Honest John: what's the best small car for short urban journeys?

Our 'agony uncle' uses his expertise to guide readers into the most suitable car for their needs, and answers other car-related queries

microcar rally
How small can you go before it gets ridiculous? Credit: Eleanor Bentall

If your car has developed a fault, or for consumer advice, turn to Honest John by emailing [email protected]

Strait and narrow

My wife finds it increasingly difficult to get in or out of her 2013 VW Polo. We are looking for something higher but ideally no wider and not much longer than the Polo. I have looked at the Ford Ka Plus Active and the Fiat Panda. Slightly larger, the Citroën C3 Aircross  or perhaps even the Renault Zoe. Annual mileage is no more than 4,000, mainly short journeys. What would you suggest? KF

The Fiat Panda and 500 have Dualogic automated manual transmissions that are neither good to drive nor particularly reliable. The tall, narrow Suzuki Ignis has a similar automated manual that is better. Hyundai and Kia have switched their i10 and Picanto to automated manuals as well, though you might be able to find a 2019 model four-speed torque converter automatic. I can't find a Ford Ka + listed with any kind of automatic transmission. The C3 Aircross, Vauxhall Crossland X and new Peugeot 2008 are available with an outstanding eight-speed torque converter automatic. The VW T-Cross is very smart and classy. Although the automatic is VWG's notorious DQ200 DSG, it has not so far been troublesome with the 1.0-litre TSI engine in the T-Cross. For 4,000 miles a year definitely consider an electric car such as the Renault Zoe, Seat Mii or Skoda Citigo.

Comfort zone

I’m going to test drive a 2011 Lexus CT and the 2011 Toyota Auris hybrid. Which do you prefer to drive? AF

The CT200 can have a poor ride. It depends on the wheel and tyre size. Same goes for the Auris hybrid. The quality of paint and trim is higher on the Lexus.

Inheritance tax

I have inherited a 1998 Seat Arosa that has done only 55,000 miles and is running like a dream. I intend to use it as a station car and general runabout. It has an MoT and tax until September 2020 and I know I can drive it with third-party cover on my main car policy. I’ve been quoted £160 to insure it on its own, but do I need to legally? RS

You have to insure it separately. Your policy only covers you to drive other insured cars third party if you are not named to drive them on the car's policy. It does not cover other uninsured cars.

Visiting rights

Is it easy to add people from outside the UK to one’s car insurance? NV

No. LV, Direct Line, NFU Mutual, Churchill, Coveo, Saga and Quotemehappy might do it, otherwise www.aplan.co.uk or www.cayinsure.com.

Economical with truth?

I'm curious about the new Ford Kuga and, in particular, the plug-in hybrid model. The battery range of about 30 miles appeals to me, but what is the likely achievable MPG on a long journey, assuming a fully charged battery when starting off? Ford's figures seem wildly optimistic, even using the WLTP testing regime. MD

For the first 30 miles or so you'll be using either no fuel or very little. Real mpg for the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is instructive. In the official tests over short distances it's 148.6mpg. In reality it's averaging 64.9mpg. The Prius PHEV is officially tested at 235mpg. The real mpg average is a still very good at 144.4mpg, implying that most are used for short runs. On a 150-mile run, Andrew English and I averaged 85mpg in one.

Pitch invasion

Do dogs get upset by the electric motors of hybrids?

I bought a new Toyota RAV4 Hybrid after owning a diesel version for three years. I’m delighted with the car but wonder whether hybrids typically have higher road noise, especially in the back? Could it be because there is less insulation, as ventilation is required for the battery under the rear seat? Also, have you had any reports of dogs not liking hybrids? Could it have anything to do with them hearing the frequency noise of the electric motor? DT

You might be hearing more road noise because the engine and electric motors are quieter than the diesel. You raise an interesting point about the dog. It could be that the pitch of the electric motor upsets them. Or it might simply be a case of getting used to the new car.

In the dark

The instrument cluster of my Volvo intermittently goes blank. All other lights and controls work perfectly, but nothing shows on the cluster. It might come on again after a mile or two, or might stay off for 40-50 miles. Is this problem repairable? MB

A reader made a recent recommendation for totaltronics.com. Alternatively cartronix.co.uk, cluster-repairs.co.uk or ecutesting.com.

One curfew owner

My grandson is coming up to 18. Could you advise of any cheap, reliable, small cars and the cheapest means of insurance? Would it be better to have an adult as a named driver? RL

Probably best to look for a 1999-2005 Toyota Yaris 1.0 (a chain-cam engine). They were a revolutionary design in the day and are holding up very well. A telematic black box is the only way to insure, and include several mature drivers on the policy. They will have to drive the car occasionally and will be subject to the same black-box vigilance.

Rear stake

It's a lockout: might a simple solution be a hand? Credit: Seb Oliver

The back doors of my Volvo V40 have locked. Volvo told me to take the car to a dealership for diagnosis, then they will tell me if they will contribute towards the cost. I am concerned I will have to pay just for the diagnosis, never mind the repair. If this is a common fault it must constitute a major safety issue. What do you think? JS

If it's under warranty, go back to the dealer. If not, see what you can do yourself. It could be due to moisture ingress, so get a can of WD40. If you can’t gain access via a grommet on the lock face of the door, poke the extended nozzle between the outer window glass and the window glass sealant and squirt downwards onto the lock servos. It has worked for other readers.

The lion king

We would like to replace our 2014 Ford C-Max 2.0 TDCI Powershift auto with a small but comfortable petrol auto SUV. We were looking at hybrids, but they are a bit beyond our budget at the moment. Any ideas? HC

The best by quite a long way is the new Peugeot 2008, with the Honda HR-V Sport 182 CVT-7. Citroën C3 Aircross and VW T-Cross in its slipstream. 

Transfer free?

I would like to transfer a car to my son. Will I have to restart the tax in his name? Will I lose the remainder of a year’s VED? Will I have to start a new tax year from now? Should I wait until this year’s tax is about to expire? Where do I do all this? CW

Look here: www.gov.uk/sold-bought-vehicle. You will get a refund of the unused VED and your son will have to start again by paying for six or 12 months. This can be done online without losing a month's VED by the car changing hands in the last hours of the last day of the month. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Nagging doubt

Size matters: what are the legalities of trailer widths? Credit: Juniors Bildarchiv GmbH / Alamy 

What are the rules governing the width of trailers in relation to that of the towing vehicle? In our part of the country, I have had several near misses in narrow lanes thanks to trailers such as horseboxes that have mudguards protruding outside the narrower towing car. DW

You’ll find all the information here: www.gov.uk/towing-with-car/weight-and-width-limits.

Thin pickings

My sister is looking for a new automatic car, top price £15,000. She does 10,000 miles a year. What might suit? JH

To get a proper new automatic for £15,000, it's going to have to be at a significant discount. Maybe a 2019 Kia Picanto or Hyundai i10 with four-speed torque converter auto, if you can find one. Avoid all automated manuals.

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