Baby Drivers: Top Gear's big fat supermini super-test
Ford Fiesta faces off against Nissan Micra, Citroen C3, Seat Ibiza and Vauxhall Corsa
Awkward. Cringe... 2017’s most important new car rolls up to its crucial grudge match and not a soul notices. Ford shifts more than 100,000 Fiestas a year – most of the new ones will be Zetec spec, not this toppier Titanium model – but the reskin of the phenomenally successful last car isn’t radical. Next to the abstract Citroen C3, the manga Nissan Micra, sharp-suited Seat Ibiza and bodykitted Vauxhall Corsa – all of which have shown up with bespoke three-cylinder turbo engines and manual gearboxes – the Fiesta MkVIII is, according the design-microscope wit of the TG art desk “a bit Blandy Murray”. Don’t just blame grey paint: the old Fiesta was pretty. It gave the idling supermini set a proper kick up the design backside. 2017’s Ford ’mini is facing a battalion of interesting-looking contenders wearing a staunch poker face.
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In fairness, the new Fiesta is based on the old Fiesta, because it was the best-driving, best-selling small car money could buy and it’s a lot cheaper to crack on with solid foundations and change the problem areas. In the Fiesta that’d be a cabin so dated the car got confused when the radio news didn’t mention Prime Minister Tony Blair or chart-topping sensation Atomic Kitten. The family of 3cyl, turbo EcoBoost engines was ace, the handling was a giggle, the space adequate. So, a new touchscreen stands to attention above rationalised heater controls, and there’s a sorted, lower (if you like) driving position. Nothing needs explaining upon settling into the Fiesta – it’s intuitive and easy to read – but if this is your second or third on the bounce, you’ll appreciate the quality upgrade. And the price hasn’t skyrocketed either. A sweet spot 99bhp Zetec is far enough below £17k for auto-parking and anti-crash tech packs to be seriously tempting.
Vauxhall did much the same with the latest Corsa a couple of years back, though the reskin is more subtle than the Fiesta’s. A real baby-minus-bathwater design brief. In went a 1.0-litre triple-pot turbo engine (though the wheezing 1.4 soldiers on past its use-by-date) and a touchscreen, though Luton bunged it under the air vents. Ford has raised it right into the eyeline, and relegated the aircon. As a result, instead of frozen nipples, Corsa drivers have their eyes off the road a tad longer when fiddling with Apple CarPlay. Every car here gets it as standard, except the top-spec £18k Nissan Micra Tekna, which decides you’d rather have built-in, home-brand nav, instead of your smartphone’s cleverer app.Advertisement - Page continues below
Out-of-character decision, that: the rest of this new Micra is almost violently new wave. Out with the old... unlucky grandma, best go buy a Hyundai. It’s not just the Shinkansen wedge styling, either. It’s the low-slung seat, the GT-R steering wheel, Bose speakers crammed into the driver’s headrest and a chassis that rams “go-kart feel” so hard down Mini’s throat it’ll choke.
If you’ve read a recent Top Gear magazine or have flipped from the back page while waiting in WHSmith for your flight, you’ll spot a couple of these cars are family. The fluorescent, buggy £16k Citroen and teenage mutant ninja guinea pig Nissan are both stalwarts of Top Gear’s long-termer garage, in daily use here since March. They’re kindred spirits too – both massively, necessarily reinvented since last time out.
The old C3 was a Honda Jazz-style mini Popemobile, tall and utilitarian. The new one is tall too – almost crossover-sized – but innovation osmosis from the wacky C4 Cactus means a cabin festooned with metal brightwork and chairs from Don Draper’s NYC bachelor pad, genuinely useful bubble-wrapped door panels and the lightest kerbweight, over 100kg less than the Vauxhall’s.
Punting that along with a boosty, eager 1.2-litre 3cyl with a relatively titanic 151lb ft, you end up with the most abuse-happy powertrain in the least sorted chassis. The C3 shoots for plush comfort with its mega-light steering and flaccid, one-finger gearchange, but the ride is clankingly noisy and it doesn’t so much have body roll as fleeting moments when it’s almost level. It’s happiest on a motorway, where it settles into a long-legged and usefully pokey comfort zone. It’s here where you can enjoy the bombastic stereo, glassy cabin and have more time to fathom the touchscreen, which contains every function not directly involved in actually making the car move. It’s improved over older Peugeot-Citroen efforts, but inferior to the set-ups the other four opt for, with buttons for climate control and only entertainment entrusted to the fingerprint window. Don’t spec the C3’s greenhouse roof – it stifles space and on-board temperature. And you need to avoid using the aircon.Advertisement - Page continues below
The Micra has regenerated from a woeful, cheap Malaysian import barely rolled in glitter to a driver’s car. It’s the flattest through a bend, yet more supple than the Citroen over sleeping policemen. Behind those hidden rear doors it’s fractionally more cramped than the Fiesta and Corsa, but there’s actually superior headroom to the C3. Up front, the Micra’s instruments are Saga large-print and you even get a slab of faux-stitched leather to distract from the cheapo door trims and wind-up rear windows. Long-term keeper Tom Harrison, whose haircut is its own soundproofing studio, rates the driver-selfish hi-fi top. High praise.
If only the engine had the guts of the speakers. Even this top-spec Micra depends on a 898cc triple-turbo unit with just 89bhp, and that’s before you tackle the suspicion that emissions and efficiency regulations have totally hobbled this engine. Mind the gap shifting from first to second – once you’ve smoothed over the rollercoaster peaks and troughs in the engine’s power delivery – and get ready for a workout as the engine totally bogs down. Flatten the throttle in desperation, and all the urgency bustles in at once, and you’re lifting to coast again. Pity the L-plate brigade who learn in these things – they’ll have an Incredible Hulk clutch leg and the dainty right toe of a ballet dancer. In all its time at TG, it’s only been 1mpg ahead of the 42mpg Citroen, which is on par with the entire troop.Advertisement - Page continues below
So, both of the reimagined, tear-up-the-rulebook superminis have their flaws. You have to drive around the Micra’s lethargic engine and concentrate on its deft handling, and allow for the C3’s stormy ride to enjoy its grown-up cruiser manners and thoughtful design. Or you could have the Vauxhall, which doesn’t have the imagination to make these mistakes.
We thought hard about bringing a Corsa on this test, because the general rule of thumb is to only invite cars that either stand a real chance of winning the test, or exposing a major chink in the victor’s armour. But we already know the rehashed, reupholstered Vauxhall isn’t near the best to drive, to sit in, or to carry passengers with, but it pretty much owns the “I just need something to get me from A to B” mindset. From January to June 2017, 33,560 Corsas found UK homes. It’s currently the fifth most popular car on our roads. In the same period, since you ask, the outgoing, soon-to-die Fiesta racked up 59,380 sales, and maintained number one status.
Still, Vauxhall’s most popular creation is the second-most common supermini in all the land. Being under the microscope next to four strong, stimulating rivals, in a positive £17k spec (before park-assist, xenon light and heated steering wheel options), exposed the steering as gloopy and vague and that you must chisel the enormous gearknob between each ratio. It’s frictional and notchy, and little interaction points like that feel cheap compared with the Seat and Ford’s precision. The Corsa is worst for tyre and wind noise, but not offensive in isolation. So, what of the engine you’re managing? Though it’s the dirtiest motor here, it’s easily the best thing about the Corsa, but just as the Citroen’s keen and boosty 1.2-litre unit elevates the rest of the car’s character, this usefully smooth and quiet-cruising engine is buried in the Corsa’s mediocrity. Rev it towards 6,000rpm and a little “Warning! Engine Overspeed” notice pings into view, as if you might be so comatose you may not notice it’s time to grab third.
It’s less yielding in the wilds of Oxfordshire than the others, though it’s not as downright unstable as the lollopy Citroen, and you don’t have to have the sports suspension of this Limited Edition version. Otherwise, it’s there or thereabouts. But there’s nowt that reeks of innovation or bravery, like the C3 and Micra, nor is there the polish and nth degree of development that’s been lavished on buffing the Fiesta and Ibiza into such complete little cars. It’s just cheap, fairly fuss-free transport. One of the thousands sold last year ended up in my parents’ garage, because it could fit the dog in the boot and the hapless salesman offered them such an almighty discount it was cheaper to buy the thing than pay for the petrol home. Often, a forgettable car is undeniably good enough to tick the boxes for tens of thousands of buyers year-in, year-out. Just like your fridge-freezer, most likely, and I bet you can’t recite its official model number off by heart.
That covers off the also-rans. The two strongest cars are the Fiesta and the Ibiza, and it’s fiendishly close between them. That’s probably a higher compliment for the Fiesta, which can take on a fresh VW Group ’mini on an all-new platform (boding well for the new Polo, A1 and Fabia) and still boast chuckable, interactive handling and look the extremely mature Seat square in the LED eye on refinement and not blink. Wind noise has been cleverly damped out in the new Fiesta – the door mirrors are curiously teeny, which helps – and the engine’s chirrup is distant. The new Ibiza is, at last, a proper laugh of a steer, going where few other superminis have feared to tread, right into Fiesta territory. The Seat steers accurately and, even on optional 18in rims, rides quietly, holding its own when even the Ford starts to get out of sorts. Objectively, by a fraction of a per cent, it’s the best all-rounder here.
Sure, if you root around the familiar-feeling Ibiza cabin for ooh, about three seconds, you’ll spot a hard plastic about the cupholders and door pulls and overwhelming 50 shades of grey surroundings. As in, it’s all quite monochrome and boring, not that it’s full of leather and stings. The switchgear is logical. The steering wheel is wee. The touchscreen’s bigger, faster, and there’s a CarPlay “button” next to the usual nav, radio and settings toggles.
Seat has woken up, realising people who buy small, £16k runarounds won’t be shortchanged on tech. Not a moment too soon, because the Fiesta’s less po-faced cockpit is just as sorted, but not as roomy in the back. Both are equally quick, but the Fiesta’s shorter gearing is more useful off the motorway. The Fiesta’s gearchange is fractionally more slick, but the Seat’s is way better than the old car’s. Much benchmarking has gone on between these two. Honestly, splitting them is almost cruel.
There’s something about the natural order of things that says the Ford Fiesta wins this. It’s return of the king, the new boss. So if you enjoy the warm glow of familiarity, you can’t go wrong with the new Fiesta. Unless it’s not enough to have the most common car, same as everyone else. Perhaps a slice of crisp styling someone might notice? At last, Seat has provided the next-best alternative.