The term is often interchangeable with other terms for small cars; such as subcompact in North America, and supermini in the UK. The Euro NCAP makes no distinction between small cars, calling all superminis, and the European Commission refers to A-Segment (Utility/city class: entry level small passenger car).
In Japan, the kei car (軽自動車 keijidōsha , lit. "light automobile") is a specific type of city car. To receive legal classification as a kei car (along with the added registration discounts and benefits), the vehicle must meet specific size criteria in both physical dimensions and engine capacity. For 'city cars' in Japan, the definition is informal and imprecise.
Internal combustion engine city cars
A number of small and light cars were sold before the fifties, but not specifically known as city cars. These include the 1920s Austin 7, 1930s Fiat 500 "Topolino" and the 1940s Crosley. After the Second World War, a number of manufacturers introduced microcars, the precursors to the modern city car. These included the Bond Minicar and AC Petite in Britain; the Iso Isetta in Italy in 1953; the Fulda, Messerschmitt Kabinenroller, and Brütsh in Germany in 1954 (all two-seaters with a Fulda and Sachs two-stroke engine; the Goggomobil Isard (a 2+2, rather than a true four-seater); and the Gutbrod Superior. There was also the Dornier-designed Zündapp Janus, which placed passengers back to back, and the Riley Reliant.
As the European economy improved, all but the Riley disappeared. Fiat launched the new 500 in 1957 and in 1959, BMC would introduce the best-known and most-successful city car, the Mini. DAF joined Italian motoring magazine Quattroruote and Turin coachbuilder OSI to produce the DAF City, which used Daffodil mechanicals. There were other new projects from 1969 through 1972. In 1972, Daihatsu proffered an electric model, while Toyota showed the Town Spider, with a choice of petrol or electric power, and General Motors displayed three two-seaters, one electric, one gasoline, and one (unfortunately for GM, not a precursor) hybrid. The GM products were capable of only 0–30 mph (0–48 km/h) in 15 seconds and 30–45 mph (48–72 km/h) maximum, not good enough for normal city driving, nor could they meet the safety regulations which would be introduced in 1974.
While many of these cars can be considered city cars today, these cars have been replaced by larger cars with each passing generation. Exceptions are the smaller Fiats, especially the 1957 500 and 126. They were in the region of 3.0 metres (9 ft 10 in) in length, but had seating for four people, putting them outside the microcar category.
The replacement for the 126, the Cinquecento, was presented in 1991 as a true city car. At only 3,200 millimetres (10 ft 6 in) long, it had room for four and entry-level prices.
In the late 1980s, superminis had physically grown so much that many buyers wanted even smaller four-seat cars. In Japan, buyers had a wide selection to choose from in passenger cars, microvan and kei trucks, such as the Honda Today and the Honda Acty, Subaru Sambar and Subaru Vivio, Daihatsu Atrai and Daihatsu Mira, Mitsubishi Minica and Mitsubishi Minicab, and the Suzuki Fronte and Suzuki Wagon R. In Europe, Renault followed Fiat in 1993 with the Renault Twingo, which featured a MPV-like design and interior room, despite its size and height 3,430 millimetres (11 ft 3 in) long and 1,420 millimetres (4 ft 8 in) 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 New Edge design. 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, South Korean brands Daewoo and Hyundai introduced their city car entries, both for the Asian and European markets. The Hyundai Atos, launched in 1997, was 3,500 millimetres (11 ft 6 in) long and 1,600 millimetres (5 ft 3 in) high, which was much taller than any European models (usually under 1,450 millimetres (4 ft 9 in)) and provided considerable interior space. Its boxy shape provoked mixed reactions.
The Daewoo Matiz followed in 1998 with a Giorgetto Giugiaro design and a moderate height (1,500 millimetres (4 ft 11 in)), which proved more eye-catching. Hyundai tried to react to this with the rounder Atos Prime but without much success.
City car / supermini crossovers
As small family cars and superminis grew in the 1990s to the 2000s, so did city cars. After some new superminis grew to be over 3,900 millimetres (12 ft 10 in) long (like the Ford Fiesta, Opel Corsa, the SEAT Ibiza and the Volkswagen Polo), some automakers developed city car models more than 3,650 millimetres (12 ft 0 in) long.
The first of these models was the Nissan Micra (2002), which is 3,720 millimetres (12 ft 2 in) long and smaller than 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.
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- Ruppert, James (October 10, 1998). "Motoring: The City car to be seen in". The Independent (London). Archived from the original on March 1, 2010. Retrieved March 1, 2010. "(City cars) are meant to be cheap, small, easy to park and yet practical, with good manners on the open road."
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