Best small automatic cars 2020
An automatic gearbox is the perfect choice for smooth, easy going motoring. Here is our list of the best small automatic cars on sale now
There are lots of reasons for wanting a small car with an automatic gearbox, not least of which is the sheer boredom of sitting motionless in traffic jams every day developing an aching foot from repeatedly pressing down the clutch pedal.
Even drivers who enjoy changing up and down a gearbox manually have to admit there are times when an automatic car would be a blessing – and for lots of commuters ‘those times’ make up most of their experience behind the wheel.
• Best superminis to buy
Other people want a compact automatic hatchback or supermini because they’re just not interested in the driving bit at all. For them a car is simply transport from A to B, and the more straightforwardly it can deliver on that promise the better.
Which is why, frankly, small automatic cars used to be pretty horrid. Slower and thirstier than their manual counterparts, with asthmatic, lazy or lurching gear shifts – and you couldn’t even bump start them with a flat battery.
Well you still can’t bump start an auto, but in all other respects the quality of small cars with automatic gears has improved no end. Thanks to the advent of slick changing dual-clutch gearboxes, high-tech multi-speed torque converter autos and even the resurgence of the Constantly Variable Transmission (CVT), nowadays the lot of the small automatic driver is often happier than the driver stuck with an ‘old-fashioned’ manual transmission.
The rise of electric cars is having an impact here too, as EV powertrains don’t need you to change gears for them either. In fact, given the necessity for car companies to eke every last mile out of every litre of fuel these days, in all likelihood, it won’t be long before super-efficient auto transmissions are the rule in the small car sector, instead of the exception.
Whichever automatic gearbox you choose – or if you’re looking at specific types of car whichever gearbox chooses you – they’re all pretty much the same to drive.
You start the car, push the selector into Drive (or Reverse) with the foot brake applied, release the brake, press the accelerator and off you go. There are some variations beyond those basic principles of course, with many automatic transmissions offering a manual override where you can sequentially change gears using the gear lever or switches/paddles on the steering wheel. You can often select sports or eco-driving modes too, but auto gears rarely make the driving experience any more complicated than that.
Whichever auto you end up with, if it's one of the top 10 small autos we’ve picked for this list, it will be just as good as the manual version to drive – and in many cases better.
The best small automatic cars to buy in 2020
- MINI Cooper auto
- Renault Clio EDC
- SEAT Ibiza DSG
- Ford Fiesta Powershift
- Peugeot 208 & e-208
- Renault Zoe
- Vauxhall Corsa auto
- Audi A1 S Tronic
- Volkswagen e-up!
- Toyota Yaris Hybrid
Scroll down or click on the links above to read more about the best small automatic cars to buy now…
MINI Cooper auto
The MINI hatch has carved its own niche in the premium supermini sector that rivals can only hope to emulate. Its retro looks and range of personalisation hold plenty of appeal, and as it's the standard-bearer of the BMW Group's front-wheel drive cars, it's been given entertaining handling that lives up to the reputation of both companies.
Our pick of the MINI range is the Cooper, as it delivers all the fun of the Cooper S, but is far better value. The auto box offered on the Cooper is a traditional torque converter auto – if you want a sportier option, you need to look at the rapid John Cooper Works version – but it doesn't harm the MINI's economy too badly (51mpg to 54mpg), and it's available in both three and five-door body styles.
The one area that does take a bit of a hit is the MINI's driving fun. Taking away control of changing gears removes some of the enjoyment from the Cooper. But if you're after a stylish supermini that you can call your own and takes the strain out of everyday driving, it's still well worth a look.
Renault Clio EDC
Recent updates for the Clio have brought new kit and a fresh look, along with an updated powertrain range. You can spec Renault's six-speed EDC – dual-clutch – auto with the 1.3 TCe turbo petrol in the top-spec RS Line, or a Constantly Variable Transmission gearbox with the 1.0-litre TCe engine elsewhere in the range.
There's a £1,400 premium to pay for the CVT box, but like most rivals, there's a penalty in terms of fuel economy. The CVT returns a claimed 48mpg compared to 54mpg for the manual), while there’s no manual option to compare with the dual-clutch 1.3-litre car. With the CVT gearbox optimised for urban use, it’s doubtful whether many who choose it will drive enough miles for consumption to meaningfully affect their choice of transmission.
The latest generation Clio strikes the right balance between handling and ride comfort, and the addition of the auto box doesn't really disrupt the order – if you don’t like the CVT ‘rubber band’ feel there’s a stepped mode which mimics a normal gearbox with stepped ratios. Otherwise, the Clio is a roomy supermini with plenty of kit, which is where it maintains its strengths.
The other auto option in the Clio range is the 130 TCe warm hatchback which only comes with a six-speed EDC gearbox. It’s a fun driver's car with the option of changing gears yourself with the steering wheel paddles.
SEAT Ibiza DSG
We loved the latest SEAT Ibiza when it arrived in 2017 – so much so it won our Supermini of the Year award, in particular, because it introduced much of VW’s latest tech to the class. The Ibiza shares all its key engineering with the VW Polo and Audi A1, and has a seriously grown-up feel – it’s easy to mistake for the bigger SEAT Leon from behind the wheel.
Under the bonnet one of the stars of the show is the VW Group’s three-cylinder 1.0-litre, 114bhp engine, which can be had in the Ibiza mated to the Group’s excellent seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox.
The smooth changing unit is a pleasure to use, and only adds the tiniest of fuel consumption penalties – SEAT quotes 58mpg against 59mpg for the manual. In our book that makes it well worth the extra cost of a little over £1,000, at least for drivers who want a relaxing drive in town or traffic. It’s also good fun if you want to change gears manually and take advantage of the Ibiza’s great handling, which mixes good grip with great body control and a decently comfortable ride. Performance isn’t bad either with 0-62mph in 9.5 seconds, which is only a couple of tenths slower than the manual version, while the 1.0-litre engine feels relaxed and refined at motorway cruising speeds. With the latest VW Group infotainment and safety kit on the Ibiza menu too, it adds up to a great all-round experience.
Ford Fiesta Powershift
The Fiesta is the UK's best-seller, and Ford's Powershift auto is available to those who are allergic to the clutch pedal. At the moment, you can only get an auto box with the 1.0 EcoBoost 100PS turbo petrol three-cylinder. But as that engine is offered in across a wide range of Fiesta trim levels, you're not exactly limited in choice.
You pay a bit more of a premium for the Powershift auto than you do on some rivals (it's about £1,400 extra), but it's a cutting-edge twin-clutch gearbox that shifts as quickly as you could with a manual, if not faster.
But like rivals, fuel economy does take a bit of a hit. A drop from 65.7mpg to 54.3mpg is bigger than some, while emissions are also poorer for company car drivers. At least the latest Fiesta's improved interior space and fine handling are retained, making this one best-seller that delivers the goods to justify its position.
Peugeot 208 and e-208
From a somewhat dumpy-looking also-ran, the latest refresh of Peugeot’s supermini has turned into one of the most eye-catching cars in its class – and a worthy competitor to rivals like the Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio and VW Polo.
The sophisticated styling with sporty grille and ‘fang’ driving lights are matched with an upmarket cabin feel and lots of bang-up-to-date tech including a 3D driver’s display for higher-spec trims. It’s pretty highly-spec’ed across the board so there’s no real budget option, but for drivers looking for a classy urban runabout, the 208 has lots to offer.
The eight-speed automatic gearbox is a great choice for this refined and easy-to-drive little car, as the six-speed manual feels a bit rubbery – and anyway, the 208 is set-up more for comfort than sporty driving thrills. You can pick the auto with both 99bhp and 129bhp versions of the 1.2-litre PureTech petrol engine.
Another more radical auto option is the e-208 all-electric version of the Peugeot supermini, which offers all the same appeal from a battery set-up with a 211-mile claimed range and a rapid charging cable that lets you top up with 100-miles worth of juice in 20 minutes.
If you’re looking for a small automatic car for mainly urban or local driving, and especially if you have access to another vehicle for trips away, the Zoe EV can make a lot of sense as a family runabout.
Unlike some other manufacturers who have electrified versions of their regular models, Renault took an early decision to create a ‘ground-up’ electric design with the Zoe. It’s by no means as radical or funky to look at as BMW’s i3 which takes a similar approach, but it’s a lot cheaper, and in spite of being around for a few years the Zoe has benefited from regular tech updates along the way.
What you get today is an ‘official’ range of 186 miles, but that translates to around 126 miles in normal driving, Renault says. Still, that’s easily enough to cope with most people’s day-to-day mileage, even if you can’t be bothered to plug the car in every night. A full charge takes eight hours from a home wall charge – or it’s 15 hours from a regular three-pin plug.
With 108bhp the Zoe is pretty nippy around town, although as with many electric competitors it gets a bit out of breath at motorway speeds. You can also still lease the batteries if you don’t want to fork out the full purchase price for the car up front, although it’s a more costly option in the long-run. Aside from its drivetrain, the Zoe offers as much practicality as any typical supermini, and with five seats and a 338-litre boot it’s definitely more practical than the VW e-up!
Vauxhall Corsa auto
The Corsa has always been popular, cheap to run and practical, but it has never really chock full of flair. French group PSA’s recent acquisition of the Vauxhall brand has set about changing all that, and the latest Corsa model rides on a shared platform with the Peugeot 208 – with all the benefits that brings.
The driving experience takes a bound forward, and while it’s still not quite as fun or engaging as the Ford Fiesta behind the wheel, it’s not far off. It’s comfortable too, chasing the class leaders for ride and refinement, and it even looks more stylish – albeit not as eye-catching as its Peugeot sister model.
While the Vauxhall is offered in both petrol and electric guise just like the Peugeot, Vauxhall has opted not to offer the smallest 1.0 petrol engine of its French counterpart, and you can only get auto transmission with the 99bhp version of the 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine. It’s a great choice though, offering smooth changes and a more pleasant experience than the slightly rubbery-feel of the manual six-speed.
As with the Peugeot e-208, you can also get an electric version of the Corsa which has auto transmission. It’s also the fastest Corsa currently available, but it’s pricey too at close to £35,000.
Audi A1 S Tronic
If the retro looks of the MINI doesn't appeal, then the Audi A1 is your salvation. It offers the same premium quality and personalisation in a package that feels like a proper Audi, even if it shares its running gear with the VW Polo and Skoda Fabia.
That parts sharing stretches to engines and gearboxes, and while Audi brands its auto S tronic, it's the same seven-speed DSG box you'll get in other VW group models, although it's offered on more engines here. The 1.0 TFSI 95PS, 1.0 TFSI 116PS and 1.5 150PS petrols can all be had with it, and it comes in SE, Sport, S line and Vorsprung trims.
The A1 is getting a little bit old now, so it's not the sharpest performer or the roomiest supermini around. But it still feels like an Audi inside, with first-rate build quality and plenty of upgrades available. However, keep an eye on the options, because you could easily be spending £30k on a supermini if you're carefree with the options.
VW is committed to a whole family of electric vehicles, and if the latest e-up! is an accurate predictor, there’s plenty to look forward to.
The electric supermini has been around for a couple of years now, but battery developments are happening apace and the latest version gets a 36.8kWh battery that offers up to 160-odd miles under the WLTP economy test regime. Even if you knock 50 miles off for ‘real world’ driving, that still leaves most people with a healthy margin on their daily commute.
The e-up! is great to drive too, with light and easy controls and the sort of surefooted body control that’s great for ducking and weaving around town – a feat aided by the smart off-the-line acceleration that are a characteristic of most cars with electric power. Charging will take 16hrs from a three-pin plug at home, or four hours if you fit a 7.2kW wallbox.
Don’t forget Skoda and SEAT both offer their own, only subtly different electric versions of this VW group city car. We’ve given the e-up! preference in this top 10 because it has a greater badge appeal and likely stronger residual values, and it doesn’t cost much more to buy.
Toyota Yaris Hybrid
There’s no doubt the Toyota Yaris is one of the racier-looking superminis on the road, although sadly the driving experience is worthy rather than fun. That shouldn’t bother you if you’re looking for a small automatic though, when the Yaris hybrid’s eco-credentials should certainly appeal.
As the smallest hybrid on sale today, you won’t be surprised to hear the Yaris is economical, and the claimed 85+ mpg is definitely impressive.
With light controls, the Yaris is easy to place around town or in traffic, but the ride can be a little too far on the fidgety side for some, and there’s pronounced lean in corners if you’re trying to press on. That said, the experience is similar to that on offer from non-hybrid Yaris models, so there’s no penalty for choosing the hybrid with its auto transmission. The CVT gearbox works well at low speeds around town, or when driving gently, but if you want to extract maximum performance then it can cause the engine to seem as though it’s revving too hard for the given speed. You soon get used to it though, and the trade-off is those great economy and emissions numbers.
The Yaris hybrid has all the other benefits the model offers too, including the roomy interior that boasts enough space to rival cars from the next class up.
What do you think about small autos? Do you own one? Let us know your opinion below…
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