10 of the best city car alternatives
Turns out you can think big while thinking small
City cars are kind of like dogs, or Canada – it’s just cruel to give such a happy, earnest thing a kicking. Unlike so many machines in the automotive world, city cars aren’t pretending to be anything but basic, economical transport. And that imbues them with an authenticity and likeability that manages to charm even the perennially (and some would say professionally) unimpressed bods that form the Top Gear writing staff.
And yet here we are, primed and ready to argue against them. Because why leave a single stone unturned in modern life’s campaign to trample everything that you love and poison you against realities we’d rather you ignore? We’re not going to miss out on a nihilistically good time like that – not when everyone else seems to be having such a ball doing it.
So, in the order that we thought of them, here are 10 of the best alternatives to the city car that you probably should – and probably will – still end up buying.Advertisement - Page continues below
World War II Jeep
We recently read that a Jeep Wrangler made an excellent city car. We’re sure there was a small caveat somewhere that the Wrangler is probably only second to a hovercraft in terms of steering precision.
But it did get us thinking: if you’re willing to accept steering woollier than Chris Harris’s jumper collection, why not embrace something just as old-fashioned, but many millions of times cooler – the original Willys Jeep? These things survived one of the worst conflicts in human history, so we’re confident that they’ll be able to handle a quick run to the shops for milk, cereal and beer, and all of the things supermarkets stock that we never seem to have use for.
Given that they’re massive population centres containing many taxpayers, city streets should be as smooth as you feel after a couple of pints. Instead, for reasons we’re still unsure of, they tend to be as rough and ready as you actually are after said number of pints.
But even if the roads aren’t smooth, there’s no reason your journey can’t be. Enter the Citroen SM, a mashup of Citroen’s heyday smoothness and that part of Maserati’s history where it wasn’t actively crap, but it was broke. The broke and actively crap part came later on, in case you’re curious.
The SM is perhaps the most oddly beguiling shape in the entire motoring oeuvre; a heady blend of somehow-slippery angles and generous curves that refuse to make sense, no matter how long you stare. To then learn that there’s a front-mid-mounted Maserati V6, cosseting hydropneumatic suspension, a manual gearbox and front-wheel drive continues the theme of things not really making sense. But, much like a David Lynch film, aren’t things better when you’re left scratching your head weeks after experiencing it?Advertisement - Page continues below
Say what you will about cabin space, luggage space, or the absence of all of these things, you can’t deny that the Lotus Elise is certainly a car. And cars are something that you can, in most cases, drive in a city. If you follow that reductive logic, a hand-built, mid-engined sports car is a city car. But if you continue to follow that logic, you leave the door open for the uncharitably minded to try to sell physical manifestations of the concept of awfulness – like the BMW X4 – as a viable city car. So let’s not let our definitions remain that lax.
The Elise, like roughly every car to emerge from the Lotus factory, is tiny. Its small four-cylinder engine would be economical in a barge, but in the diminutive – and featherweight – Elise, that advantage extends even further. And in terms of cabin and luggage capacity, if you’re seriously considering a city car... see where we’re going with this?
City cars tend to have tiny engines, in no small part due to the fact that massive ones tend not to fit in the engine bay. The Audi RS2, on the other hand, has a turbocharged inline-five with more than 300bhp, which is connected to a six-speed manual and all-wheel-drive. You can see where the advantage lies already.
“But,” you might be wondering, “how exactly does a heroically powerful Audi estate help me around a city?” Well, you’re in luck, because we’re in an explaining kind of mood. The RS2, unlike roughly every Audi Avant that’s come after it, isn’t the size of your average Soviet submarine – in fact, it’s perfectly tiny by modern standards – so it’ll squeeze through gaps and into parking spaces like a modern econobox, just at roughly 18 times the speed. Whether or not this is what you’re after is, of course, up to personal taste.
We’re also pretty sure this is the best-looking RS Avant ever, from its Porsche 964 wheels to its... um, Porsche-style wraparound tail light treatment. Can we get Porsche back on the line and make another small RS Avant, please Audi?
Husqvarna Svartpilen 701
For those of you who aren’t familiar (or just have no time to look at the photos that sit above these very words), a Husqvarna Svartpilen is what’s known in the business as a motorbike.
It is also, as those who do take that extra moment to look at our photos will already know, a flipping attractive example of the two-wheeled breed. It’s also about as simple and punchy as motorbikes get, with a single-cylinder, 701cc engine thumping out about 75bhp, which is absolutely enough to get yourself both into and back out of trouble. The single-cylinder setup means a big piston and, consequently, big torque. Just what you need to avoid every ‘Sorry mate, I didn’t see you’ in city traffic.
A cheap rotter
The worst thing – at least on a personal level – about owning a car is to come back from a hard day’s graft (or grift, depending on the flexibility of your morals) to find your pride and joy dented, scratched or still smouldering from where a sports fan decided that this was the correct way to celebrate people he’s never met doing a better job of kicking a ball than other people he’s never met.
This is where the cheap rotter comes in. As Top Gear TV’s script editor has already opined, a cheap rotbox is the apotheosis of stress-free motoring. Speedbumps? Meh. Width restrictors? Bounce through them like a pinball; the new dents and scratches will just match the old ones. That same laissez-faire attitude will see you through hail damage, paint peel, moss growth and roughly anything else that’d cause you to curse the sky itself and everything under it if it were a car you cared about.
And by spending a few hundred on your city car, you’re free to spend your proper money on your high-days-and-holidays car. The way it should be, then: no grandstanding, no artifice, just cars doing what you need them to, when you need them. Now, as we accidentally got a little too literal and genuine for a second, let’s move on...Advertisement - Page continues below
Haglund Bandvagn 206
Come on, how often do you get the chance to jump aboard a literal bandwagon? Even if there weren’t a bevy of benefits on offer in the BV206, we’d still probably consider one, just to run that joke into the ground harder than novelty ringtones. Man, maybe not all bandwagons are worth jumping on, eh, Crazy Frog?
But we’re pretty confident we’ve found one that’s worth jumping on: a two-piece, articulated, tracked vehicle from the frozen chunk of marvellousness that is Sweden. Coincidentally, ‘tracked vehicle’ is what its name actually means in Swedish, so there’s something else you know that’s of little use or consequence. Welcome to our world.
The Bandvagn 206 can traverse soft snow, swamps and across bodies of water. So even if your city is currently besieged by the most inclement of weathers, you’ll still be able to make your appointment. And that sort of reliability is an attractive quality in a person. That’s right; we’ll like you more if you buy one. Guaranteed.
A Harrier jump jet
Fact: Harrier Jump Jets are beyond cool. Are they slightly on the difficult side to procure by your average private citizen? Sure. Expensive to run, should you manage to get one? Not if you have a defence budget; otherwise, yes. Brimming with ways to go wrong? Well, an RAF Wing Commander, when talking about the Harrier, used phrases like “fearsome array of limitations” and “spending most of each flight worrying about the landing”.
Now, unless something has gone horribly amiss, these are not issues shared by the city car. But even the very best city cars still haven’t mastered vertical takeoff and landing, nor are they particularly well-suited to close air support. Also, Arnie didn’t pilot a Citroen C1 in the climax of True Lies, did he?Advertisement - Page continues below
A campervan of some description
Usually, we’re loath to even mention campervans. Spending a week in one of those cramped and underinsulated steel boxes would probably be our punishment in one of the Saw films. There’s a series of very good reasons why most people would rather live inside bricks and mortar, not sheet steel and plastic. Reasons like continuously running water and plumbing that consists of more than a bucket with chemicals in it. Insulation to keep sounds out and comfy temperatures in. The ability to cook in one room, wash in another and sleep in yet another again. Luxury.
We could go on, railing against the campervan’s dual role as a mobile roadblock and totem of real-world irony (the campervan supposedly symbolises freedom, but routinely gets parked in campsites that have stricter regulations than most nuclear powerplants), but we’re about ready to move on. The primal scream therapy we’ve been doing has worked wonders; it turns out the secret was to scream at campervannists.
So, if we decry the campervan and its worryingly musty contents, why would we ever recommend it? Well, that’s down to its location: the city. The city (except for Canberra, of course) is generally a fairly interesting place, with many places to see, things to do and destructively potent drinks to imbibe. So, rather than shoulder the expense of cabs or hotels in the city, just roll out of the pub and into your campervan. Best of all, you can stock its fridge and cupboards with bacon, eggs and vitamins to steel yourself for the day after the night before.
As any number of hard-bitten, world-weary city-dwellers have said, it’s a jungle out there. Also Randy Newman (yes, of Toy Story fame) had a song about just that. And it is as Randy Newman-esque as you might imagine, which immediately deflates any ability to take him, or that phrase, seriously.
But what if you still believe the city is a concrete jungle – regardless of your feelings on whether or not it’s the place dreams are made of – and need a set of wheels that’ll tackle it without forming so much as a bead of condensation on its radiator?
Well, a Dakar-ready, space-frame and fibreglass rally raid machine ought to fit that bill. Thanks to a 5.0-litre V8, it’ll go from nought to 60mph in 4.8 seconds, which is entirely useless in city centres where speed limits rarely exceed 30mph and actual traffic speeds barely top half of that. Whatever: the good news is that there is an integrated fire suppression system for when the Wildcat’s speed catches up with the city’s complete absence of it, but plentiful presence of solid things to hit. So will the roll cage and FIA-spec safety harnesses, to be fair.
Also, when’s the last time a Fiat 500 made you exclaim “I AM A DRIVING GOD”? Yeah, exactly.