If an electric car ought to excel anywhere, it’s in the supermini segment – particularly with the recent changes to the government’s £2500 plug-in car grant, which now applies only to cars with a sub-£35,000 list price.
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
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.
Fiat’s model range is now slightly confusing, because the old car lives on as the Fiat 500 Hybrid (despite only being a mild hybrid). The one you want, however, is the new electric 500. It might look familiar, but it’s only when you see them side by side that you realise the new electric 500 is completely new.
Fiat has done a marvellous job at retaining the modern-day 500’s cute retro looks, while making it into a car for the modern age. As it was developed as a purely electric car from the outset, it has a fairly sizeable (for a small car) 42kWh batteryfor a theoretical range of 199miles, even if it’s more like 140 miles in reality. There is a cheaper ‘Fiat 500 Action’ model with a 24kWh pack, but the savings aren’t great enough for that version to be recommendable.
The electric Fiat drives substantially better than any other 500. 117bhp makes it surprisingly zippy, and while the steering is quite light, plenty of grip and an absence of body roll make it more fun to drive than a city car has any right to. While it’s not exactly at home on the motorway, it copes remarkably well.
The interior is also a massive improvement over previous 500s. It’s still quite plasticky, but it looks great, the seats are comfortable and the infotainment is logical and responsive. It’s not great for tall drivers, though, and it goes without saying that you shouldn’t plan on carrying adults in the rear very often.
Prices start at just over £20,000, which is a lot of money for a small city car, but very decent value for a fashionable and thoroughly usable EV.
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. But don’t let that fool you into believing this Vauxhall isn’t worth a test drive. 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.
4. Renault Zoe
The Renault Zoe was never the most exciting EV, but the current generation is a massive step up compared to the original. With its 52kWh battery, it can cover up to 239 miles on a charge, and that’s rather embarrassing for some of the more expensive options on this list. Even if it’s more like 190 miles in the real world, that’s still very strong going. It can be charged at 50kW, which is no longer anything to write home about, but it’s fairly standard for the segment.
Prices start from well under £30,000, but ideally you want to upgrade to an R135 model in Iconic trim for some extra power and equipment. That’s still strong value for money against its competitors, thoug, especially now that you no longer need to lease the battery from Renault.
It’s also pleasing to drive: very nippy, fairly quiet, and with a good ride around town. At higher speeds it can feel slightly unsettled and there’s a somewhat leaden feel to the controls. The interior and infotainment are substantially improved from the last generation.
The Mini Electric brings all of the fun factor you expect of the brand to the compact EV segment – 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. We like it a lot.`
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. It’s still one of the more enjoyable small EVs, but the short range is no longer good enough to be at the top of this list.
6. 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, which is a little disappointing in 2022, particularly for the 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.
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.
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 is exceptionally endearing.
8. 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 reasonably spacious within, has an SUV-lite body that is very much on trend, and is trimmed in interesting materials that give the cabin a singularly cosy and likeable atmosphere.
Dynamically, the MX-30 also stands out – though only when you’re travelling with a bit of pace on on an interesting road. 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. Around town, however, it can feel a little plain.
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.
The Volkswagen e-Up is the last surviving of the trio it formed with the Skoda’s Citigo-e iV and Seat’s electric Mii. And anyway, we’ve always preferred 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 £21,000 (including the £2500 government grant) 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.
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.
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.