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Price and performance apart, the Vauxhall Agila is an ideal city car, but can't be considered in isolation when rivals make a more convincing argument

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The Agila came into being just before the turn of the century to satisfy a perceived need for a dedicated city car. The answer was provided by Suzuki – which remains part owned by General Motors – in the form of its space-efficient Wagon R. Vauxhall installed its own engines and tweaked the styling slightly, but it remained very much a Suzuki product adapted by Vauxhall.

Vauxhall says that the Agila is much more of a joint venture, although it is built alongside the Suzuki equivalent — the Splash.

The Agila is not merely pretty; it’s a real attention magnet

How do you convince someone that the era when people bought small city cars solely because they couldn’t afford anything else is well and truly over? Just take them for a quick spin in this new Vauxhall Agila.

Like its Suzuki near-clone (both cars are built by Suzuki in Hungary), the Agila’s purpose in life extends far beyond the traditional boundaries of budget transport, in which how you got there mattered not at all compared to the fact that you got there at all.

The Agila is not merely pretty; it’s a real attention magnet. That such design fluency has been achieved within the usually style-sapping limitation of tall five-door hatch architecture is entirely to its creators’ credit, for it means that this is a car with a real chance of working in the real world.

But questions remain: should even a mid-spec, 1.0-litre, 64bhp Agila like our test car (there's also a 1.2-litre with a lively 95bhp) really cost almost £1000 more than a car such as 1.2-litre Fiat Panda, a former Car of the Year and a favourite of ours since it was launched? And because even small cars cannot live by city street alone, how does it fare when removed from its comfort zone?

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DESIGN & STYLING

Vauxhall badging

Does it look like a Vauxhall or a Suzuki? The previous, square-box Agila was simply a rebadged Suzuki Wagon R, but this time the Agila is claimed to be much more of a joint venture.

Certainly this looks like a credible Vauxhall with that front grille and the sloping sculpting along the flanks, and the detailing of the lights in particular makes this a handsome little car. Huge round headlight reflectors and tall tail lights with circular centre sections hint at a style well beyond utility.

The Agila represents what a supermini should really be.

The front grille is very different from that of the Suzuki Splash and, to our eyes at least, gives the Agila a considerable advantage in the styling department.

Vast headlights dominate the frontal aspect of the car, but there’s no doubting their efficiency. Given the very limited performance on offer, they’re some of the best we’ve seen.

Big body-coloured boot handle looks and feels expensive, and helps to establish an image of being a cut above that of the traditionally spartan, cheap urban runabout.

Under the skin the Agila sits on a slightly shortened version of the Suzuki Swift's platform. With small cars getting ever larger, you could say that the Agila represents what a supermini should really be.

INTERIOR

Vauxhall Agila dashboard

Even though the Agila's cabin has a simple design, it’s obvious a lot of clear thinking between Vauxhall and Suzuki was involved in its creation. It has a certain style, thanks to the careful selection of hard but not nasty-textured plastics on the dash, the distinctive instrument display and the tasteful upholstery.

Too often we’ve seen cabins of similar cars with their shortcomings covered up with a riot of attention-diverting colours, shapes and pointless gimmicks. Here there is no need and its designers know it.

The cabin has a certain style, thanks to the careful selection of plastics

They’ve got the basic relationships between the driver, steering wheel, pedals and gear lever spot-on as well. The wheel adjusts for rake only, but even tall drivers will not be unduly inconvenienced by this.

In fact, all owners are more likely to notice that the wheel is the perfect thickness, the gear lever is the perfect distance away and the pedals are ideally placed right in front of the driver instead of displaced to one side.

The seats also feel from like they’ve come from at least a class up. Not for Vauxhall the short-cushion, oversprung chairs that have historically resided in such cars – in the front or back the seats do a fine job of holding you comfortably in place over long distances. Not that you’ll want to spend much time in the back, and none at all in the centre seat, which in truth is little more than an occasional perch.

Headroom, however, is outstanding, and while legroom is probably better than most other offerings in this class, the Agila is a substantial 260mm shorter even than a Corsa.

More impressive is the boot, which equals the best its selected rivals can offer with the rear seats in place; once these have been folded flat it’s the most capacious car in the class. This operation is delightfully simple to execute, a single lever simultaneously dropping the seat back while the base slides forward and dips down to create a fully flat floor. There’s useful underfloor storage, too.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Vauxhall Agila engine bay

As you might expect from a car in a range with an entry-level price around £8500, there is no techno-trickery of any great note on the Agila. It comes with two engines, of which the 1.0-litre three-cylinder is found in other Vauxhalls while the 1.2-litre four-cylinder motor is supplied by Suzuki. There was initially also a 1.3-litre, Fiat-designed diesel but that has now left the price list.

For the first time a four-speed automatic gearbox is available, but even though it’s fitted to the 85bhp/86lb ft 1.2-litre engine it saps acceleration to sub-1.0-litre level, which is not something most people are going to want to countenance. The much better alternative is the standard five-speed manual.

Performance is too grand a word to describe what happens when you ram home the accelerator

‘Performance’ is sadly rather too grand a word to describe what happens when you ram home the 1.0-litre Agila’s accelerator and wait for something to happen. If you’re in one of the lower gears and your speed is below, say, 40mph, a pleasantly offbeat note emanates from somewhere deep under the bonnet as the all-alloy three-pot motor tries to muster as many of its 64bhp as it can. After a while you’ll notice a slight but steady repositioning of the speedo and rev-counter needles.

The 1.2 is quiet and willing to bowl along motorways at 85mph with little effort, it rides like a bigger car and behaves in a much more grown up way than you might expect.

To be fair, performance from the 1.0-litre is only a little worse than the class average, and if you think the Agila sounds slow, a not-so-quick crawl up the road in a Hyundai i10 will soon set you straight.

This is perhaps the one area of endeavour in which cars in this class appear to have made next to no progress, and the reason is clear. When we put the Agila on our scales it registered 1040kg. That a car this small should weigh over a tonne seems frankly perverse.
 

RIDE & HANDLING

Vauxhall Agila rear cornering

Suspension for the Agila comes from the time-honoured, simple, cheap and easy-to-package solution of MacPherson struts at the front and a simple torsion beam axle behind. And it all works well in the little Vauxhall by the standards of the category, provided you keep your activities within the realm of normal use for such a car.

Drive it down a badly rutted road as fast as you possibly can and its composure deserts it. Its high-sided shape is no fan of cross-winds, either. The rest of the time, however, the Agila is not only an agreeable conveyance, but it actually takes a plausible stab at offering up some fun too.

The ride quality is impressive and a match for any other in the class

But not before it has taken care of the boring stuff. It’s easy to park in town thanks to close and clear extremities, light to manoeuvre and blessed with a sub-10-metre turning circle. Visibility could be a little better – the base of the A-pillars is quite thick, as is the whole of the C-pillar – but it rarely impedes your progress.

And once you’ve left the city behind, the Agila will not fail to impress with the linearity of its steering, the grip of its tyres or the accuracy with which it follows your chosen line. The brakes are also strong and full of feel, so long as you don’t attempt to monster them as if you were on a race track.

The way to extract a surprising amount of amusement from such a small package is to drive as smoothly as possible and carry as much of your hard-earned speed through every corner as possible. Doing so does induce a serious dose of body lean, requiring your passengers to hang on firmly, but it’s no direct hindrance to progress. Which is a blessing, because if you let your pace fall too far, you may be in the next county (or at least at the end of the decent road) before you get it back again.

It’s a comfortable long-distance car too, thanks to sensibly soft springing. Drop a wheel into a pothole and it will send a shudder through the whole structure, but if you’re just munching the miles on the motorway, or merely running around town, the ride quality is conspicuously impressive and certainly a match for any other in the class.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Vauxhall Agila

There’s no ducking the fact that the biggest turn-off about the Vauxhall Agila is its price. It’s true that in the higher trim levels it packs a superficially impressive equipment list, with items such as a trip computer, steering wheel-mounted radio controls, front fog lights, a one-shot driver’s window and body-coloured door mirrors and exterior handles.

But we wonder how many people are going to crave these items as much as those that are not provided as standard, like the ESP and curtain airbags found on the Suzuki Splash.

The biggest turn-off about this Agila is its price

Reconcile this in your mind and once you have your Agila, you’ll find it much more affordable. It comes with very cheap insurance and minimal road-tax costs, but these are no more than you should now expect of any car in this class.

It should also prove frugal on fuel. Official figures suggest the 1.0-litre engine is capable of a 60.1mpg average – one of the better in the category – although we could get nowhere near this number during our test.

On a 100-mile route of motorway and a smattering country roads driven fast but not hard, it returned 44.1mpg, so 50mpg in routine gentle driving should be easily achieved. A 10-gallon fuel tank means you shouldn’t be stopping for fuel too often, either. Sadly more modern rivals such as the Hyundai i10 and Nissan Micra outclass the Agila’s CO2 emissions of 109g/km.

The 1.2-litre version’s economy figures look slightly less impressive, with a combined figure of 55.4mpg but the real-world consumption is likely to be on par with the smaller engined version on faster roads. CO2 emissions of 118g/km are nothing to boast about – those kind of figures are more familiar in the class size above. Choosing the automatic version increases fuel consumption to 49.6 and emissions to 131g/km.
 

VERDICT

3.5 star Vauxhall Agila

This Vauxhall Agila is a four-star car in all but price. Compared with its closest rivals it may seem only to be a few hundred quid here or there, but in this corner of the market such numbers really count. It’s a shame Vauxhall hasn’t managed to cut the CO2 output too.

Still, this is a very capable and welcome competitor to the small city car class. And while the spectre of its apparently better-value sibling, the Suzuki Splash, is never far away, the fact remains that the Agila is better looking and has a more familiar badge on its nose.

A very capable competitor in the small city car class

Its tall load space impresses. Which is something we would never have said that about the old Agila.

This is a much better resolved machine, with a maturity that belies its looks. Although a Clio can match its boot for overall volume, the Agila’s height makes it more versatile.

Overall, then, the Agila arrives as one of the strongest members of its class – a capable and clever contender hobbled only by an over-ambitious price.

Vauxhall Agila 2008-2013 First drives