Pretenders to the Throne . . .

If you’re in the market for a new small car – or super-mini as we’re referring to them these days – then you’ve never been more spoilt for choice.

If you were asked to name a few small cars off the top of your head you’d probably start with the best-selling of them all: The Ford Fiesta. The Vauxhall Corsa would probably spring to mind as would the Nissan Micra and possibly a Renault Clio.

Tip of the iceberg stuff though. There are many more including the Citroen C3, Kia Rio, Mazda 2, Suzuki Swift, Skoda Fabia, Volkswagen Polo and the SEAT Ibiza – to name just some of the more obvious ones.

The UK’s best selling car (again) – the Ford Fiesta

So, I’ve taken the nation’s favourite small car – the new, 7th-generation Ford Fiesta – and pitched it back-to-back with three of those obvious rivals in the shape of the new Citroen C3, the startlingly-different new Nissan Micra and the new Suzuki Swift to see if the Fiesta is still worthy of the plaudits – or are we all missing a trick and there really are better alternatives out there for the money?

All four cars are similar in size, have 5-doors and can be considered cheap to run. All four (as tested) are toward the top of their individual spec-levels with 3 of them costing between £17,000 and £18,000 on-the-road while the little Suzuki comes in at just £14,999.

While all cars are equipped with a manual gearbox, the Ford Fiesta and Suzuki Swift both have 1.0-litre, 3-cylinder petrol engines whereas the Nissan Micra and Citroen C3 are equipped with diesel units.

FIRST THINGS FIRST – KERB APPEAL

That’s an easy one – The Citroen C3 wins hands-down for its boldness alone. Citroen have taken the ground-breaking C4 Cactus and poured its funky appeal into the C3’s more compact body shape without losing any of its character. In fact, I’d say the youthful styling is more suited to the smaller car and even the cheaper “Touch” and “Feel” models, which are missing the striking Airbumps, stand out from more conservative rivals.

Playful looks – The Citroen C3

It’s a genuinely interesting car to look at with its LED daytime running lights mounted above the headlights and that slimline double-chevron badge that cuts straight across the bonnet and into the lights. People will give it a second look and you simply won’t find that with most cars in this price bracket.

The new Nissan Micra also deserves the approving thumbs-up because it is manages to be so much more pleasant to look at than the model it replaces – which was truly awful in an “Over-60s only”, kind of way.

Much better looking than what has gone before . . . the new Nissan Micra

Now it is springing about in its edgy new threads which are much more angular and sportingly wedge-shaped than the “blob” of old – it even has hidden rear door handles, for goodness sake. It looks thoroughly modern from any angle – a bit like the Toyota C-HR but not quite as well executed. Okay, Nissan have stepped back from the “all-out wacky” precipice but at least they found the precipice.

Ford, on the other hand, have adopted the old “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude; and who can blame them? The Fiesta has been the best-selling car (small or not) in the UK for the last zillion years so why go all radical and risk screwing things up?

There’s no mistaking – it’s a Ford Fiesta . . .

This doesn’t mean to say that the Fiesta isn’t an appealing car to look at but familiarity does breed contempt – although in the little Ford’s case it’s more anonymity than contempt.

Sure, it’s a little softer around the edges than the outgoing car but the familiar wedge shape is still there which gives the car dynamism and is, obviously, an appealing trait. Other than the more rounded look, horizontal instead of vertical rear light clusters and a Mondeo-type front end, you’d be hard-pushed to tell the new Fiesta apart from the outgoing Fiesta.

The same can also be said for the new Suzuki Swift – especially from the rear, although, to be fair the front end has had more of a make-over than the Fiesta has. It is now sporting a new, much more prominent, front grille with deep-set fog-light housings below.

Suzuki Swift – will make the smallest hole in your budget

The floating roof is still there with the darkened C-Pillars now housing the – wait for it – hidden rear door handles and although it is now slightly shorter than the outgoing model the wheelbase is longer so you’ll find a tad more space inside.

It does look a little staid in this company though with the higher, boxier roof-line meaning more cabin space for its occupants but a less sporty look all round.

Don’t get me wrong; the Suzuki Swift isn’t a bad looking car but in this company it doesn’t quite cut the mustard and anyway, being around £2,000 cheaper than the other cars in this comparison, you may argue that this should be a no-brainer anyway.

OKAY, BUT I’LL BE MOSTLY LOOKING AT THE INSIDE – WHAT’S THAT LIKE?

Well, I’m going to have to go with convention here and vote the Ford Fiesta as the best interior.

It looks and feels half-a-league above its rivals and although the Citroen C3 draws me in with its retro-looking luggage handles in place of door-pulls, I can’t ignore the fact that the Fiesta is the nicest place to be sat and has the sportiest feeling leather-covered steering wheel of all.

Fiesta’s interior feels the most upmarket of all

It is a little “button-heavy” in the Fiesta when compared to the minimalist look of the C3 but those buttons are logically laid out and all have a quality feel to them that is reassuring. In fact, all the materials used in my £16,795 Fiesta Titanium model had a decent feel to them – something which was lacking, to varying degrees, in the other cars. Not so much in the Nissan Micra perhaps, but the Suzuki Swift had an immediate “downgraded” feel to its plastics which, even at its £14,999 price point, felt disappointing.

The Citroen C3 is, unsurprisingly, the most customisable when it comes to interior fabrics and colours – even though the £17,765 Flair model I had been provided with was decidedly conservative in its black and greys.

Lozenge anyone? Citroen C3 interior is full of ’em

It still looked very smart though with the lozenge theme of those exterior Airbumps and headlights being continued inside almost everywhere you look, from the air-vents to the door panels and even on the multi-function steering wheel switches.

The Nissan Micra’s new interior is just as much an improvement as the exterior and gives more than a passing nod to its bigger brother, the Qashqai, when it comes to styling cues.

My £17,920 N-Connecta model felt the most “grown-up” of the four with its black cloth trim and grey inserts. The main dials are large and very clear while the leather-bound, multi-function steering wheel is fashionably flat-bottomed. Altogether quite a classy cabin but still a little dull in this company.

Nissan Micra’s interior feels the most “grown-up” of them all

Unfortunately for the Suzuki Swift it’s here inside that cuts have obviously been made as hard plastics abound in the cabin – along the top of the dash as well on the door tops. Lower down in the door bins and around the central console things are no better – which is a shame as the cockpit of the Swift is quite good looking and very well laid out.

The sporty leather steering wheel on my range-topping SZ5 model is flat-bottomed and feels satisfyingly chunky in your hands while the large, round and clear controls for the climate are well-placed beneath the infotainment screen.

Cheaper plastics abound in the Swift – but it doesn’t look half bad . . .

All four models have good driving positions with the Fiesta’s being the best of all but you will find getting comfortable a doddle in all the cars as they all offer height adjustment for the driver as well as rake and reach adjustment for the steering wheel.

WHAT ABOUT TOYS? I NEED TOYS

All four models are well equipped when it comes to driver aids and driver entertainment with the Ford, once again, leading the way with its excellent Ford SYNC 3 8in touchscreen which includes Sat Nav, Emergency Assistance, DAB Radio and Apple CarPlay along with Android Auto.

Its Quickclear Heated Windscreen may be enough on its own to convince some buyers who don’t have access to a garage but there are other gems too, like Traffic Sign Recognition, Automatic High Beam, Keyless, push-button Start/Stop, Cruise Control and Rain-Sensing Wipers.

Fiesta’s infotainment screen is crisp – Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is a big plus

Useful options fitted to my Fiesta Titanium included Advance Auto Park (£500), Pop-out Door Edge Protectors (£85) and the Driver Assistance Pack (£200) which includes Pre-Collison Assist with Pedestrian Detection, Distance Alert and Adaptive Cruise Control.

The Citroen manages Apple CarPlay and Android Auto along with Speed Limit Recognition but there is no sat nav on its smaller 7in screen. It does have Lane Departure Warning though as well as a reversing camera and rear parking sensors as standard. Sat Nav will cost you an extra £500.

Interestingly, the Citroen C3 Flair also comes with a built-in dash-cam (ConnectedCAM) mounted just behind the rear view mirror which will sense when an accident is about to occur and automatically begin to record for a short period before, during and after the incident. You can also push a button on the camera to take a photo of the road ahead – for whatever reason . . .

The C3’s infotainment screen is easy to navigate around and well-placed

The Micra N-Connecta has another 7in touchscreen but with Sat Nav as standard as well as Traffic Sign Recognition, Lane Departure Warning and Intelligent Emergency Braking with Pedestrian Recognition. There is no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto though.

If you want help parking then you’ll need the Vision+ Pack (£550) which provides Intelligent Around View Monitor with Moving Object Detection and Intelligent Blind Spot Intervention.

Heads-up sound from Nissan . . .

My car also had the Bose Personal Audio Pack fitted (£500) which provides, among other things, a speaker in the driver’s headrest. I really didn’t feel this extra outlay was value for money though.

Now, you may be thinking the Suzuki Swift would struggle to keep up with its more expensive rivals, but the plucky little car doesn’t disappoint. Its trump card is probably the Adaptive Cruise Control which isn’t standard on any other car here.

Swift’s screen isn’t as clear as rivals but works well enough

It also manages a Sat Nav system on its infotainment screen. However, the image quality is not up to the same standard as rivals, although it is simple enough to use and a welcome addition at this price point.

The Swift also gets keyless entry, Lane Departure Warning and a Forward Warning radar as well as a push-button start/stop system – impressive for a super-mini costing less than £15,000.

IS THERE ROOM ENOUGH IN THE BACK FOR KIDS THOUGH?

Not just kids. All 4 cars can take a couple of adults in varying degrees of comfort and can even accommodate 3 adults – at a push.

The Fiesta and C3 have similar amounts of space – which is adequate without being excessive. Knee room is good if you’re less than 6ft and head room is fine unless you’re sat in the middle seat where you’ll find yourself having to stoop a little.

Fiesta’s rear accommodation

The Swift is slightly better for headroom because of its higher, less-swoopy roofline whereas the Micra is the most awkward to get comfortable in due to its sharply raked roof and doors which never appear to open quite wide enough for easy entry and exit.

All four have ISOFIX anchorage points which are easy to access when fitting a child seat; with just the Nissan Micra being a little awkward due to those narrow door openings.

Smallish door openings on the Micra make entry and exit harder than it really should be

Boot space is similar for the Fiesta, Micra and C3 at around 300 litres with the rear seats up. The Swift manages 265 litres. All four have split-folding rear seats in the models tested.

OK, SO WHICH IS THE BEST TO DRIVE?

Undoubtedly the Ford Fiesta although the Suzuki Swift comes in a very close second.

Both cars have 1.0-litre, 3-cylinder petrol engines with the well-respected and familiar Ford EcoBoost unit producing 100 PS and 170Nm of torque.

Impressively, the cheaper Suzuki Swift manages 111 PS with the same 170Nm of torque – but its Boosterjet unit also uses a mild hybrid system (SHVS) to help fill in some of those flat-spots you may find in small, turbo-charged engines. The system also helps in bringing the C02 figure down to 97 g/km – matching the Fiesta.

However, despite this the Ford Fiesta remains the most satisfying drive dynamically. It will manage the 0-62 mph sprint in a respectable 10.5 seconds and just like the previous version you can have a lot of fun in the little Fiesta as it holds onto the road so well for a small family hatchback.

The punchy little 3-pot engine revs easily without every becoming too noisy and it wills you on to push it more and more while the gear-change is slick and satisfying from the 6-speed box. It’s worth noting that the other cars in this review only manage 5-speed gearboxes.

The Suzuki Swift matches the Fiesta blow-for-blow with duplicate mpg figures of 65.7 on the combined cycle and a 0-62 mph time of 10.6 seconds.

It almost matches the Fiesta’s driving experience too; feeling lively when out on the open road and particularly playful on twisty A-roads with just a slight lack of refinement letting the Suzuki down.

The Suzuki is a little noisier at motorway speeds although the noise levels are perfectly acceptable and, I suppose, for a car costing just £14,999 may even be considered exceptional.

In comparison, the Citroen C3 and Nissan Micra feel much less “playful”.

The C3 leans more toward comfort than sport and this is perfectly acceptable in a car that probably won’t be racing around the streets very much, if at all. It is such an easy car to drive though that you will forgive the fact that it leans slightly in the corners.

This diesel version still manages to match the Swift and Fiesta in the 0-62 mph sprint with a time of 10.6 seconds but will leave them standing (at the petrol station) when it comes to fuel-efficiency with a combined mpg figure of 76.3.

Take my advice though and try the C3 with a 1.2-litre PureTech petrol engine fitted. It is still very efficient but feels much more refined.

The Nissan is the least enjoyable to drive with its 90 PS diesel unit taking 11.9 seconds to get the Micra to 60 mph and also the only engine failing to get the CO2 levels below 100 g/km at 104 g/km.

It’s not a terrible car to drive though, just uninspiring. The front end feels a little heavy with the 1.5 diesel lump up front – the 1.0 litre petrol may fare better – and although the diesel version has stiffer springs up-front, turn-in feels just a tad lethargic when pressing on a bit.

However, if you do a lot of town driving with some longer journeys thrown in over the year, the Nissan makes a lot of sense as it has the sharpest gear-change of all with a very easy clutch action. It’s pretty quiet in the new Micra too – which is surprising for a small diesel – probably down to the standard-fit acoustic windscreen which helps minimise extraneous noise.

The Nissan is very frugal too with a combined mpg figure of 91.1 – I easily managed 55 mpg on mixed roads over 7 days which was better than all three rivals.

I SHOULD STILL BUY THE FIESTA THEN?

Probably. Ok, almost definitely. It represents the best all-round package and that tried-and-trusted EcoBoost engine is a belter. The new Ford Fiesta may not be the most inspiring to look at but it has the best interior and makes the most sense if you enjoy your driving – or simply want your driving to be enjoyable. Definitely a case of “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss”.

Second place has to go to the cheeky Citroen C3 which will charm the pants off you with its eye-catching looks and fresh approach to just how much fun a small car should be.

The fizzy little Suzuki Swift is an astonishing package that scores on driveability and price. It shouldn’t really have a chance in this company but it’s very nearly a match for all of them.

The Nissan Micra needn’t be ashamed of its fourth place here as it is such a huge improvement of what has gone before. It is so far removed from the last model that I’m amazed Nissan opted to retain the “Micra” name.

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