Best small-engined petrol cars

The good-old petrol engine has been dying on its feet for the past few years. Until just a few years ago manufacturers were largely trimming them from model lineups as much as possible, just because buyers were flocking to diesels in search of fuel economy. The popular perception in the UK has been that diesels are cheaper to run, more economical, greener and just as refined.

Although that’s only sometimes the case, manufacturers have started throwing their development budgets at small petrol engines, endowing them with turbochargers and other nifty tricks to create powerplants that punch well above their weight. If you haven’t driven a modern 1.0-litre petrol car then you may well be in for a pleasant – and amusing – surprise.

There are other reasons to consider petrols too.

The UK Government recently announced a plan that could really put petrol engines back in favour. London Mayor and hair enthusiast Boris Johnson revealed that he plans to charge an extra £10 per day for diesel drivers wishing enter the centre of the capital. Separately, Islington council has announced they will start to fine diesel motorists who leave their engines running £20.

Indeed, if you exclude carbon dioxide, diesels are in fact far more polluting than their petrol cousins. Often buying a diesel is only cost-effective if you travel mega miles (diesels cost more to buy than petrols). In some cases you need to travel more than 15,000 miles per year to offset the higher list price, servicing costs and fuel price. So if you want diesel fuel economy, but without the associated costs, what should you buy?

We’ve compiled a list of cars with smaller petrol engines that offer diesel levels of fuel economy, and just as much usability. And – in most cases – more fun.

Citroen C4 Cactus

2014 Citroen C4 Cactus

Cars don’t really get more honest than this nowadays. On the face of things, it looks like just another bold rival for the wacky-looking Nissan Juke, but there’s more to it. You see, Citroen has realised that weight and complexity are the two biggest flaws with modern cars: there’s just too much going on in there. So they took the underpinnings of a Citroen C3, combined them with a large practical bodyshell, took away all the silly (and heavy) little gizmos that you don’t really need, and gave us the Citroen C4 Cactus.

So-what if it has pop out rear windows, a one-piece folding rear bench and only a seven-inch touchscreen (which controls everything) for company? It still does everything you need, it just weighs about 200kg less than a C4. There’s also much less stuff to go wrong.

It’s just a big, friendly looking family fun car with soft suspension, loads of space and a low price. It also has some nifty features, including Airbumps: rubber panels on the doors that stop people slamming their doors on yours in car parks and denting them. Critics praise the 110hp 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol engine, which manages 61mpg – not bad for a car this size. For £13,000, it’s the best value we can think of.

VW Up/SEAT Mii/Skoda Citigo

vw up red driving

These excellent little microhatches show that you don’t have to sacrifice space, quality or comfort if you downsize. Dinky though they might be, they all offer good space for four adults, and the kind of interior quality and equipment that puts family cars of ten years ago to shame. They also handle smartly, ride like cars costing three times as much, and are easy to park. The little one-litre, three-cylinder engine is great too. Although it’s modest in actual power output, it’s surprisingly pokey and punts the cars along at a swift enough pace if you use the gears, and sounds very racy doing it. It sounds a little like a classic Porsche too, which really gives these little cars serious grin factor.

They also achieves more than 60mpg in real-life driving. The Volkswagen Up with Bluemotion Technology will take that up to 65mpg, with some owners reporting 70mpg is possible if you take it easy. This is thanks to intelligent design, very low weight and a fuel sipping petrol. Problems? Well other than a handful of owners reporting premature clutch wear, there isn’t much to go wrong in these little cars. Buy the cheapest (probably the Skoda Citigo), because there’s so little difference between them. These little cars will make you remember that driving can be FUN.

Audi A3 1.4 TFSI CoD

It’s an Audi hatchback. Not all that interesting. It has a 1.4-litre engine. Even less interesting. But bear with us, because this little engine has an ace up its sleeve. Nope, it doesn’t run on fish, and it doesn’t have anything to do with popular computer game Call of Duty – it’s way more interesting.

This particular Audi A3 has been endowed with ‘Cylinder on Demand’ technology, which automatically deactivates two cylinders of the engine when they aren’t needed, and reactivates them when you put your foot down. So when you’re cruising at a steady speed you effectively have a two-cylinder 700cc engine sipping fuel, but when you prod the accelerator it all fires up again – giving you a hatch that can get from 0-60mph in 8.3 seconds, while returning more than 60 mpg. That’s faster than the original Golf GTI, and several times more efficient. Genius.

This engine has well and truly taken the fight to diesel’s doorstep, and will soon be available in the Volkswagen Golf and SEAT Leon, as well as other Volkswagen Group hatches.

Toyota Prius Plus

The venerable Prius tends to get forgotten about nowadays, which is a shame because it’s still a very usable and efficient petrol-electric hybrid, although Toyota realised it could do with having another niche. So in came the Toyota Prius Plus, offering all the eco-worthiness in a seven-seat package. Probably the best of very few hybrid MPVs around, the Plus is spacious, has a decent sized boot and usable rear seats, perfect for large families with consciences. Just under 70mpg and emissions of less than 99 g/km of CO2 mean fuel and tax savings aplenty.

Ford Fiesta EcoBoost

The fantastic little 1.0-litre turbocharged EcoBoost finds its best home in the Ford Fiesta, although it’s great in the Focus too. It’s the best all-round engine Ford makes, and in 125hp guise it has a great combination of economy and performance, although the 100hp version is plenty in the Fiesta. It’s almost as powerful as a Suzuki Swift Sport, but noticeably torquier, meaning you can pull away in third gear from just about walking pace. This, along with energy recovery in the brakes and a low kerbweight, helps it achieve more than 65mpg.

Like most three-cylinder petrol engines, it’s also fun to, erm, thrash. It accelerates nicely through the middle of the rev range, with a sweet Porsche 911-like sound. That said, it’s not much cheaper than the quicker (and far less frugal!) Fiesta ST.

Toyota Aygo

This is the new version of a car that has always been a firm favourite with teenage drivers taking to the road for the first time, and also more grown-up drivers who appreciate small fun cars. The peppy little Toyota Aygo continues the trend of low weight, big fun, but combines it with an aggressive new ‘X’ face, a more comfortable interior and nice road manners. It weighs 60kg less than the (hardly portly) old model, and its thrummy 1.0-litre engine offers decent town performance, nearly 70mpg and a soothing warbly soundtrack.

Alfa Romeo 4C

Ok, we know this is supposed to be about alternatives to humble diesels, not low-slung sports cars approaching £50,000, but the Alfa Romeo 4C isn’t the fuel guzzling beast you expect it to be. Certainly, a 0-60mph time of 4.5 seconds and a top speed in excess of 160mph don’t scream ‘eco’, but fuel economy figures of more than 40mpg and emissions of just 157 g/km of CO2 are quite astonishing.

How does it do it?

Weight is key to everything. The fact that the 4C goes, stops, steers and handles so well is mainly down to a weight of only 890kg – it’s low because the car has a carbon fibre tub at its heart, and there’s no power steering pump. It may not be practical or particularly comfortable, but you can’t get figures like that anywhere else.

Find out more

Use the carwow car chooser to filter cars by their fuel type, fuel economy, price and even 0-60mph time. You can quickly make a shortlist of fun petrol-powered cars that won’t cost the earth. Just remember to use the green-handled pump at the petrol station…

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