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.