The creation of the supermini was perhaps inevitable. By the start of the 1970s, British Leyland’s evergreen Mini was already more than a decade old, and the gap between it and the family cars of the time was growing ever larger. Car manufacturers began to realise there was room in the market for machines that were bigger and more refined than the Mini but smaller than a typical family saloon.
Four decades on from the first superminis going on sale in Britain, some of the best models are considered to be classics, as well as genuine game-changers in terms of design and sales success. Buying one now makes sense too, as some of the best examples are both affordable to buy and cheap to run. Check out our ten top supermini choices.
Surely that’s a Volkswagen Polo wearing an Audi badge on its grille? Well, kind of. In fact, the Audi 50 came first, effectively creating Germany’s first entrant into the rapidly expanding supermini market. Built at the old NSU factory in Neckarsulm, the Audi 50 took a bow in early 1974 and was sold throughout much of mainland Europe.
Here in Britain, of course, we were only ever offered the Polo, which arrived here in ’75. But as a more upmarket, posher-badged version that did well for itself elsewhere, the Audi 50 deserves its place in supermini history.
It wasn’t the most technically advanced supermini when it went on sale in 1980, thanks to its ex-Mini A-series engine and four-speed transmission, yet the Metro was one of the most important cars of the new decade. This was the machine effectively tasked with saving what remained of British Leyland.
When the Fiat 127 first hit the streets of Italy in 1971, it wasn’t what we now think of as a supermini. Why? Because, despite its hatchback-like shape, it was initially only available as a two-door saloon. A tailgate was added the following year, however, and the 127 went on to be a huge seller throughout Europe, finally replaced by the new Uno in 1983.
A minor restyle occurred in 1977, followed by another for the 127’s final two years of production. And along the way there were some fun-to-drive versions, including the (MkII) Sport and (MkIII) 1300GT.
If the 127 was one of the best-selling superminis of the 1970s, the new Panda was one of the following decade’s most innovative. Think of the Panda as an ’80s equivalent of the Citroen 2CV and you wouldn’t be far wrong, thanks to its functional styling, flat glass, hammock-style seating and ultra-basic specification.
Remarkably, the Panda remained in production from 1980 through to 2003 (though UK imports ceased in ’95), and during that time it was ‘poshed up’ via extra equipment, more trim and new engines. For us though, the original was proof that less really can be more.
Ford Fiesta MkI
Ford of Europe’s inaugural attempt at creating a supermini entered production in 1976, going on sale in Britain the following year. And what a joy the new Fiesta was, with crisp and modern styling, an easy and light driving style, superb handling and (being a Ford) low running costs.
It was exactly what supermini buyers were looking for, and the Fiesta soon became the best-selling car in its sector. The MkI lived through to 1983, by which time it could be had in a wide range of different versions – from the basic 957cc Popular to the 1597cc XR2.
It’s a shame that the neat little Innocenti Mini was never sold in the UK, particularly as this Italian firm was owned by British Leyland at the time. By the early ’70s, Innocenti felt that the original version of the Mini was getting a bit long in the tooth and began development of its own replacement.
What arrived in 1974 was a chunky three-door hatchback based on the Mini platform but with all-new Bertone-styled bodywork. By 1976 though, British Leyland’s financial difficulties led to all but 5% of the company’s shares in Innocenti being sold to De Tomaso.
Opel Corsa / Vauxhall Nova
All 1983-93 Nova/Corsa models were built in Spain, replacing the Chevette and Kadett respectively; and with smart looks and a decent driving experience on offer, they proved to be a hit throughout Europe, aided by a wide range that included three- and five-door hatches and two- and four-door saloons.
The 205 wasn’t Peugeot’s first supermini (that accolade went to the 104 of the ’70s) but it was by far the best, going on sale in 1983 and giving the entire sector a thorough shake-up. Here was a car that was slightly larger than its rivals: it was spacious, was available with a good range of engines, had a choice of three or five doors, and was easily the most entertaining-to-drive supermini.
The 205’s superb handling made it a natural for a hot hatch, with the 1984-on GTi models being seen as legends in their own lifetime.
As the Fiat 127 of 1971 didn’t acquire a tailgate until later the following year, the launch of the new Renault 5 in January ’72 made it arguably Europe’s first mass-market supermini – and what a gem it was. Its engines were borrowed from the Renault 4 but everything else was brand new, including its seriously cute and rather chic look.
The compact new Renault was a huge hit and, with a range of powerplants going from 845cc to 1397cc, there was a version to suit most buyers. Biggest fun of all was the 1976-on Gordini, Renault’s first hot hatch.
The first-generation Twingo might be relatively recent compared with most of the other superminis featured here (not being launched until 1992) but there’s no doubting its classic credentials. This was the car that brought the fun back to the ever-maturing supermini class of the early ’90s, combining cute ‘monobox’ styling with oodles of Gallic charm and charisma.
Simplicity was the Twingo key, with just one trim level, one (1.2-litre) engine and a choice of four different colours, although the range expanded slightly in later years. Never sold in Britain, although private imports mean there are some (LHD cars) around.