The original Mini and Beetle: Two of the best small cars ever built

Smaller cars have a broad appeal to many different kinds of drivers. The best sports cars of all time, for example, are usually much smaller than the average daily-driver. Since only a lightweight body can truly soar when a manufacturer drops a powerful engine under the hood, it takes a petite frame to produce a particularly peppy set of wheels.

Because less power is needed to move a two-seater than a wagon with a third row, these cars generally use less gas to get to where they’re going, making them ideal vehicles for economical drivers as well as the environmentally friendly. The same V8 in a full sized sedan won’t take as much juice to get rumbling as it would under the hood of a coupe/convertible.

Probably the biggest setback with petite vehicles lays squarely in the distinction of being small. You may be able to zip through traffic at a breakneck pace, but don’t expect to bring any passengers or luggage with you in most compact cars. Many smaller cars will overcompensate for their lack of interior dimensions by being zippy little road-rockets that fail completely when it comes to being adequate people movers.

There have been a few small cars that seem to have it all: Powerful performance, solid fuel economy and an interior that isn’t laughable. As rare as it may be, some rides wear the badge of “small car” proudly, earning street cred despite their compact status.


The original Mini (1959-2000)

1969 Morris Cooper MKII

More than 40 years ago, legendary engineer Alec Issigonis developed the front-wheel drive architecture that underpinned what is without a doubt the first thoroughly modern compact car. The layout of the car allowed it to comfortably fit four full-sized adults, which blew the minds of consumers and critics when it was first introduced. The car was only five feet wide and 10 feet long, yet the frame allowed for 80 percent of the area of the car’s floorpan to be devoted to the interior.

One might assume that this layout would account for meager performance, but the twin carburetor S model conquered rallies and the roads, making it one of the most exciting vehicles to ever hit the streets. In 1999, right before the Mini name was bought by BMW, the Mini was called the second most influential car of the 20th Century by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation, a group of 126 auto experts from 32 different countries across the globe, only to be bested by the Ford Model T.


The original Volkswagen Beetle (1938-2003)

1965 Volkswagen Beetle

This is one of the greatest small cars ever because, much like the Mini, it was an innovative design that would stand the test of time. While the FWD layout of the Mini would go on to inspire the architecture of a whole generation of small cars, the rear engine placement of the Beetle was a feature that would remain distinct to this bubble of a car. No other car looked quite like the Beetle which is baffling given its sustained success while remaining virtually unchanged for the better part of a century. These cars were seemingly indestructible, thanks to solid German engineering, yet remained relatively inexpensive from the beginning of production until now. This is part of why they were still manufacturing new Beetles on the original rear-engine architecture in Mexico up until the turn of the century.

At the end of World War II, Henry Ford II was given the opportunity to purchase Volkswagenbut declined at the suggestion of the companies CEO Ernest Breech, who said, “Mr. Ford, I don’t think what we are being offered here is worth a damn. As it turns out, Ford missed quite an opportunity, as the ownership of Volkswagen may have helped Americans develop an adequate compact car earlier in the game.

It’s taken a long time for an American company to learn how to produce a quality compact car – many may claim it hasn’t even happened yet. We’ve always been good at making hot rods and larger vehicles, but as tastes change, foreign automakers have a leg up when it comes to smaller cars.


What do you think is the best little car of all time? Leave your comments below: