Motoring.com.au’s current City Car recommendations read almost like a repeat play of last year’s picks, except that Skoda’s Fabia is shuffled out and Renault’s Clio has taken its place – the Renault’s flair and value are difficult to overlook.
Base- and mid-spec light cars garnered our first-car recommendations, but here high-spec variants – and hot-hatches – are the ones for downsizers and those seeking a fun, frugal and easy-to-park car for their commute.
A heightened budget brings Audi’s A1 into contention. The VW Polo-derived entry-level Audi starts at $26,500 and runs to $50,000 in hotted-up, all-wheel-drive S1 form.
Mid-rangers such as Renault’s Clio Dynamique and GT run from the low to the high $20,000’s region, though the $18,290 three-cylinder turbo Expression might be the surprise sweet spot.
Given the value offered by the hottest versions of the range-topping Clio RS, VW Polo GTI and Ford Fiesta ST, they’re hard to pass up. The first two cost $30,000, while the Fiesta ST is a cracking buy at $25,990.
In the MINI range, you pay more for the ultimate variant – the Cooper S – as you do for the kitted-out Clio RS – nearer $40,000.
It costs $42,500 to get into Audi’s A1 1.4 TFSI Sport. It sits below the S1 and remains a feisty little unit that plays happily in warm-hatch territory while offering a more premium experience than its rivals.
As our 2014 City Car of the year, Volkswagen’s Polo is the obvious pick of the premium light hatches. Like the lauded Golf, the Polo brings impressive refinement to the class and price point.
In fact, just like the Golf, because the solidity, quietness and ride comfort of the Polo make it feel like a car from a class above.
Yet the baby Vee Dub (now that the up! has exited the local market) still brings the qualities that make light cars appealing in the first place. Better than most, the Polo balances performance and economy with its range of torquey, efficient engines.
The line-up opens with a 66kW 1.2-litre turbo for $16,490, though the 160Nm figure is what makes the 1032kg entry-level variant so sprightly. The 81kW/175Nm 1.2 turbo found in the mid-range Comfortline is the same engine in a higher state of tune, and is worth the extra $2,000.
The 81TSI is just as thrifty as the less-powerful base model. The upper model gets a six-speed manual while the base car is a five-speed, while auto variants all get a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.
While the Fiesta ST is a sharper steer, the Polo’s blend of ride, handling and refinement make it a compelling proposition, and that’s true from the entry-level up to the flagship GTI.
The hot-hatched Polo is powered by a clever little supercharged turbo 1.4-litre four-cylinder. With 132kW and 250Nm, it’s 2kW short, but 10Nm up on its Ford arch-rival.
Which is the best buy? That’s a tough call and is likely to come down to personal preference, unless a manual is a must, then it’s easy, because the Polo GTI is auto-only.
Renault’s Clio has had an on-again off-again relationship with the Aussie market. After we missed out on the first generation entirely, the second-gen Clio brought the whole family to Oz. We lost the mainstream variants with the third-gen, but with the current fourth-gen model, they’re back.
The Clio is another light-car line-up in which your transmission preference might dictate which variant you gravitate towards, or whether you go looking in a different showroom entirely.
But given that more buyers want an auto than a manual, the Clio range will largely please because a six-speed dual-clutch is default gearbox across much of the range, leaving the (excellent) manual-only entry-level Authentique and Expression TCe 90 variants as the DIY gear selection variants.
The preference for an auto includes both mainstream and high-performance-car buyers, though there are old-schoolers who will be left little choice but to opt for the manual-only Fiesta ST over a Clio RS (or Polo GTI).
But there are plenty of reasons to choose the Renault and, in a way, the transmission is one of them. The Renault EDC – for ‘efficient dual clutch’ – gearbox offers a launch control to help the turbo hatch go close to the claimed 6.7-second 0-100km/h and, with its shift paddles, frees both the driver’s hands for steering duties.
The latter can be handy on a tight backroad, where the agile RS is at its most entertaining.
Elsewhere, in the city, the Renault rewards with its effortless performance, rorty engine note and sweet steering, though just as in most light hot-hatches, ride quality is on the firm side of comfortable.
‘Handles like a go kart’ doesn’t truthfully apply to anything other than go karts, and perhaps the Lotus Elise. But in the light hatch realm, there’s no closer approximation of the go kart experience than in a MINI.
Sharp steering with a meaty electric power steering calibration ensure the MINI points its snout with alacrity, while a taut suspension set-up ensures the chassis keeps up.
It’s this dynamic flavour – and the extreme number of personalisation options offered – that have made two generations of new MINI a hit. With the arrival of a larger, more powerful and thriftier third-generation, that popularity looks set to continue.
Much of the line-up – like a lot of the light-car market – comes powered by three-cylinder engines. The entry-level MINI ‘One’ kicks off at $24,500 in six-speed manual form with a 75kW 1.2-litre turbo petrol triple.
Up-spec, the Cooper costs $26,650 and offers 100kW and 220Nm from its 1.5-litre three-pot. Even the diesel – the Cooper D – adopts the three-cylinder, a 1.5-litre mill boasting a stout 270Nm.
But the real fun – and that go-kart-like feeling – is found in the $36,950 Cooper S, which brings a more conventional 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder with 141kW and 280Nm and sprints from 0-100km/h in 6.7/6.8 seconds (auto/manual).
Across the range a six-speed automatic adds $2,350 on top of the manual. The result is a $40,000 flagship that, while not the hottest of the light hatch crop, offers an experience unlike any other.
The Fiesta is a bit of a favourite with, well … anyone who knows a ripping good steer when they drive one. And that applies from the cooking Ambiente variant to the stove-hot ST. A bit of a well-kept secret (Ford Oz should have flogged it harder), the Fiesta is a delight for those in the know.
The entry-level Ambiente is terrific value at just under $16,000, but it’s more the domain of first-car buyers.
We’ll overlook the Trend, which is powered by the same 1.5-litre four-cylinder as the Ambiente, with the same five-speed manual or ($2,000-pricier) six-speed dual-clutch auto. It’s better equipped than the base model, but perhaps not quite to the tune of the $2,000 price premium.
Downsizers – or anyone looking for a premium light car – should look straight to the Fiesta Sport. In the transition from non-turbo four-cylinder to turbocharged 1.0-litre three-cylinder, the Fiesta gains flexibility and performance – it’s up 10kW and 30Nm – while cutting combined-cycle fuel consumption from 5.8 to 4.9L/100km.
The Sport sounds great, is effortlessly swift and finally has the grunt needed to make the chassis shine.
Well, almost. The truly desirable Fiesta comes in the pert, three-door form of the ST. A rorty 1.6-litre turbo provides the shove – 134kW and 240Nm – while a stiffened-up, hunkered down chassis helps it string corners together with sports-car talent.
Shortcomings? The main one is that the Fiesta’s cabin isn’t quite classy. The design of the dash polarises, while the hard plastics feel low-rent. Steering – and hot-hatch – connoisseurs won’t care, and for the rest, our next player offers all the compact premium goodness anyone could want…
Audi A1 Sportback
Audi hates it when motoring journos point out that the A1 and Volkswagen’s Polo are related. In fairness to Ingolstadt’s baby, they’re quite different drives, while the $10,000 premium (on average) is certainly felt on the road and in the classy cabin.
In the base-model – the $26,500 1.2 TSI attraction – you’re paying a high price for the four rings on the grille, which doesn’t leave much for the engine, which offers a mere 63kW and a half-decent 160Nm. The six-speed manual-only variant isn’t quick, at 11.9sec 0-100km/h, but sips, at 5.1L/100km.
The $30,000 1.6 TDI is a similar proposition – slow (11.6-second 0-100km/h) but super-thrifty, at 3.8L/100km.
Things get more interesting in the turbo four-cylinder 1.4 TFSI. With 90kW and 200Nm underfoot the acceleration figure tumbles to 9.0 seconds while economy stays respectable, at 5.3L/100km.
The 1.4 TFSI Sport is decidedly more exciting. Technically, the supercharged and turbocharged engine is a marvel, and its 136kW and 250Nm make the A1 fun. Meanwhile, economy in the high fives deserves a high five.
The ‘Sport’ badge is about right – the $42,500 up-spec variant isn’t quite a hot-hatch but the sharp handling delivers plenty of entertainment on the right road.
The ultimate S1 variant stuffs Golf GTI grunt (and then some) in a small package and the on-road result lives up to the all-wheel-drive über-hatch promise, and the scorching 5.8-second 0-10km/h claim.
The S1 does cost $50K, though, and if that’s getting too expensive for you, there’s always a Polo GTI…
This article first appeared in motoring.com.au