A city car (or urban car) is a small, moderately powered automobile intended for use in urban areas. It is more substantial and faster than a neighborhood electric vehicle ("NEV") and has four seats, unlike microcars which are two-seaters; their length is usually between 3.40 m and 3.60 m. These cars have been sold moderately in Europe since the 1960s, and nowadays they are a proper car classification. Most mainstream manufacturers have one or even two city cars in their lineup, so the competition is fierce. In Japan cars under 3.40 m are officially called keicars and have tax and insurance benefits, besides cheaper parking fares.
Unlike an NEV, the city car's greater speed and occupant protection allow relatively safe operation in mixed traffic environments and in all weather conditions. Whilst it may be capable of extra-urban speeds and may be legal to operate on high speed roads, this is not intended to be its primary operating environment.
Another name for a city car is station car, where the intended use is to travel from a suburban home to a transit interchange or park and ride lot where the vehicle remains until the operator returns from a commute to and from their workplace. In these cases, a city car may be battery electric powered; in some locations, electric recharging is provided to encourage the use of electric vehicles. NEVs may also be used as station cars where the roadway speed limits permit such use.
Internal combustion engine city cars
One of the earliest city cars was the American-made Crosley, a four passenger vehicle from the late 1940's. While many cars of the 1960s are small enough to be considered city cars today, these cars have been replaced by larger cars with each passing generation, and most of them have ended up as superminis. Exceptions are the smaller Fiats, especially the Fiat 500 and Fiat 126. They were in the region of 3 metres in length, but had seating for four people, putting them outside the microcar category.
The Fiat/SEAT Panda, launched in 1980, was 3.40m long but was clearly aimed at the city car category, and did not grow significantly larger during its development; besides, Fiat produced at the same time a supermini, the Fiat Uno. The replacement for the 126, the Fiat Cinquecento was presented in 1991 as a true city car. At only 3.20 m long, it had room for four and entry-level prices.
In the late 1980s superminis had grown so much that many buyers wanted even smaller four-seat cars. Renault followed Fiat in 1993 with the Renault Twingo, which featured a MPV-like design and interior room, despite its size and height (3.43 m long and 1.42 m tall). Combined with an original exterior and interior design, it quickly became a best-seller. In 1996 the Ford Ka was presented with its radical Ford New Edge Design, first seen on the Cougar. Its egg-shaped body did not leave much room in the rear seats, but many customers did not need them and preferred the Ka over more conservative designs.
In the mid 1990s the Korean brands Daewoo and Hyundai introduced their city car entries, both for the Asian and European markets. The Hyundai Atos, launched in 1997, was 3.50 m long and 1.60 m high, which was much taller than any European models (usually under 1.45 m) and provided considerable interior space. Its boxy shape was either hated or loved by the people, much like the Fiat Multipla.
The Daewoo Matiz followed in 1998 with a Giorgetto Giugiaro design and a moderate height (1.50m), which proved more eye-catching. Hyundai tried to react to this with the rounder Atos Prime but without much success.
These Korean city cars were much cheaper than most of the European models — especially the Opel Agila (2000) and Volkswagen Lupo (1999) —, yet still showed decent reliability. However, sales were dominated by the Renault Twingo and Ford Ka.
Luxury city cars
Mercedes-Benz launched the first luxury city car, the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, in 1996. Comparatively it was extremely expensive (closer to the price of a premium small family car such as a Volkswagen Golf) and was not very successful; this was partly because of media reports of the instability of early models under cornering. However BMW decided to compete against its German rival by launching an all-new MINI in 2001. It is powered by 1.6 L engines and the cheapest model in the range costs € 16,000 or £11,000. This puts into competition with regular superminis. The new MINI is also significant in that it revives a famous small car brand, as had been done with the Volkswagen Beetle.
City car / supermini crossovers
While small family cars and superminis grew considerably from the 1990s to the 2000s, so happened with city cars. After some new superminis were over 3.90 m long (like the Ford Fiesta, the SEAT Ibiza and the Volkswagen Polo) some many makers designed models above 3.65 m long.
The first of these models was the Nissan Micra (2002), which is 3.72 m long and smaller that many superminis of the late 1990s. Other cars are the Citroën C2, Suzuki Swift, Smart Forfour, Toyota Yaris and Peugeot 1007 (the last one which can also be labelled as a mini MPV).
These vehicles are hard to classify, since their size does not fit the "city car" or "supermini" categories. A possibility is to compare the price and interior room with superminis: the Yaris is definitely a supermini, whereas the Tata Indica is closer to a city car.
In addition, in the last few years some "true" city cars were released, like the Fiat Panda (2003), the Kia Picanto (2004) and the Citroën C1/Peugeot 107/Toyota Aygo trio. Some of the other mainstream European manufacturers will release all-new models in 2007: the Renault Twingo, Fiat Nuova 500 and the Ford Ka.
Hybrid electric city cars
Hybrid city cars and microcars are called microhybrids.
Battery electric city cars
The Th!nk City, imported to the USA by Ford Motor Company to satisfy California Zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) requirements in the state of California. Removed from the market by Ford in a bargain with the California Air Resources Board. See PZEV for more information.
The REVA electric vehicle as used in its home environment, India. This may soon be exported to the USA with speed electronically limited and sold as an NEV.
The obstacle to adaptation of such vehicles in the United States is less technical than cultural and political. The mandates by regulatory powers that such vehicles to meet full U.S. safety regulations, as high-speed roadways exist in most urban and suburban areas, ensures the unavailability of vehicles suitable for use in mixed traffic conditions that predominate in U.S. suburban areas.