My respect for small cars has just gone through the roof. Completely unfairly, I have been inclined in the past to dismiss anything smaller than a Focus – with the exception of the BMW Mini – as a s**tbox, and I have to admit I’ve never quite understood why Steve Cropley, for example, is such a fan of them.
But now I do.Because I’ve just spent three weeks in Mumbai, and the obvious brilliance with which compact, cheap, frugal cars cater to the needs of the majority of Indian motorists was enough to make me completely readjust my whole attitude to the tiddlers that ply our roads.
While their car market is expanding rapidly as more and more Indians are able to afford to buy a car, for most of them the priorities when choosing a car are that it’s very fuel efficient, cheap to buy and maintain, has a spacious interior and rides well enough to cope with poor-quality roads.
But they’re not prepared to completely sacrifice style and creature comforts; they want the lot. And to a greater or lesser extent, all the cars that are built for that market – some of which we get in the UK – provide all of those things. Which makes them much more fit for purpose than many of the much bigger, premium products we seem to insist on in the UK.
While various generations of the Maruti Suzuki Alto are still going strong over there and continue to play an important role in mobilising the population, two other cars really stood out for me. The Suzuki Swift, in both hatchback and (not terribly attractive) saloon forms, suddenly seemed like all the car you’d ever need: nippy, fun to drive, roomy enough for a small family, frugal, comfortable, well built and so on.
And even more promising was the new Honda City that was just being launched while I was there. This is a smart-looking small saloon, based on the innovative Jazz platform, with a 1.5-litre i-VTEC petrol engine, and it’s going to be huge in India, as its two predecessors have been. I haven’t driven one, but I could imagine that it would work equally well in the UK, such is the cleverness of its design.
Ironically, I’m told that the Renault-Dacia Logan – a car you would think would be perfect for the Indian market – isn’t selling terribly well, partly because it looks kind of dull but mostly because it has been marketed as a ‘low cost’ model, and Indians don’t like to be reminded that they can’t always afford the best.
Clearly a lot of this doesn’t have much relevance back in the UK, but I’d actually be quite happy to abandon our love affair with premium cars and the endless quest for greater perceived quality and get back to basics a bit. Every time I go to Paris and see slightly battered Clios and 207s parked seemingly at random, I find myself thinking that the French have got the right attitude. In most cases a small hatch will do the job perfectly well – superminis like the Skoda Fabia, new Ford Fiesta and Kia Cee’d are all superb, as are many modern city cars – and it doesn’t matter a jot if it gets the odd parking ding or scrape. But even if that scenario never eventuates in the UK, I’ll still have a lot more appreciation for small cars from now on.