The Ford Fiesta has spent almost an entire lifecycle munching its way through this kind of test. For the better part of a decade now, it has seen off competitors with the remorseless authority of a wheeled Frankel (the racehorse, that is, not Andrew).
Indeed, the gap to the chasing pack has proved so resilient that it seemed plausible it might simply continue doing so until it was finally replaced.
Now, in a way, it has been. When Mazda came to remake the 2, the platform it tore up with the intention of improving was the one it co-developed with Ford when the manufacturers were joined at the hip – the same one that still underpins the Fiesta. This makes the new 2 doubly intriguing.
Not only is it a new and important car in its own right, but it also represents the direction in which one of the Fiesta’s original architects thinks the next generation of supermini ought to go.
The bearing it has chosen – away from a simple, nimble monopod and towards a scaled-down five-door C-segment hatch – is shared by the other major contender to have appeared in the past six months: the Skoda Fabia.
Unlike the 2, the Fabia has never been a bullet-shaped runaround in the Fiesta mould, and it’s telling that Skoda’s stated intention of attracting younger buyers has not turned it into one. Instead, both it and the 2 are built to fill out the modern-day B-segment, a class within touching distance of becoming a quarter of the industry’s entire new car market in Europe.
Driven by a relentless wave of downsizers, the supermini has matured from a prospective second car into the only car some people could ever realistically envisage buying brand new.
The Fabia and 2 are the sophisticated, well-equipped, cost-effective and civilised solutions rolled out to meet the modest motoring aspirations of a generation.Aesthetically, the differences between them and the Fiesta are plentiful but converge specifically on the different relationship between the base of the A-pillars and the front axle.
Whereas the Ford’s A-pillars finish practically over the wheel arches, the new contenders put some space between them, affording them longer bonnets and less MPV-like profiles. Both are longer than the Fiesta, even if the Skoda’s wheelbase is marginally shorter (the car getting a significantly bigger boot). That they look larger is probably more important than the fact that neither manages to be prettier than the Ford, pound per yardage being a crucial equation in most buyers’ minds.
Given its age, it is a wonder that the Blue Oval’s draughtsmanship isn’t now as painfully dated as a decade-old Green Day album, although that perception changes when you open the driver’s door and climb inside.
The Fiesta’s interior, a so-so environment for some time, now crumbles into ruin when measured against either foe. The objective of both the Fabia and the 2 – realised in slightly different ways – is to swaddle their occupants (of which there could more easily and comfortably be four than in the Fiesta) in the fit and finish normally associated with larger, more expensive cars.
The Fabia does this by being crisply handsome and supremely legible in the house style of its Volkswagen parent, and the Mazda by being surprisingly imaginative, nattily assembled and great looking.
Tested in comparable mid-range trim (SE for the Fabia and SE-L Nav for the 2), each is better equipped than the similar-priced Zetec-spec Fiesta, although this is probably of less importance than the fact that each has a massive-inch infotainment screen where the Ford is still lumbered with a monochrome display little bigger than a child’s fist.