What is The Perfect City Car?

Ranking passenger vehicles in urban environments from worst to best.

By Chris D'Alessandro Wheels.ca

Jul 13, 2023 8 min. read

Article was updated 2 months ago

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I live in the heart of downtown Toronto. But I love driving cars. Oxymoron.

The city hates cars. The streets belong to pedestrians, bicycles, and the TTC. The roads themselves are so filled with potholes, and so warped from the constant change in temperatures, driving down John St. feels like being on one of those sketchy carnival rides from when you were a kid — the one where, legend has it, a kid lost an arm a few years back.

One-way streets, gridlocked traffic, ever-present construction zones, and jaywalkers — Toronto is car hell.

I own a car just to be able to get out of the city. When I do road tests of new vehicles, I generally find any excuse I can to escape the shadow of the CN Tower and put the machine in an environment more conducive to a fair review.

Still, I inescapably have to spend time driving in the city — navigating the treacherous, poorly planned streets and storing vehicles in tightly wound, equally as poorly planned parking garages.

Maybe it’s because driving in the city is such a pain in the ass that car manufacturers incessantly continue to market “city cars” as a solution. Car commercials still only come in two basic flavors. Either a) “You’ll be so tough and rugged driving off-road and/or camping.” Or b) “Get ready for an exciting night out in the city (as the designated driver?) with all your friends and inexplicably empty streets.”

Both are fantasies. But what cars will actually open up the city to you? Could the tough and rugged ones actually be a better fit? And more importantly, which cars will make navigating metropolitan cities like Toronto a grueling slog?

Well, I’ve driven every type of commuter vehicle you can think of in the city and I’ve concluded there is actually both a best and worst option for “city car”.

The Worst: Two-Door Sports Coupe

Toyota Supra

I love two-door sports coupes. I own one. They are my favorite cars to drive.

But I have to admit that, all things considered, they are the absolute worst cars to own and drive in the city.

You’re low to the ground and the suspension is stiff. So the roads are punishing. You simply can’t avoid every imperfection and so every five seconds you’re forced to consider the possibility that your car has just split in half.

Sports cars (the good ones, anyway) also chew gas, have clutch pedals and terrible blind spots. So traffic is annoying at best and generally nerve-wracking at worst when trying to keep an eye out for pedestrians and especially cyclists — ever hovering exactly where you can’t see them and darting in front of you when you least expect.

But perhaps worst of all is that you can’t take advantage of any of a sports car’s strengths. All that power, acceleration, and handling capability — it does you no good. When you’re downtown, you’re only as fast as every other car on the road.

Bad: Full-Size Pickup or SUV

Ram 3500

Before you come at me with your pitchforks and tiki torches, I will say that there are actually a number of advantages to driving a full-size truck in the city.

You’re up high, so you can see all those pesky pedestrians and cyclists. You can also clear those potholes with ease. Big tires mean you never curb your rims. There’s also perhaps no better vehicle in the world to be stuck in traffic than a RAM 1500 Big Horn. You might as well be lounging in a Texas ranch house.

But, the obvious issue, the size, is an ever-present obstacle. It’s hard to weave through traffic. It’s hard to find street parking, but underground parking is even worse. You have to hold your breath like you were passing by a graveyard as you pray you’re just an inch short of the height of the entrance to a parking garage. It looks like you’re going to hit the ceiling every time.

Also, you’re statistically a greater danger to pedestrians or cyclists. And because the city is a big swirling stew of human chaos, accidents will happen. You can’t always control that.

I know somebody is reading this right now, getting ready to furiously type a comment about how they drive a pickup in the city and they get along just fine and they eat 50 raw eggs a day and wrestle bears for fun and blah, blah, blah. But be real. A full-size truck was not designed for living its life in the city and almost every other option is a superior one for this particular job.

Not great, not terrible: Luxury and Sports Sedans

Lexus IS 500

Forever the do-no-harm option is the trusty sedan.

On the plus side, you’ve generally got enough ride comfort (an abundance in something like an 8-series BMW, but even an acceptable amount in something like a Camry XSE or Lexus IS) to handle most of what Toronto’s roads have to throw at you.

You’ve also got great visibility, comfy seats, and some good blind-spot assistance to navigate traffic and nagging cyclists.

On the downside, you’re still down fairly low, and because well-equipped sedans all have low-profile tires and fancy rims these days, you’re constantly worried about curbing a wheel. Some luxury sedans like the Lexus LS or Alpina B8 just feel too nice. It’s like wearing a Rolex to go rock climbing.

Driving a Taycan through downtown Toronto can certainly be a leisurely experience between the perfect interior, ride comfort, and efficiency of the all-electric powertrain. But damn, are you also constantly praying nobody bumps into your Porsche in traffic.

Good: Crossover SUV

Porsche Macan

There is some truth in advertising when all those commercials show you yet another ubiquitous crossover SUV thriving in an urban environment.

For better or worse, crossovers just sort of do it all (there is after all a reason they sell so well). They’ve got the ride height to clear those potholes and wavy roads. They’re compact enough to easily park and scythe through traffic. Outside of a few unnecessarily hot models like the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrafoglio, the suspension is usually overly compliant. However, even the impressively capable Porsche Macan GTS is comfy enough.

Parking is a breeze. Plus you’ve got plenty of room to toss a couple of friends in the back seat, and a cooler in the trunk full of chilled refreshments for an afternoon in Trinity Bellwoods park.

Downsides for the city? It’s nothing tangible. But the weakness to owning any crossover SUV is that you really are just another brick in the wall. And if you love cars, there is an itch that no crossover in the world can ever scratch.

If you could give a damn about cars and live in the city, then by all means go for a crossover SUV. Any crossover SUV. They are all exactly the same (except for the Alfa and Porsche, they’re special).

Really good: Compacts and Hot Hatches

Honda Civic Type R

With the exception of ground clearance, compacts, and hot hatches excel at every aspect of city driving. They encompass most of the strengths of crossover SUVs — though they’re even easier to park and exploit gaps thanks to their compact size — but they’re also fun to drive.

VW Golfs (of all trims), Hyundai Elantras, Fiat 500s, they excel in these conditions. Sure, there’s no power, but that means you can use all of the car. And because they’re cheap, you’re not ever worried about them.

Of course, if you can afford performance, you won’t feel buyer's remorse for a proper hot hatch like you would with a two-door sports coupe.

The GR Corolla might be the most fun I’ve ever had driving a car in the city. Unlike in a more traditional sports car, I could actually use the power and the handling prowess through Toronto’s tricky streets. The epically light clutch and rifle-bolt stick shift was actually a bonus instead of a burden, and the amenities of the hatch made living with the 300-horsepower machine a breeze.

The Honda Civic Type R is another great contender. Like the GR Corolla it’s a blast to drive, and while it is a little stiff for Toronto’s streets (and notably larger than the Corolla), its abundance of blind spot alerts really help to relieve stress — especially when it comes to those lawless cyclists.

Driving either the Type R or GR Corolla is an experience I never want to end, even when dealing with the worst of what the city can throw at me. Contrast to my Mustang GT — which, after about 30 minutes of clutching through traffic just makes me wish it would stop.

Learn from my mistakes. If you love driving cars and you live in a city, do not buy a V8 muscle car. Buy a hot hatch.

The Best: Midsize Off-roaders

Jeep Wrangler 4xe

Full-size trucks and SUVs are just too much for the city. But midsize ones? They’re kind of perfect.

Sure, they’re not quite as easy to park or navigate through traffic as crossovers or compacts. And (especially when off-road ready) they’re not nearly as comfortable as a sedan.

But off-road capability really is its own form of luxury. Chunky tires, skid plates, lifted suspension — it all laughs off Toronto’s war-torn roads. Construction zone ahead? Yes please. Did I bump the curb? Don’t worry about it. Parking lot at Cherry Beach all muddy? Good. Parking garage neighbor dents? They build character.

What makes a good city car is actually just one key factor: stress reduction. And nothing reduces stress like a vehicle that’s designed to be abused.

But some off-roaders can go above and beyond. Last summer, I had what I can only describe as a perfect day in a Jeep Wrangler 392. Open roof. Good tunes. And the angry scream of a HEMI V8. The city stopped being an obstacle to be overcome and instead became an adventure — something to be explored and enjoyed.

And yeah, you might look like a bit of a goof in your open-top off-road SUV amongst the sea of stern German sedans and sensible Korean compacts which flood Toronto’s streets. But the joke's on everyone else. Because you’re cool as a cucumber in the most stressful place to drive in the country.





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