This top 10 is packed with charming city cars that mix low running costs with a surprising sheen of sophistication that often makes them a more compelling proposition for supermini models in the class above, which cost quite a lot extra for very little material gain.
For some manufacturers a city car should be a cheap machine, engineered down to a very low price. However, with the Hyundai i10 you get the sense that the brand has applied the same high standards as they would to a Santa Fe, just on a smaller scale.
Interior quality and general desirability have increased significantly, as has practicality (this is now one of the most accommodating cars in its class, rivalling models from the class above) while its sharp exterior has plenty of chic visual appeal. It’s well-equipped too, with even the entry level SE Connect offering air-con, electric windows, a leather wrapped steering wheel, reversing camera and Bluetooth connectivity. Really, what more do you need?
Yet this is mere showroom tinsel - it’s the grown-up way the i10 drives that’s the true indicator of class-leading excellence. It rides absorbently, if a little noisily and firmly on range-topping 16in wheels, but is refined and relaxed on a run, while the compact dimensions and light controls make it a doddle around town. It handles crisply with a decent dose of agility, while the ability to drive to its limit of grip at sensible speeds is a revelation in this day and age, where even a compact hatch clings on harder than a Nineties supercar.
The Up may be the smallest car on offer in the Volkswagen range, but it doesn't miss out on all the hallmarks that the marque is renowned for. Although it is not the most revolutionary in the segment, the Up beats its closest rivals on finish and outright desirability.
That said, a recent rationalisation of its engine line-up means it's no longer go-to pick of the segment. There’s nothing wrong with the smooth and eager 59bhp three-pot, but efforts to make it Euro 6 compliant have resulted in longer gear ratios that have blunted its previously peppy performance. Of course, there’s always the go-faster Up GTI, but that’s a slightly different kettle of fish. Speaking of which, with its punchy 113bhp turbocharged three-pot and endearing handling, this sportier strain of city car has a strong claim for being the driver's choice in the segment, although it's pricier.
Yet the core of the VW remains as compelling as ever, its rational wheel-at-each-corner stance and boxy exterior allowing you to carry four adults in surprising comfort and squeeze more than you’d think into the 250-litre boot.
Just like its Hyundai i10 cousin, the Kia Picanto has grown up significantly since it first graced our roads.
The latest car is certainly better looking than its predecessors but is also finished better inside and gains a decent level of standard equipment. It even scores fairly well on the ride and handling front.
Admittedly, its 66bhp 1.0-litre engine does feel a bit weedy at times, but at the top of the engine range is the punchy 1.0-litre turbocharged three-pot engine - a trump card that not even the related Hyundai can play. In fact, there's little that separates the Picanto from the i10, save their looks, equipment, that engine, and the fact that the Kia's boot is slightly smaller. If you like what you see, or your Kia dealer is nearer, by all means pick the Picanto.
A quirky contender in this rather congested segment, the Ignis is a zesty car blessed with charm, value, space, versatility and fuel efficiency. The fact that it looks more like a crossover than some of its contemporaries do, meanwhile, does it no harm with market tastes being as they are.
The car's on-road dynamics aren't as sharp or refined as some rivals'. Performance is relatively strong, with Suzuki's clever 12V mild-hybrid system adding torque just where an atmospheric engine needs it, and handling is fairly perky, although the ride can feel a little bit crude over bigger bumps.
It is possible to spec the Ignis with Suzuki's AllGrip all-wheel drive system, meaning this car will go further off road than many of its rivals. That, added to the rest of the car's appeal, makes for a surprisingly compelling and characterful package.
Toyota Aygo X
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Toyota’s tiniest offering was reborn as a crossover when the third generation machine hit showrooms in 2022. Yet while the raised ride height and tough body cladding are depressingly predictable fodder these days, X still marks the spot when it comes to delivering a surprisingly characterful city car.
Unlike its predecessors, which were developed in partnership with Citroen and Peugeot, the latest Aygo is a solo effort for the Japanese brand. The funky design inside and out gives it some decent kerb appeal, while the mature driving dynamics combine biddable handling with a controlled ride and long legged refinement - there are cars in the class above that don't feel as grown-up as the Toyota. The fingernail in the soup is the car’s 1.0-litre three-pot motor, which has served every generation of Aygo and with 68bhp struggles to haul this heaviest version yet with any alacrity.
One neat feature that does help the car’s cause, however, is the optional folding fabric sunroof that gives the Aygo a pleasingly Citroen 2CV-esque vibe on a sunny day.
The reborn Fiat 500 has now been on sale across three separate decades, which is quite an amazing thing to consider, given that it still looks so fresh some 15 years after its launch. And to keep it as appealing as it possibly can, Fiat has retained the existing mild-hybrid version, which has a 69bhp three-cylinder petrol engine - although despite similar looks the two have very little in common
Electric power suits the 500 beautifully, and this bubble-bodied EV is convincing both to drive and to own. There are EVs with more power and more range, but the 500 isn't entirely left behind on that score, provided you opt for the more powerful 117bhp model with its claimed 199 mile range (the 94bhp version with its 24kWh battery that means just 118 miles between charges), and thanks to its tiny dimensions and tight turning circle, it fulfils its primary purpose as a city car.
So the Dacia Sandero isn't a city car per se, but given the fact that it can be had for less than most of the cars on this list, it seems reasonable enough to include it. With a larger footprint than a regular city car, the Sandero is understandably more spacious inside, but its cut-price positioning does come at a cost.
Its interior looks and feels decidedly old-school, the seating position is a touch awkward, and while it will go around corners, it does so with considerable body roll. But its 89bhp turbocharged three-pot feels willing and returns decent economy.
The Panda is different in character from most of its rivals. Fiat itself states that it is more of an ‘essential car' than a city car, which hints at the cheery simplicity that characterises the car best.
However, it’s in 4x4 form that the Panda most appeals, giving the ickle Italian machine the gung-ho go anywhere ability of a mountain goat, as well as plenty of rugged visual appeal. It’s not cheap, but thousands of Alpine-dwelling owners surely can’t be wrong.
Citroen C3 You
Like the Dacia Sandero, the C3 You really sits in the class above, its external dimensions making it something of a giant among minnows here. A de-contented version of the French firm’s otherwise average supermini, it aims to offer a lot of metal for not much cash.
As part of the paring-back process, the C3 loses its alloy wheels and some leather trimmed interior bits, plus has to make do with a lower order infotainment system, but this is hardly a poverty special. In fact, it looks rather smart, in a quirky Gallic way, while the kit that remains runs to air-con, electric windows and cruise control. The squishy seats are comfortable, if a little unsupportive when pressing on, and the boot is a relatively cavernous 300-litres - although the trade-off is rear seat space that’s no bigger than many of the smaller cars in this list.
The one car in this list that can most accurately be called a city car, on account of it being well out of its depth (and quickly out of charge) anywhere outside the urban environment. More accurately a quadricycle than a car, the Ami is Citroen’s reliably quirky take on low cost town transport.
In very basic terms the Ami impresses, its compact dimensions, tight turning circle and electric powertrain making a perfect inner city companion. It’s very basic, but then it has nothing more than it needs for a car that’ll be used for short hops in congested streets, while there’s no denying that there’s something beguiling about its minimalist design and build. And while its 28mph top speed and 46 mile range look limiting, they're perfectly adequate for the Citroen’s intended surroundings.