These warm hatchbacks all cost less than £16,500
The priciest car here is just £16,495, the cheapest is £15,300
All three choices eclipse our old class champion, the Suzuki Swift Sport
In a straight-line blast, the Ibiza would beat the other two to the finish line
Both the Fiesta and Cooper scored 4.5/5 on our road test, the Ibiza scores 4/5
The Ibiza FR Edition can reach 62mph in 7.8 seconds
On any B-road, the Fiesta's range of talents is impressive
The Fiesta has a top speed of 125mph
The Mini Cooper can reach 62mph in 7.9 seconds, and has a top speed of 130mph
The quality of its steering is one of the Fiesta's delights
The Cooper is a cut above its rivals here for a sense of class
Our Mini test car came coupled to six-speed manual transmission
Many of the Mini's controls, including the stop/start switch, are found on the centre console
The Cooper's 1.5-litre triple produces 134bhp and 170lb ft
The Cooper comes with 211 litres of boot space
The Ibiza is well equipped and its cabin is of decent quality
Seat has found room in the Ibiza to place its portable sat-nav, but it looks awkward
The Ibiza's boot can carry 284 litres
The Seat's four-cylinder engine offers 138bhp and 184lb ft
The Cooper gets Mini's oval-shaped headlight clusters
The Mini is arguably the most premium car here
This Cooper is the shortest car here, measuring just 3821mm long
The Ibiza FR Edition is perhaps the most stylish option here
In FR Edition guise, this Ibiza has a top speed of 130mph
The FR Edition can also return 60.1mpg combined, plus CO2 emissions of 109g/km
The Fiesta's cabin features too many buttons, and its equipment list is lacking
There are far too many controls and buttons for our liking
Dials in the Ford look sufficiently sporty, with numbers marked out in blue and white
The Fiesta's boot can carry 211 litres
The Ford's 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine produces 138bhp and 155lb ft
The Fiesta is the cheapest car here, at £15,300
With it 45-litre fuel tank, the Ibiza has a range of 595 miles
The Mini Cooper can return up to 62.8mpg
The Fiesta Red Edition can reach 62mph in 7.9 seconds
The Cooper came with the smallest wheels, at 16 inches
There's fun to be had in the agile, grippy Cooper
The Ibiza fails to shine dynamically when you press on
Both the Seat and the Mini came with 6-speed manual transmissions
The Mini is less well proportioned than its predecessor
A sporty front-end design and big wheels give the Seat presence on the road
Despite its charms, the Seat goes home in third place from this test
What’s missing from the picture above? This is a test of the quick, small, smart and cheap. The warm, beddable end of the B-segment – more super than mini, yet without the financial drag factor of genuine hot hatch ownership. You get the idea.
But what you don’t get is the Suzuki Swift Sport. Even though we removed the relevant top five from the mag last year in tribute to its clear-cut superiority over a bunch of also-rans, we’ve chosen not to have it compete directly against a new generation of rivals.
Harsh, perhaps – but scrupulously fair. While many of its talents remain incontestable – were it here, it would still be the cheapest – the segment’s latest arrivals have slyly called the fitness of the Suzuki’s ticker into question before a wheel could be turned in anger.
The old champ, you see, is powered by a naturally aspirated, 134bhp, 1.6-litre, four-cylinder petrol motor, which, in 2014 terms, is as wasteful as a Victorian paddle steamer. The latest rivals, featuring smaller turbocharged engines, now achieve the same horsepower (and much more torque) with significantly greater efficiency.
The newest among them is the most powerful version of Ford’s 1.0-litre, three-cylinder EcoBoost unit yet to grace a Fiesta. The new Red (or Black) Edition – a spin-off of the existing Zetec S – gets 138bhp to go with 62.8mpg combined economy and CO2 emissions of 104g/km. With a 42-litre tank, that’s a potential range of 580 miles. Plus it's all for £20 a year in road duty.
The Swift can’t really compete head on with that. But BMW and Seat can. The standard Mini Cooper, lest we forget, now features a three-pot as well: a detuned 134bhp version of the 1.5-litre engine found in the BMW i8 that also manages 62.8mpg in the lab and 105g/km of CO2.
Then there’s the Seat Ibiza FR Edition, now available with the Volkswagen Group’s new 138bhp 1.4-litre TSI ACT motor that turns four thirsty cylinders into a fuel-sipping twosome when you’re not paying attention. It’s the least efficient car in attendance, yet still 38g/km and 16mpg beyond the Suzuki’s reach.
So they’re all cleaner, more frugal and cheaper to run. But the Swift didn’t make the niche a one-horse race by virtue of its running costs alone. It did it by summoning up the kind of joie de vivre that so often makes small cars preferable to big ones, and outright speed a guilty afterthought.
Truly usurping the Suzuki means outstripping it on the grin-o-meter. Which is the reason why we made the New Forest our Yalta for the day and offered the ‘big three’ a chance to carve up the new world order between them.
To start, stuffed into a gravel trap, they all look the part. The new, bigger Cooper is less well proportioned than the old – all trout pout, gawky rear lights and (in this case) awkwardly shortchanged on alloy inch. But it’s a Mini and, therefore, it’s as immune to subjective criticism as a pallet of Marmite.
The Ibiza, like all models built on its platform, suffers from a congenital narrowness, being 16mm thinner than the Cooper and looking more. Nevertheless, it has an aggressive nose and the widest 17-inch wheels – both advantages here.
It’s the Fiesta, though, perennial beauty queen that it is, that really stands out. The Red Edition’s body kit is slightly less overwrought than the ST’s and the polished black eight-spoke wheels are impeccably well matched.
However, although it fizzes with just the right amount of hot hatch glower from the outside, its innards are less impressive. There’s a dusting of leather here and there, but it’s never easy to see past the button-festooned fascia that thrusts needlessly towards you.
Given the target audience, the lack of a standard-fit DAB tuner and decent seat bolsters is simply criminal. With the Ibiza, Seat has been much more giving, even finding room for its portable Garmin sat-nav unit on the equipment list. It’s an awkward presence, mind, given the age-worn appearance of the plastic beneath – like using a phablet as the headstone for a stone-age burial mound.
The Cooper’s cabin, for all of its tiresome Mini-ness, is light years ahead of both. Just as there’s a difference between the BMW 3-series and a Seat Leon or Ford Focus, so there is a discernible gap in quality here, the car’s dashboard, seats, (optional) infotainment and switchgear cloaked in a level of finish obviously unavailable to Ford or Seat.
The Mini’s boot, of course, is pathetic – it’s a good 70 litres behind its rivals – but otherwise there isn’t much to choose between the three on practicality. Each will seat four adults at a push, and none feels markedly more spacious in the front than the others.
Initially, the new engines add to the distinctiveness. The Fiesta’s EcoBoost unit, underwritten by just 999cc of heft, has the classic, insubstantial three-pot voice – about as lusty at idle as a candle in the wind. Its bite and pull-away are strong, though, and the throttle response is the least laggy here.
Against the clock, the Red Edition may be the slowest, 62mph coming up in 9.0sec, yet it doesn’t feel markedly less hurried than the Mini through the gears – possibly because it’s a good 70kg lighter and makes its extra 15bhp over standard felt through a slightly keener top end.
Where the Cooper exceeds it is in flexibility. It produces 15lb ft of torque more than the EcoBoost and from slightly lower down, but it’s the advantage of having six manual ratios to the Fiesta’s five that really helps, giving you better in-gear access to the fatter three-pot’s productive mid-range.
There’s more of a purr coming from those bigger cylinders, too, and it endows the Mini with a faint on-throttle burble and superior refinement at 70mph (where its gearing leaves the car 500rpm better off at 70mph and not gasping for a proper overdrive).
The book claims virtually identical 0-62mph times for the Seat and Mini, but the subjective gap between them is far more significant than the one between the Cooper and the Fiesta. The Ibiza’s donkey is the only one here to rear up with something approaching hot hatch vigour, little squalls of linear acceleration gusting up from the full quota of cylinders half a second after you requested them.
Where the others can be revved into a sweetly satisfying, traffic-beating bustle, the little Seat sails closer to properly quick – especially out of a decidedly punchy second and third gear.
Combined with a fuller-throated four-pot presence and almost 30lb ft more twist than the Fiesta, the 1.4-litre TSI engine might reasonably be expected to pull out a lead for Seat at this stage, but unfortunately the car around it isn’t nearly as adept.
At lesser speeds there’s the typical Volkswagen Group amenability, the steering, pedals and gearbox carefully tuned to keep driver work rate low and functionality high. Which is fine.
But there’s no fidelity with the escalating performance. Instead, under duress, the wheel goes all giddy with torque steer, the car pitches back what feels like 15deg and the FR Edition’s squashed ‘sport’ springs promptly bore into the nearest crevice. And that’s before the handling has even had a chance to underwhelm you with its pre-ordained, vanilla-flavoured take on cornering.
It’s not bad – but it does feel uncultured in this company. Especially when compared with the Cooper, which weaves its new powertrain so seamlessly into the trademark Mini dynamic that it threatens to convert even non-believers to the cause.
That assertive thrum provides the hatch with what it has always needed: a seasoned, slow burn of a delivery, with no peakiness to adulterate the already pointy chassis – just an authoritative, willing rise in revs. With no tugs at the wheel and less bump steer through the higher-profile tyres, the Mini gets on with being enjoyably darty, rather than tiresomely so.
Twinned with (optional) adjustable dampers, the multi-link rear suspension also gets a chance to finally shine, making light work of formerly disruptive obstacles while still retaining an entertaining instinct for progressively running out of grip at the right moment.
The new-found breadth of the Cooper’s ability is so striking that it takes a determined drive in the Fiesta to appreciate the chinks. The Ford is less flinty, less four-wheeled in its adhesiveness and less righteously flat-bodied.
But where the Mini’s Servotronic steering is reactive and weightily precise (a trait borrowed from parent BMW), the Fiesta’s is as inherently and intuitively ‘right’ as one imagines it’s possible to be without having the rack and pinion unpowered. Its oiliness and self-centring spring are old news, yet they describe the difference here.
The Mini turns in with manufactured vigour, the Fiesta with natural finesse. The Red Edition’s advantages over its hardcore ST sibling are also familiar: less torque steer, a bit less weight over the nose and, crucially, much less pinch from the slower springs. Thus, the new model bounds across the New Forest like a euphoric astronaut, taking huge, easily perpetuated, weightless strides and requiring only an instinctive tweak here and there to maintain the heading.
Fun? You bet. Direction changes often come with no let-up on the EcoBoost throttle at all – the unmistakable hallmark of a classically warmed hatchback. Yet apart from an obvious advantage over the solidly last-place Seat, it isn’t necessarily a clear winner.
Every time you think The Fiesta's sprinkling of Suzuki-branded right stuff is sufficient, the Mini pops back in your head, its extra gear ratio, superior refinement, better interior quality, slightly more giving engine and generally superior all-roundedness insisting on a voting recount. Cost helps to pry them further apart. The Cooper starts at £15,300, the Red Edition £15,995. Real world, the difference is more telling.
The Fiesta on test was £16,670 with options, the Mini £23,205. Is it £6500 better? No way. Which means, at the death in the New Forest on this particular day, and in the spirit of brightening up your life for less, we crown the Ford. It’s the lighter, prettier, peachier choice and best mimic of the Swift’s soul. But I still drive home in the plusher, burlier, brilliant Cooper. Go figure.
Ford Fiesta Red Edition
Price £16,495; 0-62mph 9.0sec; Top speed 125mph; Economy 62.8mpg; CO2 104g/km; Kerb weight 1091kg; Engine 3 cyls, 999cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 138bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 155lb ft at 1400rpm; Gearbox 5-speed manual
Price £15,300; 0-62mph 7.9sec; Top speed 130mph; Economy 62.8mpg; CO2 105g/km; Kerb weight 1160kg; Engine 3 cyls, 1499cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 134bhp at 4500rpm; Torque 170lb ft at 1250rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual
Seat Ibiza FR Edition
Price £16,110; 0-62mph 7.8sec; Top speed 130mph; Economy 60.1mpg; CO2 109g/km; Kerb weight 1167kg; Engine 4 cyls, 1395cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 138bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 184lb ft at 1500rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual
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