The best superminis have evolved from small yet practical cars to ones with real dynamic prowess, filled with the kind of luxuries found on larger cars. So which would we buy?
27 November 2019

This year is something of a seismic one for the increasingly not-so-humble and yet enduringly important small hatchback otherwise known, in Europe at least, as the supermini. In the Renault Clio, Peugeot 208 and Vauxhall Corsa, three big-volume players have all been replaced with new models built on equally new model platforms. There are brand new versions of the Toyota Yaris and Honda Jazz currently waiting in the wings to appear in showrooms later this year, and likewise updated takes on the Mazda 2 and Citroen C3. Meanwhile, the renewal of class stalwarts such as the Ford Fiesta and VW Polo is still fresh enough in the memory to seem like it happened just yesterday.

Needless to say, the class order here could look very different by the end of the year than it did at the start. To make our top 10 list at all these days, a supermini needs to be so much more than just capable of carrying a couple of adults, a couple of kids and a decent amount of luggage. It must be desirable, well-packaged, easy-to-drive and pleasant-to-use.

A dynamic character that mixes in some simple agility, litheness and driver appeal is one route to standing out, but it’s now only one among several. Increasingly superminis offer a level of perceived quality, performance and technological sophistication that bears comparison with that of bigger five-door hatchbacks; and the very best combine some or all of that with the agility only a small, light car can offer.

1. Volkswagen Polo

Still the sensible supermini of choice, the latest VW Polo is usable, refined, easy-going, spacious, comfortable, smart to look at and very solidly built. That kind of roster of qualities, presented at a price that’s not as high as with other VW models, can only make the car the very best option in a super-competitive class.

Our Verdict

Volkswagen Polo

Volkswagen’s ever-sensible supermini gets even more grown-up as the Polo hits its fifth decade, but can it take top honours?

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Compared with the previous-generation carthis new Polo is a huge departure, mixing more impressive onboard technology with improved dynamic capabilities. The Polo's ascent up our top 10 list shows how close it is to being the ideal supermini: and that's pretty painfully close.

It's a little unimaginative in appearance, perhaps, as well as reserved to drive and expensive in higher-end forms, but pretty reasonably priced in the bigger-selling mid-range forms. Engines are almost universally strong, and both rolling and mechanical refinement are very good, while there’s room in the back seats for average-sized adults as well as kids.

Other small cars will amuse you more, but the Polo is the one that you could find a reason to recommend to absolutely anybody.

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2. Ford Fiesta

The latest Fiesta had the difficult task of bettering its class-leading predecessor, which might have been the best-handling supermini of the past 25 years. This new version is much more than just a reskin of the old one and in some respects – namely its supple ride, sparkling on-road handling dynamism and driver appeal - it remains best-in-class.

However, the Fiesta's new crop of opponents have moved the supermini game on in ways that this Ford can't quite cover. Interior quality lets the Fiesta down compared with the very best superminis, and equipment sophistication and practicality are not quite in the same league as in the VW Polo or Seat Ibiza, either.

The Fiesta’s ‘Ecoboost’ three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engines remain outstanding for their blend of drivability and zest, however, and – even after so long with the same unimpeachable positioning – it remains the supermini that a keen driver should default to almost without thinking. It’s simply miles better to drive than it really needs to be.

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3. Seat Ibiza

The fifth-generation Seat Ibiza stormed to the top of our supermini class rankings when it appeared in 2018. The Spanish company went to great lengths to replace the decent fourth-generation Ibiza with a handsome hatchback backed by real substance. It was the first of the Volkswagen Group's latest breed of MQB-based small hatchbacks – and among its sibling rivals only the VW Polo has bettered it.

Mimicking the bigger Seat Leon in many ways, the Ibiza is roomy, well equipped and much better finished than before. Combine that with its fine on-road handling and refinement manners, its value-for-money position, its impressive equipment features and its youthful styling, and it all adds up to a class-leading proposition for us. 

If it could compete with the dynamically excellent Ford Fiesta for driver appeal, this would be a shoe-in for class-leading status – but sadly, Seat’s chassis tuning powers haven’t quite allowed it to progress quite that far. But for those who want a more rounded, upmarket ownership proposition than the Ford, it’s a very good option – although we’d avoid Seat’s slightly over-seasoned FR Sport trim levels.

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4. Renault Clio

Not only is the new Clio still a charming-looking supermini, it has gained newfound substance and some new fundamental strengths behind its chic aesthetic. Cabin design, ergonomic layout and perceived quality have all been improved considerably to near class-leading levels, while value-for-money remains a real strong suit.

The car rides challenging stretches of Tarmac with more of a stiff-legged, occasionally slightly wooden-feeling gait than you expect of a French car. It's far from uncomfortably, though less supple than it once was.

The car’s more serious gait doesn’t cause it to forgo handling verve, though. It might not have the most communicative steering rack but handling is intuitive and natural-feeling, and although the car rolls a bit more than some might like, there’s a striking sense of inherent cornering balance in its chassis that gives one high hopes for any RS-branded version that might follow.

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5. Mini One/Cooper

A modern rework of a classic name, and now in facelifted third-generation form, the 'new Mini' continues to build momentum and to enjoy enduring sales success. It remains quite expensive to buy and you will need to tick a fair few option boxes to get all the equipment that many of its rivals include as standard - but the Mini continues to deliver retro style, singular charm and desirability, premium equipment features and driver appeal like few cars in this class.

The car's small by supermini standards, with packaging that isn't brilliant, and space is tight in the boot and rear seats. But its selection of nippy three-pot engines and a well-constructed, premium-feeling and quirky interior make it a great place to spend time, while its direct, terrier-like handling should seal the deal for keener drivers.

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6. Mazda 2

The Mazda 2 has matured over the years to become a grown-up supermini that is very well made. It may not be quite as vivacious to drive as some of the cars above it in this list, but it remains a car that an interested driver should naturally gravitate towards for its clean-revving atmospheric engines and nicely clipped, involving handling.

Those naturally aspirated engines do need to be worked hard but its perky handling will reward drivers who are willing to invest time and effort to search higher up the rev range.

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7. Peugeot 208

As an exercise in supermini design, the new Peugeot 208 might just have been the high point of 2019. This is now easily one of the best-looking superminis in its class.

It backs up the fine exterior styling with a cabin of genuine richness and impressive perceived quality, as well as rizty technological features such as 3D digital instruments and widescreen sat nav. It’s just a shame similar attention wasn’t lavished on the underlying cabin architecture, which provides only a compromised bent-legged driving position, only restricted visibility of the ‘iCockpit’ instruments, and very limited second-row space.

The car has perfectly amenable on-road manners and rides with particular dynamic polish. Although it handles in a largely sure-footed and predictable fashion, it’s possible to coax a degree of playfulness from its chassis, should you go looking for it. It might not be quite as alert or fleet-footed as our class favourites, but it’s far from dull.

Refinement also impresses, as does performance from its three-cylinder motor. For the first time, there’s an all-electric version, too.

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8. Audi A1

The second-generation Audi A1 sits staunchly at the premium end of the supermini class and has a price to match. There’s plenty to like about the way the car looks - particularly in some of the sportier trim levels available. Far from being cutesy, it’s one of the more athletically assertive contenders among cars that are predominantly quite pretty but may be lacking in visual presence.

It handles well and it’s evident that its chassis is biased towards a more enthusiastic style of driving. It’s not quite as alert as a Mini, Fiesta, or Ibiza, but there’s some verve on display here. At the same time, on sports suspension, it can lack finesse, and its steering is a bit too light and tight-lipped to warrant praise.

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9. Vauxhall Corsa

The fifth-generation Corsa didn’t have the easiest gestation period. Following the sale of Opel-Vauxhall from General Motors to PSA Group, the decision was made to bin all development work that had been completed on the new model up until that point, so that the supermini could instead be based on the French company’s new CMP platform.

Deadlines were tight, and development somewhat rushed, but the end result was nonetheless pretty impressive. Not only is the new Corsa a handsome, if understated, supermini, it’s one that drives quite well too. Performance from the newly-sourced PSA Group engines is good, while it handles with plenty of tenacity. That said, it doesn’t quite engage its driver in the way the best superminis in the class do, the car’s controls haven’t been tuned with the last word in attentive care, and interior materials are a bit questionable in places.

This remains a highly competent supermini with more static appeal than the Corsa has had before, albeit not one that carries a huge amount of enthusiast appeal.

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10. Nissan Micra

The fifth-generation Micra is a huge departure from the one that went before. For this iteration, Nissan brought Mirca manufacturing back to mainland Europe. 

Built on the same production line as the Renault Clio, it discards the old version's dowdy looks and the 50 shades of scratchy grey plastic associated with its cabin. In their place is an edgy hatchback that's really distinctive, well built and enjoyable to drive, with sharp steering and an impressive tech offering. The Micra is also available in a host of vibrant colours and personalisation options. 

The rear seats are small and the car’s turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine is a bit meek compared with its rivals, but it is nevertheless fairly easy to live with.

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