Currently reading: Comparison: Ford Fiesta Red Edition versus Mini Cooper and Seat Ibiza FR
Accessible, everyday fun with enough zip to make you grin – that’s what warm superminis like these should deliver. Which does it best: Fiesta, Ibiza or Mini?

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. 

Read the Ford Fiesta Red and Black Editions first drive review

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.

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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.

Read the full 2014 Mini Cooper review

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.

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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). 

Read the full Seat Ibiza review

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. 

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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.

Read the full Suzuki Swift Sport review

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.

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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.

The verdict

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.

Read Autocar's previous comparison - Renault Twingo versus Volkswagen Up

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

Mini Cooper

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

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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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Add a comment…
Will86 28 September 2014

Look beyond the purchase price

Come on people, we all know the purchase price is only part of the story. The Mini will hold its value better, cost less to service and in normal driving it should be a lot more economical, especially with that 6th gear. That doesn't mean the Mini should win, but making the decision based on the purchase price and the amount of extras fitted to the test car is totally flawed.
audiolab 28 September 2014

@ Andrew 61

Mmmmm Yes LJK went on a bit but he did it with style.... and told a story that more often than not, allowed you both to reach a conclusion. Whether they matched or not did not matter.
fadyady 28 September 2014

The Supermini

Ibiza's interior is the dullest place to be. The plastics are so hard you could cut your fingers on them. Fiesta is better in this regard but is more fun too. Lack of the 6th gear holds it back. Mini beats them two hands down in most matters that matter.