We pitched the 2017 Ford Fiesta against eight of its biggest rivals in the small car class
The Mazda 2 and the Mini One
Saunders at the wheel of the new Fiesta
The Ibiza proved to be a worthy rival for the Fiesta
The Mini One and the new Fiesta
The Citroen C3 fell short of the class leaders
The new Nissan Micra
The Citroen C3
The Kia Rio
The Suzuki Swift
The Renault Clio and the Kia Rio
To idly observe that there have been a few interesting small hatchbacks introduced lately would be an understatement not far from the magnitude of Captain Scott’s ‘Antarctic walk’ – although not quite of the same significance, I grant.
Autocar comparison tests don’t normally include as many as nine rivals vying for recommendation, but with six of those nine being all-new to the UK market in the past eight months, this one demanded it. Our supermini ‘giant test’ has been in the offing for at least that long, as we’ve watched big-selling, box-fresh little ’uns from Citroën, Kia, Nissan and Suzuki hit showrooms, knowing that the perfect time to get to know all of them that little bit better was still to come. The critical moment, you might say.
Now that moment has come. Materialising for appraisal at Autocar Towers in the same week, the new Seat Ibiza, which is the first Volkswagen Group supermini to adopt the MQB-A0 platform, and the new Ford Fiesta – the much-anticipated replacement for our supermini class favourite and the UK’s biggest-selling new car every year since it went on sale in 2009 – cued this occasion up very nicely.
So the party can finally start. First, some back-to-back test track driving and close scrutiny of all nine cars, in order to identify the very best from the crowd and set up a top-four shootout to be conducted on the road, at length and in greater depth. All nine cars are here in matching form: as circa-100bhp, circa-£16,500, £150-a-month PCP options. And all get the same chance to progress: nothing here will get by on the strength of reputation alone.
By the conclusion of this test, then, the supermini class according to Autocar could look very different.
There’s a good chance the new Citroën C3 might have been the tempting, foil wrapped sweetie you wanted to open first as you looked at the photo above. The C3’s charmingly alternative looks are powerfully arresting – and that kind of visual appeal can take a small, affordable car an awfully long way.
If only the car was even half as objectively commendable as it is cheerily likeable, though. The C3’s seats are broad and comfortable but its footwells are shallow, which doesn’t leave much space for those squeezed into the back. Much of the interior is made of hard, shiny and relatively cheap-looking plastic mouldings, and the angular flat top of the dashboard often reflects sunlight into your eyes. There are some imaginative material highlights, but they’re only worth so much, while the and storage areas are small and few in number.
To drive, the C3 misses the standard set by its eight rivals in this supermini test in a number of ways. Its ride is hollow, noisy, restless and under-damped, its grip level is relatively slight, its body control is poor and its controls are variously limp, vague, imprecise and uninviting. Even affordable small cars ought to drive much better – and the majority do.
Great to look at but feels cheap inside and is singularly disappointing to drive. Not the worst car in the whole class but undoubtedly our least favourite here.
Price: £16,245, Power: 108bhp, 0-62mph: 9.3sec, Economy 61.4mpg (combined), C02: 103g/km
8th: Kia Rio 1.0 T-GDI 3
Kia hailed this, its fourth -generation Rio, as its new fashion icon a few months ago, but among this field it seems resolutely sensible – and among the best superminis in the world, ‘sensible’ could be seen as a bit of a handicap.
The cabin is roomy (if you regularly need to carry adults in the back seats, the Rio should be in your top three) and many of its switches and fittings feel ready to outlive you. But our test car’s cabin was still dark, universally hard to the touch and even a little bit foreboding.
Your sense that this is an unusually large car for its type is confirmed by handling that’s soft, inert and stable at speed but conspicuously short on verve. The Rio’s suspension relays quite a lot of noise from the road’s surface, however, and it rides bumps in a numb, wooden sort of way.
Kia’s new 1.0-litre T-GDI engine is the best advert for the Rio’s driving experience. It doesn’t tug impatiently at the lead as the turbo spools up but instead has decent stamina, revving moderately keenly and making the car fairly brisk.
Better by a long way than any of its predecessors but still far from current European supermini levels of style or dynamic sophistication.
Price: £16,435, Power: 99bhp, 0-62mph: 10.3sec, Economy: 62.8mpg (combined), CO2: 102g/km
Leaving aside Suzuki’s four-wheel drive and automatic versions, this is the most expensive Swift you can buy – and it’s still a clear £2000 less than most of the cars it’s up against here. And with real-world economy and CO2 liability made more appealing by a mild hybrid engine, the Swift is ready with more than one ‘get out of jail free’ card when criticisms are aimed at it. But the regrettable truth is that this car makes a disappointing fist indeed of succeeding one we both liked and rated for its cheery, simple style and its zesty, engaging drive.
The disposable feel of the Swift’s interior is inescapable. Brace your left knee against the centre console as you corner and you’ll feel the plastic flex – and one day, you may conclude, there’ll be a loud crack and a lot more flex forthcoming. The car’s touchscreen infotainment system has a low-rent look, too, laudable though it is to even have one at this price.
The Swift has decidedly soft, remote and ordinary handling. It rides more quietly than the old car, but its manual gearshift is baulky and unhelpfully light, and its steering elastic-feeling. Suzuki’s stout Boosterjet turbo engine ends up your consolation prize in a car whose dynamic fall from grace is as regrettable as its newly bland, derivative looks. What a shame.
Bargain Suzuki isn’t without merit for the money but is a poor successor to its lively, likeable forebear.
Price: £14,499, Power: 110bhp, 0-62mph: 10.6sec, Economy: 65.7mpg (combined), CO2: 97g/km
Five years ago, the Renault Clio’s big-featured, confident sense of style really set it apart from its more conservative-looking competition, and its 898cc turbocharged petrol engine felt torquey enough to provide another reason to buy. That’s how quickly times change where superminis are concerned. Today, although the car still looks smart, it’s no more distinctive than the average small five door here and that engine has become more of a vulnerability than a strength.
To be fair, this is probably the point at which respectable cars make way for good ones in our running order. There’s plenty to like about the Clio’s quiet and fluent motive character, which mixes decent grip and handling response with a certain Gallic suaveness. But performance is certainly weak by class standards in terms of both linearity of throttle response and outright potency of acceleration, while the shift quality of the car’s five-speed manual gearbox is baggy and obstructive.
The Clio’s cabin is also beginning to show its age. Renault’s touchscreen infotainment system really could do with a few more physical shortcut buttons, and its rear seats are too tight for adults of even average height. An oddly oversized analogue fuel gauge and a suspiciously large helping of glossy black fascia trim complete a picture that’s no disgrace for Renault – but no great recommendation, either.
Disappointing engine and gearbox, plus a few signs of old age, limit the Clio to a middle-order rank. For the money, you’d expect better.
Price: £16,555, Power: 89bhp, 0-62mph: 12.2sec, Economy: 60.1mpg (combined), CO2: 105g/km
The new Nissan Micra is a car of much greater ambition than most of its peers, and you can tell in so many ways – from how it looks to how it feels and how it drives. Somehow, placing the car among its rivals does more credit to Nissan’s designers than taking in its bold creases and angular features in isolation. Nissan plainly committed to making a bold and eye-catching car here – and it should reap the rewards at least for a year or two.
Were it not for the same underwhelming small turbo engine that holds back the Clio, this might have been a top-three contender; the Micra’s build quality, ride and handling are certainly that good, and its colourful, intuitive cabin deserves better. Like in the Clio, the Micra’s rear cabin is disappointingly tight, but its boot is a respectable size and its controls, instruments and fittings are all pleasant to interact with.
The Micra’s blend of ride comfort, handling poise and ease of use is a clever one. It has good body control and a supple, medium-quiet ride, and although it could be more agile through corners when you really lean on it, it conjures plenty of confidence and big-car stability. Warts and all, this is plainly a good car – but only very good ones make it past here.
Has the style, quality, up-to-date equipment and handling sophistication to easily beat ‘alliance partner’ Renault’s offering and earn our ‘best of the rest’ billing.
Price: £16,115, Power: 89bhp, 0-62mph: 12.1sec, Economy: 64.2mpg (combined), CO2: 99g/km
The four best superminis on sale today
On with phase two, then: the big showdown. A day and a few hundred collective miles on the roads of Wiltshire, in the superminis that rose above the rest during our elimination session the day before.
As it happens, we have two newbies and two of the class’s established favourites here, so ‘old’ plainly needn’t necessarily mean ‘past it’ where small cars are concerned. Welcome and congratulations, then, to the new Ford Fiesta Ecoboost 100 and the Seat Ibiza 1.0T 115 – as well as the indefatigable Mini One and the evergreen Mazda 2 1.5 115.
A quick flick through my notes from the day before ought to sum up what earned passage for these cars, and the Mini easily lifted itself above the competitive melee. ‘This might be the Mini at its strongest,’ I’ve written, ‘going up against mainstream superminis at a genuinely comparable price point, and both looking and feeling that much more special.’ On the Mazda my notes are less lengthy, and we need only concern ourselves with this much of them for now: ‘Still great to drive.’ Yup, that’ll do it.
Predicting the final ranking of the Ford and Seat is more difficult on the basis of a notebook scrawl alone; there’s a lot more material than is worth transcribing here, and some qualified praise on both cars. But, to a third party at least, the fact I saw fit to record so much might suggest that I had a feeling, even then, that there may be an important need to find a telling advantage for one or the other; that I knew, at some level, that this would be where victory was won and lost. Time to find out if that instinct was the right one.
In with the new
Today is a weekday busy with Fiestas on the undulating B-roads between Swindon and Wantage. So far, on our trip out of town, I’ve counted five examples of the outgoing generation of Ford’s best-selling supermini. There will certainly be no shortage of opportunities for owners of the new model to compare their cars with what went before.
The last Fiesta was quite the landmark. Designed when new pedestrian protection laws were setting a huge challenge to the designers of small cars, it shrugged off the threat of awkward, bulky ugliness by embracing what’s known in the trade as ‘wedge’. By inclining the car’s visual mass rearwards and rounding off the front corners, Ford hit upon a way to make the Fiesta look exciting even when it was standing still. The 2008 car was former design boss Martin Smith’s greatest hit for Ford – an achievement as great, in its way, as the original Focus had been a decade earlier.
The new Fiesta isn’t a design landmark. It reveals itself pretty quickly as one of those Fords – like the Mk2 Mondeo and the Mk4 Escort, for those with longer memories – for which much newness is claimed but only a certain amount is readily apparent. Ford hasn’t denied that the new car is based on the same platform as the old one; it’s a touch longer, wider and lower than that which went before, and the wheelbase and boot volume have changed microscopically. But the car’s look has definitely changed: it’s softer, less chiselled and more, well, globular. And while I’m only one subjective judge, I’m not convinced that curvier is better for the Fiesta.
Having parked it next to the new Seat Ibiza, my concern for the Ford only grows. Insiders say this new design is intended to create a more mature, refined impression for the Fiesta, but, relatively speaking, the Seat is the smarter and more upmarket-looking car of the two. The Leon’s sharp creases and jewel-like details have been transferred onto the Ibiza very successfully. The Seat’s proportions are superb, not shrunken or stunted, as some superminis can look. The Ibiza is less than 20mm longer than the Fiesta, and shorter even than the Mazda, yet it looks so fully formed that you can’t believe it’s not a much bigger car.
We know, of course, how much desirability the presence of a modern Mini can inspire, likewise that the Mazda 2 remains more attractive than the average small car, and so we must record that the Fiesta isn’t off to the strongest start here. More interesting, perhaps, will be where it’s sitting after we’ve considered interior ambience, practicality, material quality and equipment – areas where Ford claims to have concentrated its efforts and raised the Fiesta’s game by a few notches.
But it’s the Ibiza that sets the bar in all four of those respects. Its cabin is by some distance the most spacious and best-packaged of our quartet. That it’s the only car here capable of comfortably accommodating a decent-size adult in the back may actually matter little to most supermini owners – but more space and easier access to it means more room for child seats, too. The Fiesta’s cabin is no more roomy than the Mazda’s and its boot only very marginally larger – and lagging more than 50 litres behind the Seat’s. And the Mini is a car whose practicality compromises are implicit, although they’re less punishing if you have a five-door (we couldn’t raise one in time for this test).
The Ibiza’s fascia is superbly neat and uncluttered; the Fiesta’s much busier albeit a huge improvement on what went before. Where the Ford falls back on some soft-touch mouldings to create a sense of tactile plushness, the Seat uses unerring consistency of finish to better overall effect. It’s the Seat’s instruments that look the more appealing and its 8in ‘glass display’ infotainment set-up that looks better, responds more quickly and has superior functionality than the Fiesta’s 8in ‘Sync3’ touchscreen system.
Where the Mazda and Mini are concerned, it’s worthwhile noting, the former’s dashboard still seems a curious mix of conspicuously expensive and disappointingly cheap fittings, while its infotainment system is respectable but a match for neither that of the Seat nor the Ford. If you want a Mini One with a widescreen infotainment system and ‘connected’ services, meanwhile, you have to pay another £1800 for the Media Pack – not that driving around in the only Mini I’ve come close to in a decade that didn’t have a colour multimedia set, an iDrive-style input console or even audio controls on the steering wheel spokes cheapened the car’s premium ambience much. At any price point and equipment level, this car remains singularly special to be in compared with its competitors.
Out on the road
In theory, the Fiesta could struggle to level with at least some of its rivals on handling precision and verve, but it doesn’t feel that way – which confirms that the Ford’s long-time outstanding selling point has survived into this seventh-generation version and does as much for its overall appeal now as it ever did.
Limited availability of test cars meant we couldn’t be choosy about the trim level the Fiesta came in for this exercise, so we accepted a Zetec model with standard suspension and 16in wheels, where an ST-Line (with sport suspension and 17in rims) would have been the better fit for the car’s amassed competitors. The Ibiza’s FR trim level includes both 17in wheels and sport suspension, and experience teaches us to expect firmer, more energetic dynamic compromises than the class average from both the Mazda 2 and the Mini.
Needless to say, it’s the Fiesta that leads the pack where chassis sophistication is concerned. The Ford is not only the most engaging car here – under threat though it is by opponents that are all great fun to drive in their own differing ways – but it’s also the most rounded. It’s capable of matching its handling bite with a smooth, flexible, wellmannered, hard-revving engine, matched to impressive cabin isolation and strong ride comfort and stability.
You know you’re not going to get ‘rounded’ from a modern Mini – but I reckon you may be surprised to find a similarly uncompromising approach from a Mazda 2. Both cars set about a country road with a great deal more regard for your level of amusement than that of your comfort, riding with little in the way of suppleness but quickly settling after most lumps and bumps and cornering very smartly.
Surprisingly, the Mazda’s ride is the more noisy and coarse of the two, but its steering is also the more ideally paced and feelsome, and its gearshift marginally the preferable one to use. The Mazda’s naturally aspirated engine (the only one of its kind in the whole field) trades accessible torque for perfect response and a dependable willingness to rev all the way to its redline; the Mini’s turbocharged 1.2-litre triple feels much softer under the pedal but pulls much harder through the lower reaches of the rev band, and it still revs keenly up to about 5500rpm. For the odd feverish dash, you’d prefer the Mazda’s powertrain; for everyday use, you’d take the Mini’s without thinking twice.
The Ibiza’s suspension isolates you from the road better than either the Mini or the Mazda 2 – and we must assume that examples without the sporting chassis set-up are more comfortable still. Like so many Volkswagen Group MQB-generation cars, it offers you several driving modes to choose from, so you can have light, consistent steering and a progressive accelerator pedal in town, then configure both systems for more fun when you get into the countryside. In Sport mode, the car’s steering has useful weight, although it’s slightly short on feedback. Grip level, handling precision and body control, though, are all first rate. But then along comes the Fiesta, upstaging even the Ibiza in so many ways, with the incisiveness and playful balance of its handling, the rubbery isolation and progressive
damping of its ride, the obliging slickness of its gearshift and the well mannered work ethic of its Ecoboost engine. While the Seat is plainly the quickest car here on the road, the Ford is the one with the most going for it: a dexterous suppleness over bumps, an agility and liveliness though the bends and a keenness to knuckle down all the way to its turbocharged triple’s redline.
A leader toppled
The Fiesta’s driving experience remains head and shoulders above that of any other supermini on the market and, right from the introduction of the sixth generation version up until now, that would have been enough to seal an Autocar group test triumph. But until now, the Ford had more than its dynamism to distinguish it – and its key rivals were easier to brush aside.
Not any more. Autocar’s long-standing preference is to champion the best car to drive in any given market segment, which is emphatically what the Fiesta remains. But this time around, we can only allow that preference to take the Ford to the brink of victory. Today, only a greater completeness as a modern small hatchback would have sealed the deal.
Honourable mentions go the Mazda 2 and Mini One, therefore. The Mazda’s mixed-quality cabin and flawed refinement levels leave it fourth, while the Mini’s apparent desirability and quality, and the flexibility, dynamic polish and charisma of its driving experience, clinch it a podium rank.
The Fiesta is undone, deposed and toppled. Ford’s key claim in the build-up to the car’s introduction was that such dominant sales success had “earned the Fiesta the right to evolve”. We’ll see if buyers feels the same way but, here and now, that looks like a serious misjudgement.
One thing is clear: with its handsome looks, practical and appealing cabin, superior infotainment functions and a driving experience that comes closer than any other to equalling the Ford’s in the broadest terms, the new Seat Ibiza is the biggest achiever in 2017’s brave new world of small cars.
Great steering and a strong engine are offset by a noisy ride and refinement issues, but the Mazda remains a contender nonetheless.
Price: £16,995, Engine: 4cyl in lne, 1496cc, petrol, Power: 113bhp at 6000rpm, Torque: 109lb ft at 4000rpm, Gearbox: 6-speed manual, Kerb weight: 975kg, 0-62mph: 8.7sec, Top speed: 124mph, Economy: 56.5mpg (combined), CO2/tax band: 117g/km, 22%
Polished dynamic qualities and feels hugely special even at a mainstream supermini price. Not as usable as some — but very appealing.
Price: £16,805, Engine: 3cyl in lne, 1198cc, turbocharged, petrol, Power: 101bhp at 4400-6200rpm, Torque: 133lb ft at 1400-4000rpm, Gearbox: 6-speed manual, Kerb weight: 1090kg, 0-62mph: 9.9sec, Top speed: 121mph, Economy: 58.9mpg (combined), CO2/tax band: 111g/km, 21%
Enduringly brilliant driving experience is no longer enough, on its own, to keep the Fiesta’s competitors at bay. Still great, though.
Price: £15,445, Engine: 3cyl in lne, 999cc, turbocharged, petrol, Power: 99bhp at 6000rpm, Torque: 125lb ft at 1400-4000rpm, Gearbox: 6-speed manual, Kerb weight: 1088kg, 0-62mph: 10.5sec, Top speed: 113mph, Economy: 65.7mpg (combined), CO2/tax band: 97g/km, 18%
Smart, roomy, upmarket and impressive to drive, the new Ibiza goes straight to the top of our supermini rankings.
Price: £16,630, Engine: 3cyl in lne, 999cc, turbocharged, petrol, Power: 113bhp at 5000-5500rpm, Torque: 148lb ft at 2000-3500rpm, Gearbox: 6-speed manual, Kerb weight: 1065kg, 0-62mph: 9.3sec, Top speed: 121mph, Economy: 60.1mpg (combined), CO2/tax band: 108g/km, 20%