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Girl TORQUE - Living with a small car


It’s already happened in Europe, now it’s happening here. We’re gradually catching the small-car bug, though there’s plenty of resistance.

The smallest vehicles are still seen as girly, as city runabouts no good for anything more.

I’ve never had trouble sampling small cars. They don’t float my boat, but they’re more flexible than ever. A weekend away in a Kia Picanto; a summer holiday – complete with sleeping bag – in a 660cc Daihatsu Copen convertible; no worries. I might prefer fine handling and hairy-chested power but they come with disadvantages. High fuel bills. A need for big parking spaces. So a weeny body and weedy engine have their moments. I should know – my early driving years were spent in an original Mini.

But I am a ‘girly’, and a single one. I’m not blessed with long legs, and I rarely carry passengers. As for surplus luggage, what do you think the back seat is for?

I had to rethink my approach recently, though. A one-litre Suzuki Alto arrived in the drive just in time for a family weekend, with three adults and airport runs thrown in.

Modern cars don’t get much smaller than this, and suddenly those compact dimensions looked less desirable. But rather than swap it for something bigger, I realised here was the ideal opportunity to see if tiny cars can cope in the real world.

To make this more realistic I had the auto – and I live an hour out of town at the bottom of a steep and notoriously bendy hill road.

The wee car scampered about just fine with one aboard. Manual mirror adjust isn’t a problem with anything this narrow, and with airbags, ABS, air con and the usual entertainment options I didn’t feel I was making many compromises.

The airport run was nearly a different matter, for the tiniest cars feature very compact boots and require a bit of alternative thinking. My guests had used a sports bag rather than a suitcase, and it squished in – filling the whole space. The taller, 1.8-metre passenger would have fit up front with 1.6-metre teen in front. But she’s never been to Auckland – they swapped.

He wasn’t the comfiest he’s been, but a mildly knee-spread stance worked well enough that he fell asleep on the way home.

The one-litre engine and four-speed auto combo worked noticeably harder on the uphill with this much aboard, especially when air con was on, but managed 100km/h without apparent effort and seemed unaffected round town, where those parking-friendly compact dimensions soon paid off.

We started by laughing at the our car, convinced we’d be glad to see the back of it.

We ended up impressed. Like the former colleague who managed beach weekends with mates in her Picanto, we found modern small cars well up to most tasks. You wouldn’t buy one to regularly carry three or four, but singles or couples needn’t assume they can’t carry friends, manage the open road, or must compromise the stuff like abs and air con that we now take for granted.

Girly? Maybe. But that certainly doesn’t mean a small car can’t tackle bigger jobs at least occasionally.

Jacqui Madelin is our expert car reviewer and on the board of the AA Driver Education Foundation.

Read Jacqui's past columns here.

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