Best luxury small cars
The best luxury small cars are affordable and yet offer the kind of quality, comfort and equipment that used to only be found on large executive cars.
It's difficult to imagine a time before the market for small, luxurious cars was as popular as it is now but the formula has been around for longer than you might realise. There have been high-specification versions of regular superminis for years – you could buy luxurious Riley-badged Minis and the Ford Fiesta Ghia in the sixties and seventies.
Audi was the first of the German premium brands to launch a car like the A3, a smaller car built to the same standard as its larger vehicles in the mid 1990s. It would take Mercedes and BMW several years to follow suit after realising that Audi was really onto something. Now, there are so many BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A-Class on the road, it’s easy to think they’ve been around forever.
However, these days some people want more than a small hatchback with lots of bells and whistles. They want their car to look individual on the outside, to wear a badge that reflects its upmarket status and to exude a feeling of quality that you don’t get from a run-of-the-mill family car.
There are more cars on the market today that cater for that precise requirement than there has ever been before. That’s partly due to monthly PCP finance payments, as a small extra cost per month means you might be able to get behind the wheel of a more luxurious model. As well as premium brands now offering an increased range of smaller models, new marques have been created with upmarket tastes in mind. More recently, the volume marques have been getting in on the act, too, introducing models designed specifically to attract those who want something a little more exclusive, but at the cost of a more down-to-earth machine.
Here's our list of the top 10 best small luxury cars on the market right now. Once you’re finished, why not check out our lists of the best cars for under £300 per month, the best car interiors or the best small hybrid cars?
It’s hard to imagine a time when the 3 Series was the smallest BMW you could buy, such has been the success of the BMW 1 Series since the first version went on sale in 2004. Its popularity stems from the fact that it offers every quality that BMWs are renowned for, but in a compact and cost-effective form.
The 1 Series has always been regarded as a true driver’s car, and the switch from rear- to front-wheel drive shouldn’t change that for most customers - its chassis has been optimised to ensure it drives as well as a BMW should. Even the least expensive BMW 116i is a fun car to drive, but the M135i at the top of the range offers serious performance.
The 1 Series is a beautifully built and well equipped car, too, with every model having sat nav as standard. Its layout and excellent handling no longer comes at the cost of slightly cramped rear interior space, though it offers a little less comfort than the Audi A3 – but many find that the driving experience easily makes up for those shortcomings.
Audi had a considerable head start on its rivals when it came to introducing a more compact luxury car. Its close relationship with Volkswagen enabled it to use the Volkswagen Golf’s reliable and efficient mechanical package to underpin the A3 – a recipe that became an immediate success. To this day, the A3 combines the proven engines and chassis of the Golf with arresting good looks and an interior that exudes quality.
The A3 has a superlative finish and an aspirational aura, backed up by excellent comfort, technology, fuel economy and safety. Just like the last car, there’ll soon be a four-wheel-drive Audi RS3, which will combine hatchback practicality with near-supercar pace. There’s also an assortment of economical diesels that are popular with company-car users and those who cover many motorway miles.
The latest version of the Mercedes A-Class does everything better than its highly successful predecessor and provides stronger competition than ever to the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series. The focus is on luxury and comfort rather than sporty handling, and while the latest A-Class is much better to drive than its predecessor, it’s inside where it races ahead of rivals. The dashboard in particular has a contemporary designer feel and is jam-packed with tech such as digital dials and standard twin seven-inch display screens (which can be bumped up to 10.25 inches at extra cost for a truly immersive infotainment experience).
Build quality is excellent, too, using suitably premium-feeling materials. Rear seat space is less generous than some, but there’s a decent boot to make up for it. While Audi and BMW offer more entertaining drives, the A-Class unashamedly puts relaxation to the fore. It’s a superb motorway cruiser, and refined, comfortable and easy to use everywhere else. The engine line-up is efficient, too, with almost 62mpg possible from the A180d diesel.
When the iconic MINI name was reinvented by BMW at the beginning of the century, everybody knew that the resulting product would be a big hit. Nobody could have guessed, though, that it would spawn an entire range – every car in which has its own appeal that buyers can’t seem to get enough of.
The MINI Clubman itself offers the same irresistible blend of driver entertainment, charm and style as the standard hatchback, with endless customisation options. Entry-level versions can be more affordable than many people think, and there are so many engine and trim choices available that there really is a MINI for every taste and budget.
If you’re looking for a compact, luxurious car with a strong name behind it, the understated Volvo XC40 is a fine choice if you want to avoid looking ostentatious. It’s a very capable car with unbeatable safety, an extremely generous equipment list and an interior that exudes crisp Scandinavian style. On the negative side, the XC40’s driving experience is slightly forgettable, but it’s extremely comfortable and some of the diesel engines are very economical.
Volvo has been on a bit of a roll of late – we hold the Volvo V90 estate and Volvo XC90 SUV in high regard – and the badge is quickly increasing in appeal, while enjoying a less obviously assertive image than its premium rivals. The XC40 is a good looking car, inside and out, and you could say that this helps you stand out from the crowd while simultaneously not attracting too much attention to yourself.
The new Audi A1 offers all the brand’s traditional virtues of clean, subtle styling, unbeatable build quality and a classy interior distilled into a compact package, which still offers five doors. Handily, there’s noticeably more rear legroom in the new model, as that was a bugbear of the previous A1.
Thanks to the thoroughness of its design, though, the A1 is impressively quiet inside and makes a fine motorway cruiser, particularly due to its frugal yet powerful engines. These are well proven and reliable, being found under the bonnets of other cars in the VW Group. The A1 isn’t quite as rewarding to drive as a MINI, but excels in just about every other way.
You might not think of Mazda as a particularly upmarket brand but their recent cars have interiors that are really well-built, nicely finished and great to look at. All Mazda3s come with DAB radio, parking sensors and auto lights and wipers. The trim above base level, SE-L Lux, also comes with luxuries like heated seats, two-zone air conditioning and a reversing camera.
There are just two petrol engines to choose from, but the largest ‘SkyActiv-X’ option offers plenty of power and the economy of a diesel. There are no confusing driver settings either - Mazda thinks the car should be set up so that you can just get in and go. Practicality is a slight weakness; the back seats are a bit cramped, the boot is slightly smaller than rivals and the rear visibility isn’t great - but the same could be said for the previous BMW 1 Series and that was a popular car.
The Lexus UX is a great alternative if you don’t fancy a Mercedes, Audi or BMW on your driveway. It’s a small SUV with styling that’s just as sharp as Lexus’ bigger SUVs, and it’s much newer than Lexus’ other small hybrid car, the CT. You can only have the UX with a hybrid powertrain, so 50mpg is easily manageable and 0-62mph acceleration is dealt with in a fairly rapid 8.5 seconds.
The interior is beautifully made and offers a number of premium touches although, as with all Lexus models, the infotainment system is a bit fiddly and frustrating to use. Lexus leaves a lasting positive impression on many customers (the brand finished first in our 2020 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey) due to the cars’ reliability and the great dealership experience.
When BMW designed its first electric car, it decided on an ultra-futuristic design to set it apart from its petrol and diesel models. With its unconventional doors and tall shape, the i3 looks like nothing else on the road - and it only needed a minor update to keep it looking fresh. There’s now an i3s model that adds extra power and speed, but both are nippy and fun-to-drive, especially in town.
You’ll be able to travel up to 188 miles on a full charge and, from a 50kW public charger, recharging to 80% takes 42 minutes. It’s expensive but an appealing standard equipment list goes some way to justifying the price; sat nav, heated front seats, parking sensors, digital dials and DAB radio are all thrown in.
DS is the PSA Group’s luxury brand; the DS 3 Crossback is its version of a small, premium SUV, heavily based on the Peugeot 208 and Citroen C3 Aircross. As extreme makeovers go, though, it’s a very effective one, and the DS 3 Crossback is far better to drive and perhaps more interesting to look at than its less expensive Citroen sibling.
The colour schemes are bold and there’s a vast array of customisation options, allowing you to pick and mix your way to individuality. The interior is striking and you can tell that a lot of design time has been put into it – there are some extremely plush material finishes available, too. There’s an electric E-Tense version that isn’t too expensive after the £3,000 Government grant; it manages 200 miles of range and is quite nippy. Once again, the compromises are cramped back seats and a comparatively small boot, regardless of whether you pick electric, petrol or diesel.
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