Car sales are down this year in nearly all sectors. But the sales superheroes at the moment are the aptly-named superminis. Over the past few years, sales of small cars have soared up, up and away, by more than 300,000 units a year. And compared to 2002, registrations for these pocket performers has risen by 5.4% or nearly 20,000 vehicles during the first five months of 2003.
The reasons are plentiful – great deals, low emissions, economy to name a few – but at its most elemental, the reason why more drivers are switching to superminis is that they are becoming increasingly capable for everyday use in roles away from the typical budget second car job.
Superminis are getting bigger all the time and can accommodate four or five people in a much less cramped environment. They are also better built with cabin quality rivalling more expensive cars and have good, clean powerful engines and are a good drive.
We have selected six of the best as a sample of what to expect for fleets thinking of taking on such cars for everyday use, and in diesel format for even better fuel consumption for high mileage work. Yes, motorway slogging can be done in these cars.
As a generalisation, superminis fall into two categories: serious and workmanlike or fun and funky.
In the latter category the Citroen C3 and Nissan Micra are the jokers in the pick. Both have cartoon styling intended to make people smile. Big curves, happy grilles and interiors that hop about are in order. The C3 has proved popular for Citroen, harking back to the days when the French manufacturer was known as for its eccentric styling on cars for the common man or woman. The C3 might have its faults – in particular some dubious interior quality – but it revives a grand, and very popular, tradition.
Nissan's Sunderland built Micra is a poptastic, S-Club 7 (before they argued and split up) sort of car: unashamedly cheery and cute. Nissan makes no apologies for the type of buyer the Micra is aiming for, and many of the features such as keyless entry and starting are aimed at the young woman on the go. The Toyota Yaris is also on this side of supermini fence, but is less overtly camp than the other two. In the GLS guise here, the Yaris will soon be phased out, replaced by the T Spirit, which has had some kit and suspension revisions and is £400 dearer.
The Mazda2 is the newest car here and sits on the sensible side. Developed on the Fiesta platform, it is easily the most spacious of the selection with its micro-MPV proportions and will prove more than enough of a competitor to Ford's Fusion. Inside, styling cues have been taken from the Mazda6, although its high, boxy profile sits awkwardly with Mazda's intended aim to be Ford's sportier alter ego.
The Ford Fiesta is the best-selling UK fleet car of the selection, and while it might not be the most exciting to look at or sit in, nearly rivals the Polo on build quality and wins easily as the best drive of the lot, with big car ride quality and lively steering. The TDCi engine is also a hoot, although in a battle to be the conservative, predictable choice, it will often lose out to the Polo.
For fleets, the Volkswagen Polo is the most predictable of the cars here. Almost without fail in our leasing surveys, Volkswagen models do extremely well on residual values because of good build quality and reliability, decent economy and attractiveness to secondhand buyers.
Customer services director, Inchcape Fleet Solutions
'An interesting fleet sector suited to those looking for their first fleet car or low benefit-in-kind tax. The cars are cheap to run, achieving plenty of miles to the gallon. The buyers of superminis demand lots of practical features and this selection certainly delivers, many with interesting styling to make their owner stand out from the crowd.'
Managing director, Zenith Vehicle Contracts
'The supermini sector continues to be widely contested with the increased profile of diesel models. Drivers who are looking at this class are starting to realise the benefits of increased economy and performance. There are a number of great diesel options, but the VW Polo tops the table with high build quality and the right image.'
Pricing manager, Lloyds TSB autolease
The diesel superminis are excellent around town as the fuel economy is in excess of 60mpg. In my opinion, each manufacturer has produced some good quality superminis. If you want something a bit different with high equipment levels then go for the Micra. If it is practicality you want then the Fiesta would be the preferred choice.
Commercial director, Alphabet
'These are all very good cars in a desperately competitive sector. It would be hard to make a bad choice here as a driver, even though diesel superminis tend to be at a slight benefit-in-kind disadvantage. From a fleet perspective, the only major caveat is that remarketing strategies will need to be spot-on, given the fast-growing supply of product out there now.'
Head of LeasePlan Fleetline
'Company car drivers looking at these vehicles will be driven by efficiency and economic factors, not necessarily high performance and image. As all of the vehicles in this sector fall into the lowest benefit-in-kind taxation banding based on their low CO2 emissions, factors such as MPG and a 'big car feel' will be more and more important.'
Vital statistics: how our models compare
Average rental rates
Citroen C3 £207
Volkswagen Polo £223
Toyota Yaris £224
Ford Fiesta £226
Nissan Micra £228
Average maintenance costs (3years/60,000 miles)
Nissan Micra £1,296
Toyota Yaris £1,298
Ford Fiesta £1,313
Citroen C3 £1,328
Volkswagen Polo £1,364
RV forecasts (3years/60,000 miles)
Volkswagen Polo £4,247/39%
Toyota Yaris £3,448/32%
Citroen C3 £3,168/32%
Nissan Micra £3,188/31%
Ford Fiesta £3,187/31%
CO2 Emissions (g/km/tax band)
Citroen C3 110/18%
Ford Fiesta 117/18%
Toyota Yaris 117/18%
Nissan Micra 122/18%
Volkswagen Polo 124/18%
Citroen C3 67.3
Ford Fiesta 64.2
Toyota Yaris 64.2
Nissan Micra 61.4
Volkswagen Polo 61.4
Citroen C3 1.4 HDi 70 LX 5dr
Hale: The Citroen is one of the most distinctive superminis available and boasts a brand new chassis. There is lots of space for the driver, although passengers in the rear are not as lucky. The small boot has been cleverly utilised through a luggage compartment splitter.
Cope: This car offers value for money, with great offers available. It is a stylish offering, however the restricted room in the rear and plastic feel of the interior let the overall package down.
Schooling: The characterful C3 hasn't been hyped like some rivals and the ride is a bit squidgy, but it scores well on kerbside appeal and does even better financially.
McMahon: The Citroen C3 is the cheapest to buy and has the lowest rental and is the most economical on fuel. The high roof means the interior feels very spacious but lacks the quality of its rivals. It is also one of the two vehicles that does not have a CD player as standard.
Harnett: The highest mpg could prove decisive when drivers are choosing a vehicle based on economy. Individually styled and offers comfort and refinement with a reasonable level of standard equipment.
Average monthly rental £207
P11D price £9,890
Average net price £7,735
Average maintenance £1,328
Average RV £3,168/32%
Lloyds TSB autolease £200.48
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £392/£712
2003 VED bill £85
Ford Fiesta 1.4 TDCi Zetec 5dr
Harnett: The Fiesta follows on from where its predecessor left off and is still regarded as the one to beat. A mixture of practicality, quality, ride, handling and reliability makes this an excellent contender but the lowest mpg and higher rentals may put some off.
Hale: The new Fiesta addresses previous criticisms but retains its most enjoyable characteristics. The exterior is not as dramatic as some, but this does give it a wider appeal than some of its quirkier counterparts.
Cope: The new styling has once again provided the supermini world with a stylish and great handling car. Unfortunately this particular model lacks the specification level which in turn reduces the scope of drivers it will attract.
Schooling: The Fiesta majors on good sense: practical, roomy and safe, with features such as ABS as standard. Not the sexiest supermini but a solid choice for responsible fleet use.
McMahon: The Fiesta is very practical. An example of this is the low sill in the boot to help when loading heavy objects. Equipment level isn't brilliant but it does benefit from alloys as standard. The driving position lets the car down as the pedals are offset to the left.
Average monthly rental £226
P11D price £10,190
Average net price £8,341
Average maintenance £1,313
Average RV £3,187/31%
Lloyds TSB autolease £228.15
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £404/£734
2003 VED bill £85
Mazda2 1.4 D TS 5dr
Harnett: The Mazda2 is the latest addition to this sector and one of the most spacious and practical. It is also one of the most expensive and with average residuals, rentals remain the highest here.
Schooling: Mazda's Valencia-built 2 naturally has a lot in common with the Fiesta, including its good points such as spaciousness and the willing 67bhp engine.
McMahon: The look of the vehicle won't appeal to everyone but the interior space is excellent and well-equipped. It is the most expensive to maintain out of the vehicles in this sector, which is one of the reasons it has the highest rental.
Hale: Mazda's venture into real volume production offers a range of practical features, although the styling does suffer for the sake of space. Based on the same platform as the Fiesta and the diesel engine is impressive.
Cope: Mazda has built a good all-round supermini. The 1.4 common rail engine it shares with the the TDCi version in the Fiesta provides the driver with smooth, efficient and reliable performance.
Average monthly rental £232
P11D price £10,390
Average net price £8,571
Average maintenance £1,364
Average RV £3,365/32%
Lloyds TSB autolease £242.32
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £411/£748
2003 VED bill £85
Nissan Micra 1.5 dCi 65 SE 5dr
Schooling: Micras shook off their flat cap image long ago so the arrival of the diesel version will do no harm at all to the Sunderland supermini's already healthy fleet sales.
McMahon: The Micra's innovative design stands out from the crowd. It is the smallest vehicle in this sector and consequently the rear seat space is limited. The equipment level is superb with air conditioning and leather seats as standard.
Harnett: The new Micra is a vast improvement and is regarded as one of the best cars in this sector. With distinctive looks, good levels of equipment along and competitive rentals, it will be a popular choice.
Hale: A bold style statement with its continental looks and the fantastic interior crams lots into the space and creates a haven for the driver. The diesel engine, sourced from Renault, impresses.
Cope: Nissan's bold restyling of a well-established model has been complemented with improved ride, visibility and build quality. The Micra is now competing at the top of the class. Great economy with improved performance.
Average monthly rental £228
P11D price £10,155
Average net price £8,373
Average maintenance £1,296
Average RV £3,182/31%
Lloyds TSB autolease £234.09
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £402/£731
2003 VED bill: £115
Toyota Yaris 1.4 D-4D GLS 5dr
Schooling: The D-4D is generally considered the best of Toyota's much-praised Yaris line-up. Now a highly refined car, albeit with premium pricing to match.
Cope: The D-4D engine has provided the Yaris with great performance and economy, and has even impressed BMW, it is using the same engine in the Mini.
McMahon: The Yaris is the quickest in this sector at 0-60mph with a time of 12.9 seconds. It is one of the two most expensive to purchase though. Compared to other vehicles in this sector the equipment levels aren't as high.
Harnett: With excellent residuals and very good mpg, the Yaris is an excellent choice for those looking for an economic, cost-effective car. Practicality and reliability are also good. However, ride, handling and refinement is not at the level of some of its competitors.
Hale: This supermini has low monthly rentals and is a pleasure to drive, with a decent level of specification. The diesel engine gives a good performance and is an excellent all-rounder, switching easily from the town to the motorway.
Average monthly rental £224
P11D price £10,760
Average net price £8,416
Average maintenance £1,298
Average RV £3,448/32%
Lloyds TSB autolease £238.19
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £426/£775
2003 VED bill: £85
Volkswagen Polo 1.4 S TDI 5dr
Cope: The Polo offers great performance from the three cylinder engine, and does not disappoint on looks and space. As usual Volkswagen has produced a high quality economical option for drivers in this class.
Harnett: The Polo has been, for years, one of the most popular superminis on the market and the new, bigger, safer and more refined model will ensure that its popularity continues. Rock solid residuals make rentals very competitive.
Hale: The Polo is the largest of the models and has the best build quality in this class. A classy model, it boasts a high level of luxury throughout. The inside is roomy and the diesel engine provides plenty of refinement. Schooling: It is so roomy it takes the pain out of downsizing. Top quality feel, finish and handling if a little underpowered. Its most serious rival is likely to be the forthcoming FSI petrol-engined version.
McMahon: One of the two most expensive to buy but the Volkswagen marque does mean that the Polo benefits from high residuals. The level of equipment is good and it is the only car with heated mirrors as standard.
Average monthly rental £223
P11D price £10,770
Average net price £8,830
Average maintenance £1,364
Average RV £4,247/39%
Lloyds TSB autolease £223.66
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £426/£775
2003 VED bill £115