Citroen's new DS3 has squared up to rivals from Mini and Fiat in an exclusive Autocar triple test.
This 1.6 VTi version is not the Citroen DS3 in its most engaging specification – that's the more powerful, more expensive 1.6 turbo – but this is almost certainly the model that Citroen expects to sell most of. It's also the closest by far on price and performance to the biggest-selling Mini, the Cooper.
Not that either of them can hold a candle to the Fiat 500 Abarth when it comes to showroom appeal. Almost everything about the 500 screams "buy me"; it appears to be in a league of its own.
And to begin with, that's exactly how it feels on the road. The Fiat feels so much sparkier and faster than the others that you wonder if there has been some kind of terrible price mismatch. It's heroically exciting to drive, the 500, in a way that neither the Mini nor the Citroen can ever hope to replicate.
Having said that, the Fiat is a fair bit smaller than the Citroen inside – not just in the rear seats but in the boot as well. In reality, in fact, the DS3 is the only car here in which four people can travel in any real comfort over a long journey.What's most impressive about the DS3 is how different it feels in character compared with the regular C3. The suspension and steering tweaks may be subtle but they are enough to give the DS3 a sharper, more precise edge that's largely absent from the regular car.
The way the front end bites and sticks to whatever apex you aim it at provides the DS3 with an extremely crisp edge to its handling. Unless you are ludicrously ambitious with your entry speed to a corner, it resists understeer and flows through bends with real flair. And it has a lot less body movement in general than the regular C3.
The DS3 is less spikey in its ability than the Fiat and more composed than the Mini mid-corner – and with a notably more comfortable ride than either of them.
And what of the Mini Cooper? It still looks every inch as desirable as it did 10 years ago, when BMW invented the class that the D33 is now trying to enter. And that's still a huge factor in the Mini's appeal.
Yet, in truth, it's actually the least impressive of the three dynamically, for all sorts of reasons. Despite sharing the same engine, it's nowhere near as refined as the Citroen on the move.
The aspect that defines the Mini on the move is its steering, and this remains the car's single biggest strength dynamically. It still reacts like a go-kart when you aim its little nose at a corner.
Trouble is, the Citroen does just about everything the Mini does, and it does it better (apart from change gear so well). Really throw it around and there's simply too much rear-end movement in the Mini, and it feels nowhere near as composed as the DS3 as a result. Go slowly, on the other hand, and the ride never settle.