Is the best city car electric or petrol
Its 6am on the edge of West London, the early morning flights are leaving Heathrow and the traffic jam in the sky of landing aircraft isn't yet mirrored on the roads. Buses and taxis buzz around moving herds of commuters from one place to another and morning joggers are pounding the pavement around me as I return to the first of this morning's test cars. the Abarth 595 has been with us before in a different test and although many may not consider it for strolling around the city, the car itself is very similar to that of a Fiat 500 and so worth bringing along. Next to it, we have an electric Mini and petrol powered Kia Picanto.
First off is the Abarth, priced new at £15,090, and with the largest output of any car here today it is probably the wrong place to start, such is the value prospect and the punchy engine that feels like it would be as comfortable crawling in traffic as it would on at motorway speeds or out in the countryside a little further west of where we are. Nipping at the heels of the car in front as we get a little closer to the city and a build-up of congestion slows us to little more than two or three miles an hour. After an hour we turn back to pick up the second test for today with little more to report than that the little Abarth is comfortable, easy to slip between lanes, and doesn't leave you feeling frenzied as the engine is always working below its capability at these speeds.
Next up today is the electric mini to get an initial feel for the differences in a city environment between the little turbo motor in the Abarth and the silent electric unit in the mini. Immediate power takes a moment to get used to and feels slightly unnatural as you move away without the friction loss of a transmission moving the wheels forward. The mini starts at £24,400 and from where I'm sitting that seems like a bit of a bad deal compared to the car before it, however, there are certainly some fuel costs and maintenance to be saved, not forgetting the taxman will walk straight past you whilst doing the rounds of VED collection. Of course, few people walk into a dealer today and lay down cash to buy a car so it is the financing packages that will come into play. More than £120 a month splits the two cars and with city mileage that is probably a gap that won't be recouped in fuel alone. Forgetting costs for a moment, there is the serene tone of a whirring noise keeping me moving until once again congestion builds and I'm forced into a two-step dance with the car ahead, he moves, I move, he moves, I move. The Mini does feel more relaxing in these short movements and I'm having to do very little, no clutch or gear, no biting point to get me moving, and then no feeling of wasted exertion as a combustion engine sucks in fuel only to scrub away the momentum gained. The electric moves more softly, the brakes are never really needed as the throttle is more of an on/off switch.
The mini doesn't feel as fun to be in despite its jazzy colours and attempts at funkiness, but it is eye-opening how easy, if not dull, it can make crawling along waiting to finally reach the traffic lights of freedom. My only concern is a personal one, the last thing I need in life is technology making life even more mundane, and the mini leaves no challenge, some may celebrate this, but I urge caution, sure riding the biting point of a clutch isn't exactly fun, but it does at least keep you somewhat engaged when moving so slowly with nothing to see but the advertising on the back of a bus. Those less interested and less law-abiding would probably just stare at their phone for entertainment, and do any of us really need additional time to do that?
The ride back picks out some nicer tricks of the mini, that instant power and flat handling that keeps the ride very over the potholes makes for a more enjoyable drive against the traffic, and at the end of the run, I've still got plenty of charge left, although I'm a little dismayed at the price of a fast charger when I decide to give it a quick top-up. If you live in a city flat and need to use fast chargers all the time you will still save some money over visiting the petrol station, but not as much as you may have hoped, home charging would make things a lot more competitive on overall price month to month.
even with the tailpipe emissions it should be classed as an environmentally friendly way of getting around with all the exhaust filters it has,
The next morning with the two cars from yesterday have now gone having driven them around most of the day to see what they were like I'm left with the same morning commute test as yesterday, but this time in the little Kia Picanto.
A few more words on the 595 as it may not suit everyone, but a Fiat 500 electric is £3,000 cheaper than the mini and has a clear advantage when it comes to parking and manoeuvring in tight spaces. For those that really don't want petrol, an electric Fiat 500 might be more interesting than the mini.
First off, there is a colossal elephant in the room, we have taken the base spec Picanto for our test and although it doesn't have all the features of the other cars it is a whopping £13,000 less than the mini, yes, less than half price. Prices start at just over £11,000 and so those wanting a few extra toys could choose to spend a little more can begin picking better spec models or ticking options. Now with price out the way, it won't surprise anyone to know this car feels a lot more like a basic method of transport than the flashy Abarth or the zingy Mini. It turns up to the job with just 66bhp from a frugal 1.0-litre engine. Fast, no, enough for the commute, yes. The back to basics approach to city driving reminds me of why little city cars are so much fun, no only do they have an addictive personality that oozes an underdog character, but you need to find the best of them yourself. There are no gimmicks to enjoy there is merely a steering wheel, a radio and some pedals, and if you want to overtake someone you better have your commitment o'meter turned up to 11. The traffic is lighter today but it is still there and when the inevitable stop-start is reached the car makes me feel as though I've worked to get here, no I'm not walking or cycling, but I am DRIVING, me and me alone got this machine here.
Once the mist of enthusiasm drifts away I start to get a little more critical, the engine really is only fit for the city, taking this on a motorway would feel cruel, and I wouldn't mind having a seat with a little more adjustment. The Picanto will get last place for driver comfort, but it isn't painful, it just isn't as well thought out in the ergonomics department as the others on test.
Turn back and head in the opposite direction to the traffic and I feel like a speed camera is going to flash any moment, pedalling along I realise I'm not troubling a signal limit but I feel like I'm racing through the streets. The low power gives the city a new fun challenge, I'm not going fast enough to offend anybody or place anyone in danger, but I can rev this little motor all I like for entertainment value, if you're a petrol head looking for city fun, this has to be the car for you, driving at 8/10ths everywhere and still not keeping up with the big Mercedes ahead of you, this is joyous.
Back to the start and there's a tough decision ahead, was the electric car really better, or did it just feel like I was doing what other people perceive as better. Ultimately the price and the fact that anyone without a driveway is getting a bad deal financially, if it is a cost you are willing to accept for the sake of zero tailpipe emissions then a Fiat 500 electric should at least get a mention on the shortlist, as for the mini, it was good but not good enough at the price.
The 595 Abarth is the old man of the group, powerful, running on petrol and with some genuine driver focus, but only those that intend to take their car away on the weekends or are a committed enthusiast will want to live with it in the city every day.
The Picanto makes a really strong case for itself, even with the tailpipe emissions it should be classed as an environmentally friendly way of getting around with all the exhaust filters it has, plus it sips fuel so lightly that there isn't that much coming out the back anyway. Add to this the fact it will cause zero inconveniences for those without a home charger, and that it is so cheap and it was a clear winner. The downside is the driving position for taller drivers but when it's this cheap and it is just a way of getting to work, family and friends and home, such an honest answer is too good to miss. Plus the little KIA can leave the city and go for hundreds of miles without stopping if you need it to, it won't travel along a motorway as well as the electric mini, but if it is just the occasional weekend away and a trip to see family, you'll forgive it.
So electric vs petrol in the city, for now, price, ease of use and incurably low emissions from the tailpipe make the KIA a winner, with easier and cheaper charging, lower price tag and a more back to basics approach electric may one day be the answer, but not quite yet.