/ Motoring

Has downsizing your car changed how you drive?

Cartoon of men in different sized cars

Like many others, I’ve downsized my car. My travelling needs changed and so did my vehicle. But while I looked forward to the cost-saving benefits, I didn’t think my driving style would change so drastically.

Despite working in Which? Car, I am one of the 4.8% Brits who has switched to using the railway as my main way to get to work in 2011. My 80-mile-round commute by car has been replaced by a 20-mile drive with the remainder covered in the comfort of First Capital Connect’s standard class.

This change of travel requirements has led to a change of car. I’ve sold my surprisingly frugal (but unsurprisingly unreliable) 1.9-litre diesel Alfa Romeo GT for a 1.5-litre petrol Toyota Yaris.

The switch makes complete sense. Whatever car I drive it’s going to spend most of its time sat neglected in a loose-gravel train station car park that’s a paint-chip hotbed – a location not best suited to the vulnerable Alfa. More importantly, my financial burden has been significantly reduced: insurance, tax and maintenance costs are all much lower with my Yaris.

A change in driving style

What I hadn’t considered was how my driving habits would sway, and by how much.

Its endless torque, cruise control and an ultra-comfortable interior made the Alfa stress-free, which transferred directly into my driving technique. I had presumed that this was due to my natural and maturing driving style. It appears not.

The Yaris, in contrast, offers a much more ‘basic’ package. The interior is focussed on practicality over comfort, making it a tool to get me from A to B, rather than a place to settle down in and enjoy the ride.

And since the 1.5-litre petrol engine needs to be worked hard to get up to speed, I’ve found myself trying to eke out every ounce of performance from its armoury.

Small-car syndrome

I’ve now started to refer to this as “small-car syndrome” – a motoring version of short-man syndrome, where you drive the car harder to make up for your car’s inadequacies in scale.

Because I’ve essentially lost 75 brake horsepower switching to the smaller Yaris, I’ve found myself trying to make this up by entering corners notably faster, braking later and accelerating much more aggressively.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly no Lewis Hamilton. In fact, I’m not even Christine Hamilton. And I want to stress that I drive well within the limits of the law. But I’ve been left mildly appalled with my driving in recent weeks, especially as I’ve seen my average miles per gallon figure diminish dramatically.

So I want to know – is this just me? Or has anyone else noticed a change in their driving style after they’ve downsized their car?

Lucky7 says:
25 May 2011

Interesting point! I have actually gone the other way – had to upsize – but what used to really bug me about owning a smaller car was other road users treating you like a learner when driving totally normally. Maybe it was because our car was that classic learner car, the Nissan Micra, but we got sick of being tailgated and overtaken (Audi and BMW drivers were most guilty) when simply keeping up with traffic! In my experience, this seems to happen less when you have a bigger car, despite not actually driving any faster… So ‘small car syndrome’ might just be about giving as good as you get?

Riders of mopeds have the same problem as drivers of small cars and perhaps the biggest cause of tailgating is obeying the speed limit!

My solution to tailgating is to flash the rear foglights a couple of times. It might not be a permitted use of foglights but it is unlikely to create a hazard for other users and could avoid an accident. It also helps to remind following drivers to dip their lights.

I’m in a similar position Rob, I have to downsize the saab 9-3 2l turbo, but I really cannot pick a car that appeals to me other than a mini. As in, a Mini cooper should have enough power and enough economy.

I used to hire cars a lot in Germany and Holland and the frustration of driving a little car with no power certainly raises the stress levels. With the saab, to get up to speed just just have to lightly press your big toe, With any little hairdryer box, you have to rag the guts out of it, which defeats the object really. If you have to work harder in the car, thats not worth paying for.

I actually think under-powered little cars cause traffic jams. The engine is too under-powered to be able to make a quick manoeuvre, or pull out quickly. Its even worse when you are on the motorway, there is just nothing to accelerate.

In my opinion, any car that CANNOT accelerate in 5th gear on a hill on a motorway should NOT be allowed on the roads. Really dangerous, lorrys struggle enough without them having to sit behind the pencil sharpeners in the middle lane, getting slower and slower.

Nathan says:
25 May 2011

A bloke with small man syndrome in a car that gives you “small car syndrome”, a dangerous mix! Looking at the picture you’ve used I’d suggest you look normal size in the small car and all you’d see is some finger tips clinging to the steering wheel in the big one!

Interesting thoughts. I may have to downsize soon. I find it hard to justify my Focus ST170 when I only do 5000 miles a year, if that. I’ll miss if it if I do.

I’m beginning to agree about the need for more bhp. I had a Honda Jazz which was excellent for reliability and versatility, but uninspiring handling and just plain underpowered. So I thought I would treat myself and just for once get something fairly small but with a bit of oomph. We looked at Mini Coopers, small BMWs, Golf GTis etc, then common sense took over realising that we did very little mileage and most of it on narrow country lanes where you’re lucky to get up to 40 mph, so we ended up with the new model Fiesta – much better steering and handling than the Jazz, and the little Zetec engine will happily rev its socks off but it’s still terribly underpowered. It’s beginning to get tiresome anticipating every uphill gradient and dropping gears just to keep the revs and speed up, and the fuel economy suffers for it.
So maybe next time I will be looking for some more bhp.

John says:
27 May 2011

I often drive my wife’s Aygo, which some might say is underpowered. However, I find it quite interesting to drive. To get the most out of it you have to drive properly, change gear at the right time and not slow down too much at corners. It is well capable of keeping up to legal speed limits but not of course the excessive speeds that Audi drivers think is their right.
My other car is a Mini Cooper S. Lots of power in any gear at any speed, which is very nice, but anyone can go fast in a car like this and the ride is awful.

We, in our 80s, downsized from a Volvo V40 (1.8 manual) to a Skoda Roomster (1.2 automatic) earlier this year. Curiously we find the Roomster livelier than the Volvo. Being a “sit up and beg” car, we see more of the countryside, and with a vast sunroof, are bathed in sunlight, as are passengers in the back seat. Altogether a more pleasant driving experience for golden oldies.
What we do notice, though, is that other drivers think we are a van, and show us less respeck. This makes us drive more aggressively. Curious.

I too am in my 80’s and also just downsized from my automatic Qashqai to a Skoda Roomster Scout 1.2 automatic after a 9 month, yes 9 months! wait.
This is a remarkably ***** car, its performance and handling is better than the Nissan, and the automatic Skoda is more economical (around 45/49mpg) than the manual version, neither do I cruise at 30mph!
OK it looks different but would thoroughly recommend checking it out if you can wait that long for delivery. Not just for we ‘golden oldies’.

The Roomster is not just for golden oldies. Its immense back-seat windows and high back seats make it very suitable for minor Royals, to smile and wave, smile and wave. And, if the sunroof were built out, it could be converted into an excellent Pope-mobile.

15 months ago I switched from a petrol 5-series BMW to a diesel C30 Volvo. My driving style has relaxed completely and I still arrive everywhere in exactly the same time as I always did. Real world road speed has nothing to do with the car you are driving and everything to do with the other traffic on the road. I have noticed that when I drive my kids Fiat Panda 1.1 Active I still keep up with the traffic
and I still arrive everywhere in the same time, and it is much easier to park! I never find either the Panda or the C30 underpowered compared to the 5-series. It is quite amazing how much rubbish is spoken about horsepower in relation to cars. If you are towing a caravan, or carrying 5 adults plus luggage then you do indeed need more power, and a larger car. Otherwise, my BMW did 27mpg, my Volvo does 59mpg. No wonder I’m more relaxed!

Downsized when I retired a couple of years back. Went from a Skoda Octavia Estate to a Skoda Fabia hatchback. Interesting your correspondent mentioned cruise control. One of the things that swayed the Fabia for me was that cruise control (one of those things, like air conditioning, that once used regularly you’ll never want to be without) was available as a pretty economical extra. Not a common option on a smaller car. The Fabia does 70mph+ with no problem but, with the CC set, there is no chance of me inadvertently going any faster than I ought. And having driven a Skoda before I retired, the interior configuration was familiar.
When you are buying your own fuel rather than having a company car, it does make you think rather more about driving more steadily and less aggressively, dare I say, using gears and brakes less but thinking ahead rather more. You do get used to being in the inside lane and being overtaken by just about every other car on the road. Makes you realize how little speed limits are adhered to on trunk roads by the majority of drivers.

Rodger Fuse says:
27 May 2011

John Kitchen makes good points. Those who risk all to overtake mostly end up just a few cars ahead at the next set of lights or traffic jam. If you feel the need to always wring the car’s neck you probably shouldn’t be on today’s overcrowded highways and are likely suffering from some sort of inferiority complex. Likewise, I shudder when I read about ‘having fun on a favourite back road’ – typically in a BMW road test. What about a family innocently cycling the same route? However I don’t deliberately creep about and drive up to the speed limit where safely possible. Do the sums. Driving at 80mph for 10mins might make the slower car at 70mph comfortably and quickly disappear in the mirror and thus seem way behind. But actually saves just 85 seconds. Wow! That really makes the extra 80bhp and twin exhausts (to say nothing of insurance and fuel costs) worthwhile doesn’t it?

haha, well why don’t you just drive at 0mph and then no-one would get hurt?

Pious comments like that really help no-one Rodger

grumpygeek says:
27 May 2011

I am having exactly the same experience. Recently swapped my turbo diesel scenic for the same model but petrol. It is ok for driving around town but I really miss the torque and it’s pants on the motorway, you need to work it harder compared to the diesel, too much gear shifting.
I guess I’ll get used to it and I am adapting the style. But next car gotta be a diesel again.

Colin Chadfield says:
27 May 2011

I’ve recently retired and we decided not replace the works Honda FRV (great family lugger) but to downsize and stick with one car – our Honda Civic (old style – ’04). When we need two transports we consider trains or at a push hire one from town a couple of miles away (the one that comes to pick you up!). Costs soooo much less than having two cars parked on the driveway.

As regards driving style, I used to be in the Fire Service so I was “blue light” trained and know how to drive fast on our roads, way above the speed limit when it was safe. However, I also cycle long distance, so am familiar with the idea that it takes time to go a long way, and that rushing doesn’t make that much difference. I now make sure I set off with plenty of time and cruise along happily. It takes me about four times as long on average to go by bike as it does by car (20kph vs 80kph), so a car journey at road legal speed seems fast! Yes, people overtake at way over the speed limit, and I sit and wonder which one of them will one day need my past experience in first aid to keep them alive after they have run themselves off the road at the next bend. If I want to race, I go karting!

Cruise control is a great addition – had it on my last three works cars and the relaxed motorway cruise is a great way to cover lots of miles. The little Civic hasn’t got it, and I miss it, so it will be high on the list when we come to replace it.

Tony Pickard says:
27 May 2011

Interesting comments. Has anyone changed to a hybrid, I wonder? I’m considering downsizing, from a Toyota Avensis, and wondered what the Prius is like as a comparison……………….

Kev says:
27 May 2011

Having given up caravanning last summer, my wife and I decided to downsize and we swapped our 2.0 litre diesel auto Rover 75 Tourer for a VW Golf. The Golf is the petrol 1.4 TSi with the DSG gearbox. Although the engine is only 1.4, it’s turbo charged and has the performance of many 2.0 litre normally aspirated cars. Whereas the conventional torque-converter auto on the Rover 75 sapped power and economy – the DSG gearbox in the Golf is just as fast and just as economical as the manual version. So, despite having switched from diesel to petrol, my new Golf is faster and more economical than the Rover 75. I couldn’t be happier. The only thing I desperately miss is the Climate Control I had in the Rover. It was genuinely ‘set and forget’. The air-con in the Golf is ok – but I find myself constantly having to fiddle with the controls to get the interior temperature just right.
Going back to the main point of the discussion – has my driving changed? In some respects – yes it has. The surge of power from the turbo charged engine is addictive – and I am constantly tempted, on a clear road, to put my foot down to enjoy the acceleration! I am attempting to overcome this urge, however, in the interests of fuel economy!

John says:
27 May 2011

Swapped my 2002 Seat Ibiza 1.2 for a new Ibiza 1.2 5dr SE TSI DSG at the end of last year, getting the benefit of the ‘VAT free’ offer. Has all the gizmos one used to get on a luxury car: 7-speed auto, cruise control, trip computer, climate control, electric windows all round, parking sensors, ESP, electric heated and folding mirrors … 105 HP engine with maximum torque flat from 1500-4000 rpm; no shortage of power here. And all for less than 12,000 pounds. No need to be a straggler with this car.

You chose the right car but the wrong engine. You should have chosen the diesel version. I did a similar downsize but selected a Fiesta 1.6 TDCi. With 122 bhp and 270NM torque (thanks to a £300 ECU remap) it is a pleasure to drive. It will make your old Alfa feel slow and it still returns over 50 mpg with tax at £30 a year.

I never really understood the Jeremy Clark attitude to diesel engined cars. Once you have learnt how to drive them (low revs – masses of torque), you really start to appreciate how relaxing to drive a modern diesel has become.

Oops! That’s Jeremy Clarkson, of course.

David S. says:
28 May 2011

I entirely agree.
Petrol engines = FRENZY! — resulting in aggressive driving style.
TurboDiesel engines = Relaxation — resulting in SAFER driving style.
— “Simples!”

AndyB says:
28 May 2011

I downsized when my previous 2000cc rubber wheeled tin box gave up the ghost at 85,000 miles (a bit earlier than I had bargained on). Until a couple of years before, I had been driving 15,000+ miles per year, mostly commuting which I hated. I downsized to no car at all. After about a year I decided to buy another car, not because I felt it was essential but because it would offer certain advantages and I could afford it. My world wouldn’t fall apart if I didn’t have it. I now consider a car a luxury item. I test drove several small cars before settling on a Honda Jazz. I much prefer having the smaller car. I don’t know many bhp it has and I don’t really care. I know it is somewhat less than the previous car but I don’t miss the extra power. Driving in heavy traffic I long ago twigged that you get where you going at the same speed as everyone else so don’t fret about it. These days I cycle to work and my company has pool cars so there is no need to take my car to work. But if I have to go any distance I first look to see if I can take a train. After all, driving is pretty boring and you can’t do anything else at the same time – on a train you can read, sleep, do something on a laptop, have a coffee. And on a bike you can get as much exercise as you want, and fresh air and peace and quiet (for no charge!). Has the smaller car changed my driving style? Indirectly, as the period without a car changed my thinking about cars. Every time I go out I am conscious of taking a decision about whether to use the car. Yes, I can be lazy like the rest of us, but for 2011 I’ve set myself a target of cycling further than I drive in my car. I think it will be quite close run.

tracy says:
28 May 2011

I down sized from a BMW 318si to a Diahatsu Charade…so huge difference, the petrol cost half the price and it prefers the cheapest petrol I can find not the dearest lol. The biggest difference is the small car blows in the wind when driving, I never thought about that. I drive slower now as I can no longer take corners like I could and the acceleration is slow. On the plus side parking is easier and no body tries to race me now lol

akr says:
28 May 2011

what’s the point in downsizing when a bmw 320d does in excess of 50mpg (much more if driven well) and costs £90 a year to tax. you can pick up not that old used ones for around the price of the so called green cars