We run down the very best affordable electric city cars, superminis and family hatchbacks on sale today Share Open gallery
Close Share story News by Autocar 8 mins read 17 December 2020 Follow @@autocar
If an electric car ought to excel anywhere, it’s in the supermini segment.
Admittedly, a small platform means less space for batteries and so the range of the following cars will never match the potential of larger alternatives. But a small battery also means a lower asking price, and if we’re talking about urban runabouts that do only the occasional longer journey, it’s arguable just how many owners would need more than, say, 180 miles of driving range.
Best small electric cars 2021 1. Peugeot e-208
The all-electric version of the 208 supermini is one of several PSA Group compact EVs that hit the market in 2020, but it’s the best priced and also the most visually appealing. For its mix of usable range, performance, value, practicality, style, perceived quality and driver appeal, it clearly deserves to figure highly if you’re shopping for your first electric car this year. Higher, perhaps, than any other pint-sized electric car.
Unlike more low-rent-feeling EVs, the car’s materially rich interior distinguishes it just as clearly as the stylish bodywork. Practicality is on a par with the Renault Zoe and better than in a Mini Electric. Refinement beats both of those key rivals, too and performance is fairly strong. Certainly, you get an adequate dose of that electric-motor-enabled ‘zip’.
The car also rides with a suppleness missing from some smaller EVs, which often struggle to contain their body mass on the road. The steering is striking for its directness, although body control deteriorates a little bit if you drive more enthusiastically. Even so, it’s the roundedness of the e-208’s driving experience that really impresses.
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2. Renault Zoe
Another French option, right at the sharp end of the field. The Renault Zoe was always an appealing short-hop electric supermini, even when it was offered with a 22kWh battery and had only 80 miles of real-world range. The car’s usability was enhanced during a mid-life update, however, by a 41kWh battery option that, on a warm day, turns the car into one good for 150 miles of mixed real-world use.
Now there is a comprehensively updated version with a significantly refreshed design plus a 52kWh battery and up to 245 miles of range on the WLTP cycle; or around 190 miles in mixed real-world use. It still offers strong value for money against its competitors, with the UK government’s PiCG incentive bringing the car’s entry price down to around £25,000. And it’s also still pleasing to drive: very nippy and fairly quiet, albeit with some leaden feel to the controls.
Whereas previously the Zoe couldn’t be rapid charged at the motorway services quite as quickly as certain rivals, CCS fast charging is now an option. It may have fallen behind newer EV rivals in some ways, but the Zoe remains an excellent entry point into EV ownership.
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3. Volkswagen e-Up
We could just have easily put Skoda’s Citigo-e iV in this slot, because these are mechanically almost the exact same car. But we prefer the Volkswagen for its slightly more playful demeanour and the fact that, well, it was here first.
Volkswagen’s smallest electric car predates the new ID range and was updated in 2020 with an enlarged battery that now gives 159 WLTP miles. There’s also been a cut to the asking price, which is now only just above £20,000 and makes the e-Up look good value compared with the recent rash of £30,000-plus small EVs. The latest model benefits from a camera-based lane-keeping system, too, and the light-hearted, airy interior remains.
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Could this electric-powered family hatch be the car to take the EV into the mainstream?
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As is often the case with small EVs, this Volkswagen is best suited to second-car duties and running shorter errands. It’ll carry four with relative ease, and 155lb ft of torque makes it reasonably quick. As ever with Volkswagen, the controls are also intuitive and breezily easy to use. At this price, it buries the Smart EQ Fortwo, as does the Skoda.
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4. BMW i3S
If the i3 can’t quite claim to have brought the concept of EV ownership to the mass market (step forward the Nissan Leaf, introduced in 2010), then it can at least claim to have shown that such cars could be interesting and genuinely characterful.
Since 2013, BMW’s motor-show-esque city car has gained in range, power and interior technology, even if along the way the plug-in range-extender that offered owners a safety net has been ditched, so now the model is pure-electric only. Official range is 188 miles, although admittedly this is adequate rather than outstanding in 2021, and the 50kW charging potential is no more than you’d expect given the i3’s high asking price.
What we love about the i3 is, spongy body control aside, its sense of refinement, easy-going drivability, nicely weighted controls and interior ambience. With that carbonfibre-reinforced plastic architecture and standout design, it also somehow manages to still feel avant-garde, and exciting.
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5. Mini Electric
Mini has been a long time preparing to enter the electric car market, but now that it finally has, it has certainly brought all of the fun factor you expect of the brand – albeit packaged with a few equally typical usability restrictions.
Based exclusively on the three-door Mini bodyshell, the Mini Electric adopts the powertrain from the BMW i3S, giving it a very healthy 181bhp and 199lb ft of torque. Performance is notably stronger than many of the cars you might compare it with in this list, while handling is grippy, darty and agile in the enduring dynamic traditions of the Mini brand.
Range is the catch. Mini claims 144 miles, but in reality, depending on how and where you drive it, you’re more likely to get between 100 and 120 miles. And that’s in a car with a pretty small boot, whose back seats are tricky to access and little use for anyone but younger kids in any case.
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This clearly isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ sort of electric offering, but it’s priced surprisingly competitively and, if its limitations aren’t bothersome to you, could be the very car to show you how rewarding electric motoring can be.
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6. Mazda MX-30
Mazda has never been afraid to do things its own way, even when the rest of the industry appears to be doing something different.
The MX-30 is therefore not quite what you’d expect, but it’s an appealing proposition all the same. Toy-car looks are wrapped around an unusually small battery pack – just 35.5kWh, giving an official range of 124 miles – because Mazda believes owners simply won’t need any more, and increasing the size of the battery would mean unnecessary cost. It’s why the MX-30 costs less than £30,000 after the government grant, and yet it’s reasonably spacious within, has an SUV-lite body that is very much on trend, and is trimmed in interesting materials thatn give the cabin a singularly cosy and likeable atmosphere.
Dynamically, the MX-30 also stands out. With 143bhp and 199lb ft, it’s never going to blow your socks off in a straight line, but the weighting of the steering and the supple manner in which the suspension transfers weight while cornering are genuinely reminiscent of the MX-5 sports car. Truly, the MX-30 is one of the most satisfying EVs to drive around in non-committal fashion, despite being solely front driven.
Charging at up to 50kW is possible, and if the limited range works for you, there is plenty to like about the unusual Mazda MX-30. It could be an effective second car.
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7. Honda E
Honda has taken a left-field approach with its first all-electric car, the Honda E supermini — which is unusually compact for an electric car, and innovative in several ways. A rear-mounted motor promises packaging efficiency (although the car itself fails a little to follow through with it) while all-independent suspension heralds the ride and handling sophistication of a bigger car (which the car does a deal better to actually supply).The E is available in 134bhp and 152bhp forms, but neither has quite the battery capacity of rivals: 35.5kWh ‘gross’ is all you get here, which makes for a claimed WLTP range of 137 miles maximum (with the car rolling on 16in wheels). In testing, we struggled to get much more than 100 from our 17in-equipped test car. Advertisement Back to top
To drive, the E feels plush, composed and easy to operate, with medium-paced steering but a tight turning circle, and moderate but responsive performance. It doesn’t excite and doesn’t offer the last word in background body control, but it would make a relaxing city car and its alternative styling should also do much to recommend it.
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8. Vauxhall Corsa-e
Vauxhall’s sibling to the Peugeot e-208 doesn’t quite have the style or claimed WLTP range of its French relation, doesn’t have the imaginatively configured interior and isn’t priced quite as keenly. They’re fine margins by which to relegate the car so many places in this top 10 chart, but that’s simply how competitive this varied class is becoming. But don’t let that fool you into believing this Vauxhall isn’t worth a test drive, at least. It might be a little plainer than the Peugeot but it still looks handsome enough. The car’s driving experience combines genuine 180-mile everyday battery range with keen and competent handling and a comfortable ride, while 100kW DC rapid charging compatibility as standard should also be a selling point.
Vauxhall’s large UK dealer network will likely make this car one of the UK’s better-selling EVs, ready to convert people who haven’t considered electric motoring thus far. It’s certainly good enough to leave the right kind of impression.
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9. DS 3 Crossback E-Tense
This compact crossover is something the budding Mazda MX-30 owner might also consider, not least because the near-200 miles of range comfortably beats that of the Japanese car.
All the usual DS hallmarks are here: the distinctive exterior, the somewhat overwrought but superficially ‘lavish’ interior and a decent dose of the performance.
Our reservations are that cabin space isn’t especially good, the driving experience is ordinary, and the pricing is fairly steep. However, if you want an EV that’s a little less ordinary and are prepared to pay for that, the E-Tense is unlikely to let you down. Advertisement Back to top
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10. Renault Twizy
Renault’s strapline for the Twizy is «plug into the positive energy» and, in fairness. it’s difficult to resist smiling when you get behind the wheel. Unless, of course, it’s raining, and you didn’t buy the optional the windows…
Technically, the Twizy is a quadricycle, not a car, so it belongs to the same category as the newly released (but as yet not UK-bound) Citroën Ami. It’s a two-seater, with the passenger sitting behind the driver, and designed for very short-distance, and most probably urban, journeys. That’s why, even when the sun’s shining, you’ll still get only around 50 miles from the 6.1kWh battery. An electric family car it certainly is not.
To drive, the Twizy is fun and agile, if a bit numb. Its secret weapon is the fact that it is rear driven and so can, if you’re committed enough, pull off gentle slides. Prices start at just under £12,000.
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