Thursday, October 27th, 2022

Should European cars get smaller?

The road twisted and turned along the lake. A tree covered sliver of dark tarmac, dappled with shade from a warm autumn sun. This was what you might call a “driver’s road”, challenging you to connect sharp apex with brief straight, a brief blast to the next bend forcing you to left or right. It was about managing energy, keeping momentum, being smooth on accelerator and brake. The smile on my face was wide, and even Mrs H chirped an occasional compliment.

All at 60khp.

I wasn’t in a sports car, but a rather pedestrian Kei Car. A small cross-over, smaller than a classic Mini with an engine barely worthy of the name, and a CVT gearbox that takes a few seconds to think about what to do next. And yet this bright green box on skinny wheels gave me as much fun for twenty minutes on a Kyoto road as any of my hot hatches had managed at far higher speeds on British ones.

My Hustler is perfect as a city runabout. She has four seats, plenty of luggage space, a high degree of comfort and more toys than anything I’ve had on larger, more expensive cars. On the expressways she’ll sit at 90-100kph quite happily and give me upwards of 25km per litre. Yes, she struggles a little with the hills and if I were to exceed the 100kph speed limit I’m sure I would find her a bit on the noisy side. Not that I know. Honest, PC Plod-san.

Whether I’d take her on a UK road is a question Mrs H and I often debate. Conclusion: my series “Hustler around Europe” might not be coming to a YouTube channel near you anytime soon.

For as many years as I remember, I’ve had the view European cars are getting too large, too heavy, too wasteful. A modern Fiesta – a so-called “Super Mini” – is almost as wide as my old Granada, and barlely 50cm shorter. Yet the latter was viewed as a large family car, the former as a smaller one barely suitable for a family with growing kids.

Manufacturers and regulators have let their offerings grow, making categories like “super mini” all but meaningless. Yes, some of this is down to well intentioned safety, though I suspect much is a feeling that consumers will want their next generation Golf a bit bigger than the last one. Bigger please, even if I can’t fit it in a parking bay in the shopping centre, let alone cram it into whatever space I can find on the street where I live.

I’m not saying my Hustler is suitable for a UK road. There are times she needs more than the 50-odd horsepower dragging it up the hills. She has gizmos like lane depature warnings and collision avoidance, although they can get a little confused by what’s a corner and what’s a sharp bend (she screams at me rather than tries to brake). I’m also not convinced I’d want to have an accident in her, although I’ve never wanted to have an accident in a car before.

Equally, I think our push to an EV future is an opportunity to rethink The Car. What I’ve seen thus far from the mainstream manufacturers is more of the same bloated monsters getting larger. Familiar shapes rounded off a bit or “reimagined” on a skateboard battery pack. Occasionally we get something that does try to be different and exciting, like the bubble car inspired Microlino.

Cars are not going away anytime soon, but there’s no reason why they need to keep getting bigger in some mistaken belief this is what’s best and right. Maybe Europe does need to learn from the Kei and let small become beautiful again.

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction. Find out more.