Fast cars with small engines

Looking for a quick and fun-to-drive car that is also economical and relatively cheap to insure? Check out these small-engined fast cars

James Wilson
May 30, 2022

Fast cars are now available with increasingly small engines but this is not a problem. After all, if F1 race cars can travel ridiculously fast using a 1.6-litre engine then small engines should be more than powerful enough for those using regular roads. Small engines actually have a number of benefits. They often promise impressively high fuel economy and being smaller they are typically lighter and put less strain on suspension, brakes and other components.

Below there are eight of the best fast cars with small engines. There is a range of makes and models to choose from including a tiny city car, a handful of hatchbacks, a two-seater convertible and a practical family SUV. The smaller the car, the better the fuel economy and performance you can expect from a small engine - since there's less weight to move around.

The models listed below range in age and price but all are readily available second-hand for no more than £30,000. In fact, most can be found for less than £20,000. Go for PCP finance and you should be able to take advantage of low monthly payments compared with the list price of the car, too.

All the cars with small engines below should feel nippy and relatively quick for the type of car. The tiny Volkswagen Up GTI is small and light, so feels agile around corners and its miniscule 1.0-litre engine is powerful enough to punt it to 62mph in 8.8 seconds - which feels quick in such a compact car. Meanwhile, the larger Ford Puma ST has a bigger 1.6-litre engine, which is still pretty small for this type of car, but has enough muscle to enable the car to race to 62mph in a quick 6.7 seconds.

Fast economical cars

1. Volkswagen Up

Our pick Volkswagen Up GTI
0-62mph 8.8 seconds
Top speed 122mph
Used deals from £11,500

When it comes to pint-sized thrills, the VW Up GTI is one of the most exciting options. Based on the decidedly compact VW Up, the GTI version comes with a more powerful petrol engine, sporty looking alloy wheels and slightly lower suspension. The result is a car that is great fun to drive without you having to go particularly fast.

The engine is a 1.0-litre petrol, which has a turbocharger to boost the power available and it produces a characterful thrum when accelerating hard, making it really engaging to drive - whether you're in town or on a narrow country road. However, it should still prove to be relatively frugal, at least compared to bigger-engined fast cars.

Although it is small, the Up GTI is relatively practical. There is the choice of three or five doors, with five-door models providing improved access for rear-seat passengers. Despite the car's small size, there is a good amount of head and shoulder room in the back for adults to get comfortable. Legroom is a little tighter, but still not bad. As for the boot, it can fit up to 251 litres of luggage, which is good for a car of this size and should mean a couple of large suitcases can be fitted in.

VOLKSWAGEN UP BUYERS' GUIDE

2. Ford Fiesta

Our pick Ford Fiesta ST-Line
0-62mph 8.9 seconds
Top speed 136mph
Used deals from £9,500

The Ford Fiesta ST-Line is something of a win-win. This is because the ST-Line model looks as sporty as the full-fat ST - which has a more powerful engine, costs more and uses more fuel - but as it comes with a relatively economical 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine it should cost much less to fuel. There are a handful of different versions of the 1.0-litre engine (Ford refers to them all as ‘EcoBoost’ engines) but it is the most powerful 155hp version that is the best option for those shopping for a fast car.

Handling around corners is a particular highlight of any Fiesta, with the steering and suspension working very well and giving the driver confidence that should they zip around a corner quickly on faster roads, the Fiesta will remain easy to control. When driving normally, the Fiesta is very easy to get along with, thanks to clear dials for the driver and an intuitive touchscreen media system.

FORD FIESTA BUYERS' GUIDE

3. BMW i3

Our pick BMW i3S
0-62mph 7.7 seconds
Top speed 99mph
Used deals from £16,850

Unlike the other cars in this list, which use conventional petrol engines, the BMW i3 Range Extender, instead of using an engine to turn its wheels, uses a tiny little engine to generate electricity to charge a battery, which powers an electric motor that then turns the wheels. This setup means that the i3 is a plug-in hybrid, although most plug-in hybrids can use either an electric motor or the petrol engine to drive the wheels, rather than one having to feed into the other.

Standard i3 models have a 0 to 62mph time of 8.1 seconds, but there are ‘S’ versions that lower this to 7.7 seconds. As with most electric cars, the acceleration can feel faster as the response to pressing the accelerator pedal is immediate, unlike in petrol and diesel cars whereby engines typically provide more and more power as they spin faster. 

BMW I3 BUYERS' GUIDE

4. Mazda MX-5

Our pick Mazda MX-5 Sport Nav
0-62mph 8.3 seconds
Top speed 127mph
Used deals from £11,350

Mazda sells the latest MX-5 with a choice of two engines, a 2.0-litre and a 1.5-litre. The 2.0-litre provides more punch from low engine speeds, but the 1.5-litre is more rewarding for keen drivers, as although it has less power, it is a joy to use, with the engine rewarding you for working it harder by providing notably more power than at lower engine speeds.

Unlike nearly all the other cars here, the Mazda's engine isn't turbocharged; turbocharged engines normally produce more power at low engine speeds, making it easy to pick up speed. Meanwhile, they generally reward the driver less at high speeds. The 1.5-litre Mazda is the opposite, making it a great car for those who want to really feel part of the driving process.

It just so happens the MX-5 has one of the most satisfying gear shifts in existence, plus the suspension is well-tuned for fast driving on twisty roads. Once you arrive back into urban areas, there is no need to work the car hard all the time, as the MX-5 is a perfectly pleasant place to be - even at low speeds - especially if the roof is down and the sun is shining.

MAZDA MX-5 BUYERS' GUIDE

5. Peugeot 208

Our pick Peugeot 208 GTi Prestige
0-62mph 6.5 seconds
Top speed 143mph
Used deals from £8,900

The Peugeot 208 GTI is an often overlooked fast car. This is mostly because the Ford Fiesta ST steals the attention as the defacto option for driving enthusiasts after a small hatchback. If you want a stylish, fast and easy-to-live-with small car, then the standard 208 GTi or 208 GTi Prestige is arguably a better option than the Fiesta.

Underneath the bonnet is a 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine that produces around 200hp. We say around as older models produced just under 200hp and newer versions just over. Either way, this is plenty of power for a car of this size and weight.

The small engine used in the 208 GTI is not just impressive for its power, it is impressive for its fuel economy, too. On a motorway run at around 70mph, it should be possible to average just over 40mpg. Equipment levels are generally good, too, although as their names suggest Prestige models are the best for upmarket features such as a panoramic roof and sat-nav.

PEUGEOT 208 BUYERS' GUIDE

6. Suzuki Swift

Our pick Suzuki Swift Sport
0-62mph 8.1 seconds
Top speed 130mph
Used deals from £10,478

The Suzuki Swift Sport has a bit of a cult following. This is because while most other car manufacturers chase increasingly quick 0 to 62mph times and ridiculous power outputs, the Suzuki has remained a simple, affordable, relatively fast small car. Its ace in the hole is its lightness, which means that the engine doesn’t need to be all that powerful for the Swift Sport to feel really quite fast.

In 2020, Suzuki updated the Sport so that the 1.4-litre petrol engine was paired with a mild hybrid system. This setup offers a marginal improvement in fuel economy and performance but can only assist the engine for very short periods of time, meaning you won't be driving around town on just electric power here.

However, any gain in fuel economy is valuable with pump prices as high as they are currently. There is plenty of standard equipment included, too, albeit tech such as the touchscreen media system isn’t quite as slick as alternatives from German manufacturers - though those alternatives typically cost more as well.

SUZUKI SWIFT BUYERS' GUIDE

7. Ford Puma

Our pick Ford Puma ST
0-62mph 6.7 seconds
Top speed 137mph
Used deals from £24,699

At first glance, the Ford Puma might not look like it will be all that fast, but underneath its bonnet is a potent 1.5-litre petrol engine that is powerful enough to fire the fast Ford from 0 to 62mph in 6.7 seconds. This puts the Puma in the same performance league as very quick small hatchbacks like the Fiesta ST and Peugeot 208 GTI.

If you really want to stand out from other fast cars, Ford offers a paint colour called ‘Mean Green’ which can be a bit of a marmite hue but makes the Puma very distinctive. Unlike the Fiesta and 208, the Puma is classed as a crossover - which is a middle ground between a higher and larger SUV and a lower hatchback. This type of car is extremely popular at the moment, with many drivers enjoying the slightly raised driving position - not least because it makes a car easier to get in and out of, for many drivers.

Ford has recognised that the type of person looking to drive a Puma ST probably isn’t your typical boy racer. As such, it has made the exhaust note slightly less sporty than it could be, which is a welcome change for those after a small, sporty car but who don’t want to wake up babies in the back seats with loud pops and bangs.

READ MORE ABOUT THE FORD PUMA ST

8. Mini Countryman

Our pick Mini Countryman Cooper S E
0-62mph 6.8 seconds
Top speed 123mph
Used deals from £16,500

The Mini Countryman is the biggest car to feature on this list. It uses a 1.6-litre petrol engine which is paired with a high-voltage hybrid system. Unlike the Swift Sport mild hybrid above, the Mini is a plug-in hybrid. This means the battery and electric motor are beefy enough to drive the Mini using electricity alone - officially up to 32 miles from a fully charged battery - although you'll typically get less than that on everyday roads with traffic, hills and other obstacles.

Plug-in hybrids can drastically reduce your fuel bills but they must be charged regularly to make this possible - otherwise the engine has to work overtime, and burn more fuel than necessary, carrying about a flat battery and an electric motor that has no power to get the most from it.

On a practical note, the Countryman has a 405-litre boot which is large enough for the demands of most families, plus there is ample space in the rear seats for both children and adults. The interior itself is quite funky, managing to be upmarket and somewhat interesting - the large circular media unit in the middle of the dashboard is a prime example of this.

MINI COUNTRYMAN BUYERS' GUIDE

*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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