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James May on downsizing and the future of motoring: CAR+ archive, February 1998

Published: 14 June 2016

 Our most famous former columnist
 James May on the future of the small car
 Part of our CAR+ archive project 

Less, as the hackneyed saying goes, is more. Then again, it seems fashionable at the moment for writers to twist and convolute a whole article so that they can end by announcing smugly that less, is indeed, less. So what is less? For the past few months I have been endeavouring to answer this question with particular reference to the small motor car. 

Let’s have a look at the apparatus for this experiment, the 1/24th-scale Seat Arosa 1.4 automatic I have been running since August. Up until then I had been tooling around in the sort of machines with which the Arosa might well come as a free gift – Saab, Alfa Romeo, Land Rover and so on – and was very interested to gauge the psychological effects of what people with less money than they used to have like to call ‘downsizing’. More importantly, I was keen to establish if there was any credibility in the widely perpetrated notion that, although the motor car is teetering towards the status of the century’s number one public enemy after Hitler, everything will be all right if we just make them a bit shorter. 

James May on life with a Seat Arosa

Now, I hadn’t actually lived with a toy car since I had my Mini. With preconceptions thus rooted, the disposable Seat came as something of a surprise – comfy, decently refined, nicely put together, perfectly acceptable. It seemed appropriate to canvass the opinions of a few women, not because I am sexist but because the motor industry seems up front in its conviction that small cars will appeal to them. My friend Dolly denounced the Seat as ‘a particularly nasty little car that looks like a big Hoover,’ but the other week I was out with this Czechoslovakian bird – sorry, that’s not politically correct; I meant to say this bird from the Czech Republic – and she exclaimed, ‘Ooh, lovely, so smooth,’ and she meant the car.

In truth, though, this shouldn’t be surprising at all. Safety legislation and the expectations of the buyer demand that there is as much engineering effort in a tiddly car as there is in a real one. Here tumbleth small-car myth the first – they’re no longer significantly cheaper than the cars above them unless the maker cuts a dynamic or quality corner somewhere: the Ka’s ancient engine, the Cinquecento’s Airfix interior, the Seat’s deplorable radio featuring buttons that don’t light up in the dark. But overall, the Arosa is made the same way as any other Seat or VW, just not as bigly. 

On a couple of occasions recently I have been required to drive a short at short notice to Birmingham, a prospect likely to bring on a critically short temperament in the best of us. But I have to say that once on a motorway, the Arosa sat happily at 90% of flat-out some 88mph – and I couldn’t honestly have wanted for more from my lesser car. Last week I had to drive all the way to Scotland. I admit I ponced a Bentley for that one.

Small cars: are they really the future? 

But there goes small-car myth the second – you don’t get there any slower unless, in your big-car era, you were a flagant law-breaker. And here’s number three – you don’t get there any quicker, either. Short cars may make traffic jams more compact, but they don’t improve the flow rate through junctions and other constrictions and that, as half an hour in the physics lab with some glass tubing and a jug of water will demonstrate, is what counts. 

‘Easy to park, though, eh?’ comes the predictable last-ditch defence from the small-car lobby. In practical terms, yes, but despite a rear end drawn by a draughtsman who started at the front and didn’t use a big enough piece of paper, the times when the Arosa is pretty good and serves my needs adequately; but as a cure for all known social diseases, I’m afraid it falls shorter than its rear overhang. I am now in a position of less in relation to the small car. Hmm. Less certainly isn’t more; but then neither is it significantly less. Less, in fact, turns out to be more or less the same. Sorry. 

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By James May

The most famous son of CAR, ex-Top Gear, turned Amazonian