Little cars, big style: The world’s coolest, compact rides

John McIlroy is Deputy Editor of Auto Express and Carbuyer.

CNN  — 

The automobile is a status symbol to many – bought to reflect our characters, to show what we aspire to be, or demonstrate how well we’re doing in life. The larger and more luxurious the vehicle, the better. Or so you might think.

The car has also delivered freedom for millions on a budget, and the vehicles created to fulfill that demand are some of the cleverest ever made – marvels of packaging, stunning achievements of engineering. Sure, there are some famous large cars – but the global automotive icons are almost all at the smaller side of the spectrum.

European and Japanese brands have led the way in this, helped by customers’ concerns over space, cost and fuel efficiency – factors that are less of an issue in the United States, the Middle East and, more recently, China.

Europe’s main offerings have been the Mini, the Fiat 500 and the Volkswagen Beetle – model names that now have a remarkable 167 years of sales between them. All three models were born to offer cheap motoring, with some compromises on space in the name of cost.

Beyond speed

The Mini, 500 and Beetle have all been recreated for the modern customer, interestingly – although the new versions are much more like fashion items than serviceable transport. Fiat even introduces colors as “seasons” on the 500, appealing to (mostly female) clients attracted by the latest trends.

At least the Italian icon remains pretty cheap; the Mini and Beetle are both a world away from their predecessors, with prices driven high by lists of lengthy options, designed to allow customers to personalize their choice as they may personalize the contents of their wardrobe.

Posh, small cars are big business, too; as well as the Italians, the Mini’s rivals include the Germans (Audi A1) and the French (DS 3).

The Ford Fiesta, one of the American manufacturer’s biggest models in Europe, and the VW Polo, which reached 40 years on sale last year, are both still designed to be affordable transport for small families and couples.

They are both global cars, sold in pretty much every region where Ford and Volkswagen are present – although they, too, have evolved; the latest generation of the Polo is around 15 centimeters (about 6 inches) wider and the thick end of half a meter longer than the original. We’ve all grown, after all, so the space required to accommodate four adults is greater than it was in the 1970s.

Not every famous name has survived. France’s legendary 2CV – so called because its original specification had “deux chevaux”, or two tax horsepower – was killed off in 1990 by a mixture of poor sales, environmental concerns and safety regulations.

And while Fiat’s indirect successor to the 500, the 126, enjoyed an extended life in communist Eastern Europe after its main production line stopped in 1993, even the Polski Fiat was considered a little too diminutive for an emerging market. It was axed in 2000.

Less is more

Japan has a legal classification for its smallest vehicles. Called kei-cars, they’re designed to take advantage of reduced tax rates and cheaper insurance offered by the government to help maximize space in congested cities and urban areas.

The rules are pretty restrictive, though; the current batch of kei-cars can’t be any more than 3.4 meters (11 feet) long and just 1.48 meters 5 feet) wide, and the maximum engine size is just 660 cc, or around the same as a mid-range motorcycle.

The restrictions haven’t stopped Japanese designers creating a wide range of vehicles within the parameters allowed – everything from five-door family cars to convertibles and mini-vans.

This area of the market also spawns some of the most interesting Japanese-English badges on cars – the Toyota Pixis Mega, anyone? Or the Mazda Scrum?

At the even more extreme end, there have been vehicles so small that they seem barely qualified to be called a car at all. The BMW Isetta had just two seats and three wheels, and you entered by opening up the entire front of the vehicle. At 2.29 meters (7.5 feet) long, it was half-car, half-motorcycle, although BMW extended the range by adding 70 centimeters (28 inches) to the body, two more seats and a fourth wheel, and calling it the Isetta 600.

The Peel P50 was even more compact – a Guinness world record holder for being the smallest production car, at just 1.3 meters long (4.3 feet), or less than the third of the length of the modern Mini.

Originally produced on the Isle of Man in the 1960s, the P50 is back in production in England, complete with its single-seater, three-wheeled layout, a single door and no reverse gear (you get out and pick it up if you want to perform a tight maneuver).

Not quite a worldwide love affair

All the while, America’s love affair with SUVs and jumbo pick-up trucks has taken it further and further away from the breadth of the European market. There are faint signs that this could be changing – witness the Fiesta’s relative success after its introduction to US buyers – but the cultural difference is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

China may not be so straightforward. Up until now, buyers there have been fixated on the idea of traveling in the backseats of cars instead of getting behind the wheel. That’s because the world’s biggest car market has been driven by a fast-emerging upper-middle class.

But you have to suspect that as cities and streets become ever busier, and countless millions gain the financial wherewithal to consider owning a car, the vehicles they buy may well have to become more compact.

And the European manufacturers will be itching to take advantage when that happens.