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Downsizing: what it really means

  • Smaller cars may be much bigger than you think
  • Performance and efficiency is constantly improving
  • Greater levels of safety kit and standard equipment

During the last few years of economic doom and gloom phrases like 'tighten your belts' and 'credit crunch' became as much a part of everyday conversation as Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor.

One word encapsulated the reality of the impact of financial constraints more powerfully than any other: 'downsizing'.

It instantly conveys stark imagery of families selling up their expensive, spacious homes and making a vain attempt to squeeze all their worldly possessions into a humbler residence, at least a third smaller than the old one.

Similar images spring to mind when you suggest people downsize their cars and yes, the differences can be dramatic: swap a gadget-laden Mercedes-Benz S-Class for a Smart ForTwo city car for an extreme but cost-effective example.

But downsizing needn’t necessitate the wearing of a hair shirt in your parsimonious pursuit. How? Well, as cars are replaced they tend to become larger than the model they supersede. Yet with advances in modern engine and gearbox technologies these bigger models are often faster and more economical than the ones they replaced.

Buying a larger but more efficient car isn’t downsizing, of course, but don’t forget cars in the size below the one you drive have also grown. So much so that after a manufacturer has replaced a model twice it’s about the same size as the equivalent model above was two generations ago.

Let’s look at a couple of examples:

Back in 1998 an Audi A4 1.9-litre TDI saloon produced 89bhp and averaged 53mpg, emitting 143g/km of CO2 in the process. Today’s A4 is longer, wider, faster and greener but more intriguing is Audi’s new A3 saloon. Surely it must be considerably smaller?

Well, no.

The tape measure confirms the booted A3 is 2.2cm shorter than the 1998 vintage A4 but is over 11cm wider, making the passenger compartment roomier. Even though the 147bhp 2.0-litre TDI diesel can help the A3 sprint to 62mph in 8.4 seconds, some 4.7 seconds quicker than the older A4, it still returns a claimed average of 68mpg and emits just 107g/km of CO2.

A fluke? Don’t you believe it. Ford’s Focus shook up the family hatchback market in 1998 but 2013’s Fiesta is almost as much car today.

Okay it’s 18cm shorter and 2cm narrower but the 2013 Fiesta’s diesel engine is smaller than the one in the original Focus yet it’s 5bhp more powerful and an astonishing 28mpg more economical too at 85mpg.

Scanning through almost every manufacturer’s back catalogue of models and comparing them to the 2013 line-up illustrates that downsizing in real terms doesn’t necessarily mean a much smaller car.

Still not convinced?

Newer cars have had to pass significantly more stringent Euro NCAP crash tests than their predecessors meaning a five-star car from 1998 is highly unlikely to score the same result now.

Similarly, modern cars are packed with equipment that 15 years ago was the preserve of the most luxurious of German premium saloons. Automatic LED lights, self-activating wipers and dual-zone climate control weren’t commonplace back in 1998 yet today smaller cars come with those features and a raft of other aids that you couldn’t even buy 15 years ago.

Downsizing in motoring terms needn’t equate to an inferior car. Choose wisely and your ‘smaller’ replacement will have as spacious an interior, more safety equipment, greater fuel efficiency and lower emissions.

It doesn't sound bad after all, does it?