Kick-starting 2011 with a trio of magnificent city cars, known loosely as the ‘up-Mii-Citigo’ generation, reports Iain Robertson, was a tremendous product platform for VW Group and having admired the up!, he bought a Citigo but now tests a Mii.
The whole concept of ‘city cars’ is actually highly confusing. With vehicle trim classifications moving luxury into more accessible models, there is still a preoccupation around the motor industry with providing more occupant space, so vehicles like the Ford Ka have actually increased in size. In truth, the only proper city car sold today is the two-seater smart car, as engineered and sold by Mercedes-Benz…the rest are pseuds, although the VW project does a good job of defining the current class.
The ultimate city car has to have been the original, ten-feet long Issigonis-designed Mini. It featured two-doors for surprisingly easy access to a four-seat cabin. It featured a sliver of a boot but the boot-lid was bottom-hinged and sturdy enough to hold larger loads. It featured minimalistic trim, which allowed storage pockets to be incorporated within the body panels, with extra storage beneath the seats front and rear and a full-width storage space in the dashboard. Nothing else produced since gets remotely close.
While accepting that vehicle safety standards have turned BMW’s version of the Mini into a Maxi, VW was fortuitous enough to engineer a sub-compact car that was sturdy enough to withstand crash-testing to 5-Star N-Cap standards. However, contemplate the other parameters for a moment: quick steering, tight turning circle, easy parking, good vision outwards from within the car, neat proportions that enable easy slotting into tight traffic gaps, easy parking, easy loading and zesty performance allied to great frugality. That is what city cars are all about.
When development commenced in 2007 on the VW generational concept, the ‘up-Mii-Citigo’ was destined to be rear-engined, which would have turned a few heads for sure. Fortunately, as a Group project, a front-engine, front-wheel drive, built in Brataslava reality was decided upon. Apart from the rear-engined smart, this is about as close as any manufacturer has got to a timeless, classless, moderately inexpensive and seriously compact motorcar, since the first Mini. While the VW version would always be the ‘premium’ choice, in 2013, I opted for the Skoda Citigo variant for personal transportation. It served faultlessly for three years.
Had the Seat Mii been available in the sportier FR trim (at the time), I would have acquired it instead. While the project is a fine example of badge-engineering in its most modern form and a choice of 57, or 72bhp, 1.0-litre, naturally-aspirated three-cylinder engines remain core to it (punchier turbocharged alternatives are already applied to VW’s line-up, which almost defeats the object), the combination of an achingly conservative design, fantastic space utilisation and compact exterior dimensions is assuredly compelling.
Had smart not already coined the brand definition, the Mii could easily have been regarded as the smartest in all respects. No frills motoring is the key message and, with plenty of glossy metal interior surfaces (and a glossy black plank across the dashboard’s width), good quality but unrelentingly hard plastic mouldings, and seats that are accommodating and comfortable, the Mii is more powered office chair than tidgey town car. Yet, it lacks nothing on the equipment front, with the customary cluster of electronic driver aids, a decent stereo system, air-con, power steering and, with due deference to its FR sporting tag, plenty of red stitching and a perforated leather-wrapped, flat-bottomed steering wheel.
Priced (prior to dealer discounts being applied) at £12,425 (before a modest selection of accessories, such as sat-nav and on-board computer are factored-in), which I happen to believe is too stiff a price-tag, it benefits from a solid repute and good trade-in valuations. It is also one of the wieldiest of small cars sold today, possessing the prescribed quick, responsive steering and a tight turning circle, which is perfect for city centre manoeuvres. Yet, its 72bhp delivers an almost indecent turn of speed, topping-out just shy of 110mph, after despatching the 0-60mph sprint in a mere 13.2s, while returning 51.4mpg and emitting a tax-friendly 97g/km CO2 (under the current WLTP rules).
Its five-speed manual gearbox is sweet and slick. My Citigo had the two-pedal, automated-manual transmission option, which demanded a bit of forethought from the driver at times, to avoid clunky gearshifts. Yet, it worked quite well in the cityscape and was actually more economical in use than the manual box.
The FR pack lowers the suspension by a few millimetres and benefits from stiffer damper responses. Fortunately, unlike some puddle-jumpers, the slightly beefed-up suspenders do not ruin the ride quality too tragically and introduce greater roll resistance, while also enhancing the Mii’s higher speed stability. The 16.0-inch diameter alloy wheels, clad in 45-profile tyres, provide oodles of grip in all circumstances and set off the exterior most satisfyingly.
Although the boot is dimensionally small, it is of a practical shape and depth and can be extended by flopping forwards the rear seat backs. There is no ceremony here; it is all simple and practical and, in five-door test form, is accessible for rear seat passengers too. The driving position is upright but roomy even for a 6’ 6” tall driver like me and access to it is excellent, not demanding the Swiss Army knife calisthenics of some compact cars. Solidly built, rattle and creak-free, even on the worst of British road surfaces, the Seat Mii gives a great account of its myriad capabilities.
Conclusion: If you want the perfect city car that also possesses a superb character, then do not dismiss the Seat Mii. It is really good fun to drive and is far roomier than you expect it to be. Argue down the retail price and you could arguably return to affordable and enjoyable motoring, without penalties.