', and they’re designed to protect the car from wayward shopping trolleys, car doors and unfortunate encounters with bollards. You’ll also find the panels on the front and back, to provide all-round protection.

For such an affordable car, the Citroen C4 Cactus feels surprisingly upmarket. You can thank the bold and interesting interior, where a clever use of materials and a unique design help to lift the C4 Cactus beyond the mainstream. Highlights include a large glovebox inspired by a suitcase, along with a retro-style digital instrument panel.

Although the diesel engines are extremely efficient, the 1.2-litre 110hp PureTech petrol engine is perfect for the city, offering a terrific blend of punchy performance and excellent fuel economy. Look out for automatic models, where you’ll find a full length bench seat in the front.

CITROEN C4 CACTUS BUYERS' GUIDE

4. Renault Zoe

Used deals from £6,300
Monthly finance from £123

The Renault Zoe is the most affordable electric car on the BuyaCar website, with early examples available for less than the price of a new Dacia Sandero - the UK's cheapest new car. You can expect to see a driving range of 70 to 150 miles, depending on the size of the battery. As a basic rule of thumb, newer versions will travel further than the earlier cars, as the battery technology was regularly improved, increasing how far you can travel per charge.

The amount of standard equipment is generous, with a seven-inch touchscreen media system, Bluetooth, air-conditioning, keyless entry and cruise control fitted to all models. Other highlights include an excellent safety rating, plus more interior space than you’ll find in a Renault Clio.

One thing you’ll need to consider is the cost of leasing the battery. Although new car buyers could choose to buy the battery outright with the car, many opted to lease it separately, with the cost linked to their anticipated annual mileage.

The leasing option was removed as part of an update in late 2019, so the battery will be included in new and nearly-new cars, though it's worth checking whether the battery is included or not with older versions.

RENAULT ZOE BUYERS' GUIDE

5. Dacia Sandero Stepway

Dacia Sandero Stepway front

Used deals from £5,225
Monthly finance from £98

The Sandero Stepway is Dacia’s most popular model. Although it’s based on the cheap and cheerful Sandero hatchback, the raised ride height, SUV-inspired body cladding and roof bars give it the look and feel of a tough off-roader - even though it may lack four-wheel drive or other off-road hardware.

Thanks to the raised driving position, you get a slightly improved view of the road ahead, which will come in handy when you’re negotiating tight city streets and small parking bays. It also means that speed bumps are less of an inconvenience, while the body protection means that parking incidents are likely to be less painful on the wallet.

We’d recommend the Comfort trim, as it packs the kind of kit you’d want if you’re going to live with a car for a few years. Highlights include sat-nav, rear parking sensors, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. You also get cruise control with a handy speed limiter, which means you can avoid getting caught by one of the many speed cameras in the city.

DACIA SANDERO STEPWAY BUYERS' GUIDE

6. Kia Picanto

Used deals from £4,599
Monthly finance from £99

At a width of just 1,595mm, the Kia Picanto is one of the narrowest new cars you can buy. Handy, when you’re trying to navigate through congested streets and tight width restrictions. Size matters, doesn’t it?

The Picanto’s compact dimensions don’t mean you’ll feel the squeeze once inside. Indeed, the cabin is spacious enough for four adults, while the boot offers a class-leading 255 litres of space. That's enough for a couple of cabin cases or a good day’s shopping for new clothes.

There are no fewer than nine different trim levels to choose from, but we’d avoid the entry-level Picanto 1. Instead, opt for the Picanto 2, which features 14-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, Bluetooth music streaming and a leather-trimmed steering wheel. This makes the Picanto feel like a much more desirable machine.

Higher trim levels boast goodies like sat-nav, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and heated front seats. You can even get a forward collision avoidance system, which should keep you out of trouble by being able to slam on the brakes, if it thinks you're going to crash.

KIA PICANTO BUYERS' GUIDE

7. Mazda CX-3

Used deals from £9,350
Monthly finance from £157

From the narrowest city car to one of the narrowest SUVs, the Mazda CX-3 is perfect if you fancy a lofty driving position for navigating your way through the city. We also happen to think that the CX-3 is one of the best looking SUVs on the market, so you get a touch of flair to go with your practicality.

It’s based on the Mazda 2 supermini, which means it’s great to drive. Roundabouts, double bends and chicanes will be things you enjoy, rather than aspects of city motoring you’re forced to endure.

Even the basic SE Nav+ features 16-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, a seven-inch colour touchscreen media system, sat-nav, Bluetooth, USB ports and a handy hill-hold assist that takes the stress out of hill starts. Higher trim levels get the likes of emergency city braking, a reversing camera, traffic sign recognition and a heated steering wheel.

MAZDA CX-3 BUYERS' GUIDE

8. Mini Convertible

Used deals from £9,450
Monthly finance from £176

The Mini Convertible could be the perfect city car. Small enough for even the most congested streets. As enjoyable as the regular Mini hatchback to drive. Practical enough for you and three of your mates. Oh, and with the added bonus of some drop-top action.

Roof up, it’s like a cosy version of the regular Mini - the way it insulates you from the outside world is highly impressive. Roof down, you get to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the city, although we appreciate that some of the smells might be a tad unpleasant.

Even the entry-level Mini Convertible is fun-to-drive, with its 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine delivering a rorty soundtrack, a fair amount of muscle and surprisingly good fuel economy. It’s also the most comfortable version of the Mini Convertible, which will come in handy if the roads in your city look like the surface of the moon.

MINI CONVERTIBLE BUYERS' GUIDE

 

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