Girl TORQUE: Are small cars the ‘in thing’?

AutoTrader NZ
Published 3 September 2020

It started with the Mini, then came Alfa’s gorgeous Mito; now the Audi A1 and the rare air of Aston Martin’s Cygnet.

These are premium cars – despite their diminutive footprint.

Kiwis find it difficult to see ‘small’ as premium. After all, our fuel is relatively cheap; our houses have space to park; and even our bigger cities are relatively well supplied with places to leave the car.

But it’s different in Europe, where millions of people live closely packed with little space to spread out, and fuel is costly. You might want to flaunt your success – or to make a fashion statement with your car. But a large one is unwieldy, unnecessary – and increasingly unfashionable.

You’d think making a small car with a premium feel would be easy. Stick some leather on the seats, upgrade the audio, scatter a bit more chrome about – and you’re done. Trouble is, the mass-market brands already do that. So you have to go the extra mile, and ensure the car not only delivers the visual and tactile experience but drives like a pricey piece of kit, too.

Mini arguably began the trend. It deliberately ignored the bare bones original, borrowing only that car’s cheeky look – and the whiff of aspirational history. The Beatles, Twiggy and Brigitte Bardot all had Minis; Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood have owned one; even the Queen was spotted driving an early Min.

So BMW got off to a head start with this one, creating a car that was fun to drive, that featured plenty of detailing, premium materials and a wide range of personalization options to justify its price.

Alfa Romeo got onto the bandwagon with Mito, a gorgeous-looker with a face that owes much to the rare and achingly sexy 8C Competitizione.

Now there’s Audi A1, just launched in Europe and due here in November. It may be based on a Polo platform, but it’s a wider car, its sculptural lines imparting a presence larger than its dimensions suggest. The latest engines impart an up-market feel; the drive experience is aimed at a broader range of skills than the sporting Mini can offer; and Audi’s put a lot of thought into the ultimate in premium experiences – personalisation.

Maserati, Bentley and Aston owners expect exclusivity – and they get that in part by tailoring their car’s fitments to their taste. So Audi A1 buyers can change body colour; opt for contrast trim; alter an almost infinite variety of interior details – and better yet, Audi’s already promised the colour chart could change annually to reflect changing fashions.

This year’s hot tip might be block colours in fluoro brights; next year’s might be earth tones and houndstooth – Audi aims to reflect that in A1’s trim.

As for Cygnet – that may be a Toyota dressed in couture clothes but it’s no less a premium car. After all, if McDonald’s moves out and the Hilton moves in, its well-heeled clients won’t recognise that the same old walls back the frills and furbelows around them.

Read past Girl TORQUE columns here.