Go big or go home. It’s a catchphrase that could only have come out of North America. A land of unlimited (or so we thought) space and resources, it shaped the vehicles most of us drive. Last year in Canada, the subcompact category (cars typically four metres or less in length) made up only 2 per cent of the market. In much of the world, however, lower incomes, crowded roads and high gas prices long ago forced people to make the most of small – very small – cars and trucks. Be they unexpectedly stylish, sporty or just so irresistibly cute you want to pick ’em up and cuddle ’em, here are some of our favourites from around the world.
Austin-Healey Sprite Mk1 (1958-1961)
Using parts from the tiny Austin A35 sedan, the 948-cubic-centimetre Sprite had a zero-to-100-km/h time of more than 20 seconds – glacial by today’s standards. But in 1958, Motor magazine called it “fully comparable with lively modern saloons of double its size” while lauding its “outstandingly responsive” handling that “many touring car owners have never even imagined possible.” Of course, with its “Bugeye” headlamps, the Sprite also looked ineffably cute.
BMW Dixi 3/15 (1928-1932)
To look at BMW now, who can believe the first four-wheeled BMW was this motorized baby buggy? The 1929 Dixi wasn’t really BMW’s own work; it was a built-under-licence Austin 7, Britain’s mass-market equivalent of America’s Model T Ford – BMW having acquired the original German licensee, Automobilwerk-Eisenach, in 1928. Powered (loosely speaking) by a 747-cc four-cylinder engine, the Dixi came in many body styles, including some cute roadsters.
Fiat 850 Coupe and Spider (1965-1973)
If the 850 sedan was an ugly duckling, the Coupe and Spider were swans. Road & Track called the Spider “one of the most beautiful small cars in the world” and the coupe “one of the handsomest, best-balanced designs … on a small car.” Noting the engine’s voracious appetite for revs, Autocar said, “it runs to 8,000 rpm when really thrashed and feels as though it could go on and on for ever.”
Fiat/Bertone X1/9 (1972-1989)
Even today, the X1/9 looks more like a concept car than an almost 50-year-old design based on the 128, a boxy subcompact sedan. Instead of reshaping the front-wheel-drive 128, Fiat commissioned an all-new Targa-top body from Bertone and installed the 1.3-litre (later 1.5-litre) engine midship. It wasn’t very quick, but mid-engine weight distribution and supple all-independent suspension yielded a blend of handling and ride that was sublime for its time.
Geo Metro Convertible (1991-1994)
Americans don’t do teeny-tiny cars, but sometimes automakers had to sell them to achieve Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mandates. In the eighties and nineties, GM’s collaboration with Suzuki spawned three generations of three-cylinder Chevrolet, Geo and Pontiac mileage mavens. Most were eminently forgettable, but who wouldn’t say “aaawww” at seeing this? The key to driving one of these is a bumper sticker reading, “Don’t Laugh At Me, Laugh With Me.”
Honda CR-X (1984-1991)
The CR-X’s blend of sharp looks, zesty dynamics, fuel economy and unexpected practicality (I once drove my CR-X to Florida with my bicycle inside) made it a cult car. Over two generations it included hyperfrugal 1.3-litre HF, regular 1.5-litre DX and sporty 1.6-litre Si versions, and in some markets the B16A VTEC – boasting up to 160 hp. The Targa-top Del Sol that replaced the CR-X never had the same cachet.
Honda S800 (1966-1970)
Believe it or not, Honda’s first production car was this sports car. Its jewel-like 791-cc four-cylinder engine was insanely high-tech for its time – double overhead camshafts, four-barrel carburation, needle-roller crankshaft and a 9,500-rpm rev limit. In short, a motorcycle engine on four wheels. Early versions even had chain drive to the rear wheels and independent rear suspension, in which form Road & Track called the steering and handling “excellent.”
Honda N600 (1967-1972)
The first Honda car sold in North America was the Mini-sized N600. Despite the two-cylinder engine’s tiny 599-cc displacement, Motor found that by making full (and frantic) use of its 8,500-rpm rev limit, it could outrun larger-engined rivals. Noting also its light controls and acceptable comfort, “we would not pretend this sometimes buzzy, fussy little car will appeal to everyone,” Motor concluded, “but it does have some very real assets, including character.”
Mazda 323 GTX (1986-1989)
Long before Subaru or Mitsubishi, Mazda built a turbocharged all-wheel-drive compact to contest the World Rally Championship (WRC). The street version boasted 132 horsepower from its 1.6-litre engine (almost double that in competition tuning) channelled through a five-speed stick to a 50-50 split all-wheel-drive system. Between 1986 and 1991, the GTX won three events in the WRC, and the few surviving production models are now getting noticed by collectors.
Mazda R100 (1968-1972)
Sure, you know the RX-7 sports car, which was long the standard-bearer for Mazda’s signature rotary-engine technology. You may even know the hand-built 1967 Cosmo 110 that first displayed the fabulous-but-flawed engine concept. But who’d have thought the cute but innocuous R100 was also rotary powered? An early ancestor of today’s Mazda3 compact, the R100 was also the first car sold in Canada by Mazda when it landed here in 1968.
Peugeot 205 GTI (1984-1994)
We all know the VW Golf GTI defined the hot-hatchback genre. But did you know that in the eighties, a Peugeot – yes, Peugeot – was widely considered the best of breed? The 205 GTI launched in 1984 with a 1.6-litre engine (later 1.9-litre), prompting Motor to laud its “scorching performance with class-beating economy” and “new front-wheel-drive standards of handling.” In 1990, Car magazine named the 205 its Car of the Decade.
Mazda MX-3 (1992-1998)
In the nineties, subcompact coupes were a thing, including the Mazda MX-3. The base 1.6-litre “four” was ho-hum, but it had sharp handling and strong brakes. And, uniquely in its class, there was an optional 1.8-litre V6. Rarely has there ever been a six-cylinder engine of such small displacement, let alone in such a small car. In the MX-3 “it spins sweetly and smoothly all the way to a 7,000 rpm red line,” said World of Wheels.
Mini Pickup (1960-1981)
The original Mini came as a sedan, a woody wagon, a panel van, the upscale Riley and Wolseley versions with pretentious grilles and extended trunk, and even the Moke, a wannabe beach buggy. Were any of them ever as cute, though, as this pickup? Despite a 25-cm wheelbase stretch (which is longer than the sedan’s), the pickup was still only 3.35 metres long, with a box length of 1.2 metres and an ambitious payload of 317 kilograms.
Nissan 1400 Bakkie (1972-2008)
Minimalists and scale-modellers will love this small but perfectly formed pickup. Based on the 1970 Datsun 1200 sedan, the pickup (“bakkie”) continued in South Africa until 2008, becoming a national icon in the process. The basic design never changed, though over the decades it received a larger 1.4-litre engine, disc front brakes, a five-speed gearbox and a taller roof to accommodate burly Boers. It weighed only 750 kilograms but could carry up to 591 kg.
Opel Kadett Coupe (1974-1979)
Over here we remember the Chevette as a sad-sack econobox, but GM Europe had its own versions and did them right. British reviewers praised the Chevette’s refinement, ride, fuel economy and especially (would you believe?) handling. Germany’s version was the Opel Kadett, including this picture-perfect coupe that Hot Car called “the best-handling car we’ve ever tested." A later 1.9-litre fuel-injected GT/E version actually predated the VW Golf GTI; somehow, the GT/E’s impact wasn’t quite the same as the GTI’s.
Smart Roadster (2003-2005)
Only the Fortwo city car came to Canada, but there were other Smart cars. Launched in 2003 on a stretched Fortwo platform, the Roadster had a rear-mounted turbo three-cylinder engine that generated up to 82 horsepower. In the spirit of the old Bugeye Sprite, it wasn’t fast but it was feisty, frugal fun. But it had another chronic similarity to the Bugeye – when it rained outside, it also rained inside. Warranty costs became unsustainable, and production ended in 2005.
Subaru Justy (1987-1995)
Subaru helped pioneer all-wheel-drive cars, and the concept has spread across the industry from SUVs and pickups to crossovers, luxury sedans, sports cars and more. Less of a trend-setter, however, was the Justy – a subcompact hatchback with available all-wheel drive. Also unusual for its time, the 1.2-litre engine was a three-cylinder, and the optional automatic was one of the first continuously variable transmissions (CVT) offered in North America.
Sunbeam Stiletto (1967-1972)
Introduced in 1963 to challenge the Mini, the rear-engined Hillman Imp sedan was technically advanced and drove well, but wasn’t much to look at. Then the perfectly proportioned coupe versions appeared in 1967 with more steeply raked front and rear windshields and an overall height about 55 millimetres lower than the sedan. There were Imp and Singer-badged versions too, but a higher-output version of the 875-cc engine made the Stiletto especially desirable.
Suzuki SC100 (1978-1982)
Suzuki four-wheelers are long gone from Canada, but would you believe that for a while in the eighties, the Samurai 4x4 outsold the Jeep Wrangler? Too bad we missed out on this little charmer, the 1978-1982 SC100 (a.k.a. Whizzkid). Despite being only 3.2 metres long and 123 cm high, the rear-engined coupe was a 2+2, meaning it had two small rear seats meant for children or occasional use. Its 1.0-litre four-cylinder engine was relatively large for the car’s size and Motor reported “nothing on the market [can match its] combination of performance and economy.”
Suzuki X-90 (1996-1998)
These days we ask “what were they thinking?” but perhaps Suzuki wasn’t totally out to lunch in the early nineties. SUVs were coming into vogue. There was also a market for small “personal” coupes. The two-seater, T-top X-90 blended the two genres. As World of Wheels commented, “Suzuki has either invented a brilliant new niche concept, or come up with an answer to a question nobody asked.” Suzuki euthanized the X-90 after only three years.
Suzuki Cappuccino (1991-1998)
One look at this and we can forgive Suzuki for the X-90. The Cappuccino was Suzuki’s contribution to a genre of tiny sports cars designed for Japan’s tax-efficient kei-car standard for tiny cars with engines smaller than 660-cc. While the rival Honda Beat was mid-engined, the Cappuccino was classic front-engine, rear-wheel drive. The turbocharged three-cylinder engine was rated at 63 hp – which, coincidentally, was the legal maximum for kei cars.
Toyota MR2 (1985-1989)
Among three generations of Toyota’s mid-engined sports car, we like the original for its good-things-in-small-packages purity. When it launched in 1985 with a rev-forever 112-hp 1.6-litre 16-valve engine, Motor called the MR2 “the closest thing yet to an affordable exotic. Yes, it really is that good.” A supercharger later boosted power to 145 hp but was arguably redundant on a car epitomizing the phrase “it ain’t what you do; it’s the way that you do it.”
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