Choosing a car from scratch may leave you feeling baffled about where to begin. But you can quickly start to narrow down your choices by asking yourself a few basic questions, the first of which is what basic shape or type do you want or need?
Even that decision will leave you with many more options now than it did in the past. The new car market has been sliced up into ever-increasing body shape segments and new style niches, to suit every possible motoring whim.
But getting that right is essential. It will not only dictate the level of practicality you’re after – a cavernous boot and cinema-style seating, or room for a passenger and little else – but also the overall driving experience.
Do you want something nippy, responsive or relaxing? Quiet and economical or thrilling and unapologetically thirsty? A high driving position, or something that seats you right at the heart of the action?
Our guide to the most popular car types or classes on the market should help make that decision easier.
These runarounds are the smallest cars on the road, and perfect for new drivers, couples, or thrifty, eco-minded motorists. So don’t be put off if you’re looking to downsize, as modern city cars are more capable on motorways than you’d think. The Skoda Citigo and its sister models, the Volkswagen Up and Seat Mii, for example, have levels of refinement and comfort that could shame cars two classes above.
City cars are designed to carry two people comfortably up-front; legroom can thus be limited in the back. Expect a small boot too, but parking will be a doddle, and the tiny dimensions (well under four metres long) means they can be powered by a small engine, and still feel incredibly nippy. Coupled with a lightweight frame, fuel bills will be low and you’ll enjoy some of the lowest CO2 emissions on the road. That’s good news for business users wanting to save on company car tax, too.
Five popular city cars:
Don’t be fooled by the name. This car class includes big hitters such as the Ford Fiesta (Britain’s best-selling new car), Volkswagen Polo and Citroen C3 – and it gets bigger with each generational revamp. Other standard-setting superminis include the Seat Ibiza, Nissan Micra and Suzuki Swift.
The Mini itself now falls into this class, in fact, and is a good showcase for the modern supermini’s best attributes: fun to drive, stylish and economical to run. They’re slightly roomier than a city car, making them more practical, but you won’t necessarily look like a motorist on a modest budget. There’s even more scope to customise a supermini too, so expect a wide range of trim levels, engines and optional extras.
Five popular superminis:
Flexibility is key in this huge, catch-all class, which is characterised by its hatchback boot design. This gives owners to access to a generous and customisable luggage space, which can be expanded by folding one or all of the rear seats flat. Yet these machines are still small enough to be slotted into the tightest spaces and feel confidence-inspiringly compact on twisting back roads.
No wonder they’re so popular with families – and the cabin design will reflect that, with useful storage space and budget-friendly trim levels. Small, large and sporty versions are available with three or five doors, so buyers are also spoilt for choice; the Ford Focus has nearly 70 hatchback derivatives on offer. The impressive Skoda Octavia, Vauxhall Astra and Volkswagen Golf also feature in this category.
Thrifty, eco-friendly engine choices run alongside more performance-focused alternatives. One thing to note is that retained values can sometimes only be average – but this does mean you should easily be able to pick up a nearly-new hatchback bargain.
Five popular family hatchbacks:
This executive car class may conjure up images of ageing opulence, but you don’t have to be Arthur Daley to sport a saloon. A huge range of luxurious and sporty models are now available. BMW’s saloon car range includes the 3 Series, 5 Series and 7 Series; Audi has the A4, A6 and A8, while Mercedes-Benz has the C-Class, E-Class and S-Class. These come with excellent levels of refinement, business-friendly running costs, generous performance and oodles of kerbside appeal.
All models share the traditional and less practical ‘three-box’ body layout, however. That means the boot tends to be a prominent, but not necessarily practical, part of the design. The opening is smaller than a hatchback, while even with the rear seats folded (a feature that’s often optional on pricey German models) there’s less space to play with. Luckily, many offer estate versions of the same car. See below…
You can expect quality interiors, a decent sound system and state-of-the-art connectivity. High-mileage owners will find a decent mix of thrifty diesel engines alongside a choice of more powerful, performance-oriented powertrains.
Five popular saloons:
It’s all about the space in this load-lugging class, which is characterised by a cavernous boot. You don’t have to buy an estate to bag plenty of room in the back these days, but what’s brilliant about these cars is you get the same levels of refinement as the family hatchback or executive saloon on which they are based. So expect the handling and pace of car that’s much more compact.
Many drivers prefer the long, sleek profile of an estate, compared to its boxier hatchback equivalent, too – think class leaders such as the Skoda Superb Estate or Peugeot 508 SW. The options are endless, too. Estate versions pop up in the supermini, compact family hatchback and executive car classes. So choose any combination you like – even an estate with off-road capabilities, such as the Audi A4 Allroad.
What’s common to all, however, is a wealth of practical touches such as fold-flat seats, electric tailgates, boot dividers and retractable tow bars. Given the loads these cars are expected to shift, you’re also more likely to be offered a diesel engine. So they should still be reasonably economical.
Five popular estates:
SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle)
Buyers can’t get enough of the cars in this class, which were designed to combine the practicality of an off-roader with the style and composure of a large family hatchback – hence the name. And this best of both worlds approach has produced everything from the crossover-style Nissan Juke to full-blown 4x4s like the Land Rover Discovery.
Much of the appeal is based around the SUV’s raised ride height, which gives you a clearer view of the road ahead and makes it easier to lift children into the back. Combine that with the option to seat up to seven in many models, and it’s easier to see why these cars are so popular with families.
These practicalities don’t have to come at the expense of power, either. There are plenty of sporty derivatives on offer, and advances in suspension and chassis design mean these models are far more nimble on the road than you’d think. Not all come with four-wheel drive, but as SUVs tend to spend most of their time on the tarmac, that’s not always a deal-breaker.
Five popular SUVs:
If you have a big family, or popular kids, a people carrier (or ‘Multi-Purpose Vehicle – MPV), designed with multiple occupants in mind, should be right up your street. There’s enough seating and legroom for up to seven, and flexible cabins typically include lots of clever storage space and sliding seats or benches that fold flat to adapt the space to suit your needs.
MPVs vary in size, but their long and relatively boxy frames mean you can’t expect hot-hatch handling on the school run. Popular models such as the Citroen C4 SpaceTourer, Ford S-Max and Seat Alhambra come with a range of economical engines, although a diesel is likely to be the best bet if you plan to spend most of your time with a full cabin. Diesels are generally more efficient, and their improved torque (pulling power) helps boost performance.
Five popular MPVs:
- Renault Scenic / Grand Scenic
- Citroen C4 SpaceTourer / Grand C4 SpaceTourer
- Ford S-Max / Galaxy
- Seat Alhambra
- Fiat 500L
If it’s thrills you’re seeking, look no further than the coupe. The name itself is derived from the French word to cut, and refers to the steep angle of the rear screen, which gives the coupe its rakish good looks. Think of the Audi TT, Porsche 911 and Jaguar F-Type.
That design means these cars are best enjoyed with just one passenger in mind. But as practicality isn’t likely to be crucial here, this should not put you off. It’s the drive that matters most. So a coupe should be fast, responsive, agile and tonnes of fun. That’s thanks to its muscular frame, low centre of gravity and, at the heart, a muscular engine to power it.
Five popular coupes:
These days you don’t have to rely on British summer to drop the top on your convertible. Windbreakers and sophisticated climate controls all provide enough shelter from the worst of the elements to use any rain-free day as an excuse to head out for a spin. Better still, some models even have ‘air scarves’ that blow hot air from the base of the headrest onto the necks of drivers and passengers.
There’s a convertible for every budget, too, ranging from the modest Smart Fortwo Cabrio to the enormous Rolls-Royce Dawn. Some offer a sardine tin-style peel-back canvas roof – such as the Fiat 500C – while others, such as the Mazda MX-5 RF, have a retractable hard-top. These are more durable for all-weather motoring, but will also add weight, which will eventually show up on your fuel bill.
Five great convertibles:
- BMW 4 Series Convertible
- Audi TT Roadster
- Mini Convertible
- Fiat 500C
- Mercedes-Benz C-Class Cabriolet
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