If there's any class that's overflowing with choice and a daunting array of different cars, it's the small car class. Very small, kind of small, or not really all that small? Stylish? Cheap? Premium? Sporty? All of the above? Well, that might be a touch optimistic. But certainly, anybody shopping for a compact car is going to want it to be easy to drive and cheap to run, without being dowdy and dull to drive and look at.
2017 has seen all-new versions of a few of the real pillars of this class, including the Citroen C3, Ford Fiesta and Seat Ibiza. We've picked mid-level trims complete with some of the more powerful petrol engines in the range, which means you get energetic performance as well as good equipment and low running costs.
Photos: Olgun Kordal
|Citroen C3 1.2 110 Flair
Ford Fiesta 1.0 100ps Zetec
Seat Ibiza FR 1.0 TSI 115
|BIK tax (3 years, 40% tax payer)
|PCP finance estimate (3yr, £2k deposit)
|Economy / CO2
|61.4mpg / 103g/km
|65.7mpg / 97g/km
Which one's cheapest?
The Ford is cheapest to buy outright, and on monthly finance by a tiny fraction, but before you sign your life away to the Blue Oval – consider what you want from your equipment levels, because the Fiesta's are quite a bit down on the Ibiza and C3. It does have the essentials, including air-con and a touchscreen system with all connectivity aspects you'd want – all of these cars get a USB input, Bluetooth audio streaming and handsfree function and digital radio.
However, rear parking sensors, satnav, cruise control, AEB (automatic braking in case of imminent collision around town), and even a variable-height boot floor will all cost you extra on the Fiesta. They are, at least, all reasonably priced extras, so adding nav costs £300, and the £400 driver's assistance pack solves the AEB and cruise control problems, and rear parking sensors cost a further £300. By the time you've added all that, you're up to the list price of the other cars, which have that as standard plus a lot more style pizzazz. You could go for ST Line or Titanium trims on the Fiesta but they both come in above the £17k mark and you'll still have to add a few bits.
The C3 has good kit levels including the funky air bumps, contrast roof and a refreshingly interesting standard colour of Almond Green (the standard Fiesta colour is red, and the Seat's a dark blue), but you do have to pay £500 for nav, and you don't get AEB, which is why the Seat gets our vote for the best value car here.
As you can see from the below equipment table, it gets masses of standard kit including nav and AEB, and the FR trim comes with bigger alloys and a much more aggressive look than the Zetec Fiesta. The only thing you might want to add are parking sensors, which cost £425 but that does include front and rear sensors and a rear-view camera.
The Fiesta has the lowest emissions and highest claimed economy, with 97g/km and 65.7mpg looking impressive given that the others are both closer to 60mpg and over 100g/km. We found that in varied driving that included a majority of stop-start stuff, real-world economy was close, with all returning around 47mpg. With a bit more motorway stuff thrown in we reckon you'll scrape 50mpg in all of them, although you'll need to be feather-footed. Ultimately, fuel costs shouldn't be a major concern.
New drivers should pay serious attention to insurance groups, as the Fiesta falls into a usefully lower group than the Citroen and Seat, which are rated in groups 16 and 12 respectively, compared to the Ford's group 10 rating.
Don't forget to factor in depreciation if you're buying the car outright, as it'll be your biggest expense. The Seat is predicted to hold its value better, with industry residual forecasters predicting that the Seat will be worth £7,300 after three years and 30,000 miles – some £600 more than the other two.
A three year, 60,000 mile warranty is standard across the board.
|Citroen C3 Flair
|Ford Fiesta Zetec
|Seat Ibiza FR
|£300 (incl. 8.0in screen)
Apple CarPlay/Android Auto/
|Y / Y / Y
|Y / Y / N
|Y / Y / Y
|Air-con / climate control
|Y / Y
|Y / N
|Y / £320
|Parking sensors front/rear/camera
|Y / Y / Y
|N / £300 / N
|Auto lights and wipers
|Y / Y
|N / N
|Y / Y
|Multi-function steering wheel
|AEB (auto emergency city braking)
|Space saver spare wheel
Y = Standard N = Not available £ = Optional
*Part of Driver Assist pack that includes adaptive cruise control, AEB and 4.2in colour driver's trip computer
Which one's best to drive?
In short, the Ford offers the best balance of fun and comfort, but the Seat is just a fraction off it and – certainly on the bigger 17-inch alloys of FR trim compared to the Fiesta Zetec's 15-inch wheels – actually has a slightly sharper front end, as well as variable drive modes.
Swing through a corner in any of these cars and the Citroen serves up lots more body roll than the other two, and its slow, unashamedly light and vague steering response makes it feel rather disconnected. Sure, outright grip and ease of road placement are more than adequate to make the funky little Citroen feel secure, and it's easy to steer around town or thread through a torturous multi-storey car park.
But drive it after the Fiesta or Ibiza and it's plain that the C3's rather rubbery control weights make it the least enjoyable, whatever kind of driving you're doing. The others feel alert and responsive way beyond the point when you'd have given up trying to find some fun in the inert-feeling Citroen, anyway.
The Ford has fractionally the more engaging steering feel than the Seat, but the Ibiza feels grippier if you push it hard, and its very predictable steering gives you loads of confidence in what grip levels you're playing with.
Plus, both the Fiesta and Ibiza are equally as easy to mooch to the shops in as the C3, if not more so given that the C3 suffers from a vague clutch biting point that can encourage you to over-rev its engine, while the others have more precise gearshifts and pedal responses to make smooth driving less of a chore.
All of our cars use three-cylinder, turbocharged petrol engines, and the Citroen is the only one with a five-speed manual rather than the six-speed of the others. They all serve up enough grunt to be wilfully entertaining around town if you want them to be, and within their comfort zones out on the open road, but the Seat's engine is the best outright, though – it feels the most energetic and it spins up really freely.
Things barely feel any less zingy in the Citroen, while you'll be revving the Ford harder to get the best from it, and getting more noticeable, shivery vibrations through the pedals and steering wheel than either of the other two.
Truthfully, all three of these engines are up there with the best in the class, with a great balance of being fun to wring out on an open road, and quiet and predictable when you just want to get home with the minimum of fuss.
If comfort is a priority over a spark of driver satisfaction, the Fiesta is your best bet – and keep it on these 15-inch wheels. It's got a wonderfully supple but controlled ride comfort that betters the Citroen's softer, sloppier bump absorption – plus, the Citroen is occasionally caught out, delivering a harsh bump and shudder as the suspension struggles to contain the body movement and soak up the road surface simultaneously.
The Fiesta does feel firmer compared to the Citroen but ultimately it's also more comfortable. The Seat is firmer again and is prone to more fidgeting around town, even if it calms down at higher speeds. You're conscious that it's a mildly sporting setup, but it's still easy and comfortable enough to live with.
|Citroen C3 1.2 110 Flair
|Ford Fiesta 1.0 100 Ecoboost 5dr Zetec
|Seat Ibiza 1.0 115 FR
|1.2-litre, 3cyl, turbocharged petrol
|1.0-litre, 3cyl, turbocharged petrol
|1.0-litre, 3cyl, turbocharged petrol
|108bhp / 151lb ft
|99bhp / 125lb ft
|113bhp / 148lb ft
Which one’s got the best interior?
All three of these cars have enough space up front to seat two adults, although we will make a mention here of the C3's passenger seat, which is set uncomfortably high and isn't height-adjustable, so make sure that the person likely to be sat there regularly tries it out before you part with any cash. The Citroen's driving position is also a bit questionable as the pedals are offset to the right slightly, so the other two are easier to get comfortable in.
Still, for many the Citroen's very cool, retro-looking dash will make up for any quibbles over seat comfort; it's certainly more interesting to look at than the more conventional dashes in the Ford and Seat, even if the plastics feel a touch cheaper than the other two. The touchscreen can also be a bit difficult to see in bright sunlight and is intermittently slow to respond.
The Ford's high-set touchscreen is easy to see (particularly the optional 8-inch screen in our test car) , although it's not the most intuitive system. You can access the main functions quite easily from the home menu, but even basic actions – like putting a postcode in – can be more long-winded than is ideal. Still, the air-con buttons are easy to use, the dials straightforward to read, the driving position very good (if lacking a little side support), and the plastics and textures about the cabin more solid feeling, if more boring than those in the C3.
Critically in this class, the Fiesta also has the best visibility – certainly to the rear three quarters, although the Citroen deserves a significant nod for being the only one here not just with rear parking sensors, but with front and rear sensors, and a reversing camera as standard.
The Seat's touchscreen is the best here. It's not faultless but it's the quickest to respond to a prod from your finger, plus it's an 8-inch screen as standard that features logical menus and decent graphics. In this FR trim, you do get gloss plastics and Alcantara upholstery that really lifts the feel of the cabin over lesser, much more drab-looking Ibiza trims, plus you get sports seats that offer the best bolster support of these three in a car that's easy to see out of and get comfortable in. It wins here for infotainment, driver comfort and perceived quality.
What are they like in the back?
Both the Citroen and Seat have plenty of space for two average-sized adults on their rear seats, but the Ford is notably worse than the other two for rear legroom. Younger kids will be okay, but if you're catering for lanky teenagers on the school run these days, be wary of whether they'll be comfortable or not in the Fiesta – they'll certainly be fine in the Citroen or Seat, with the Seat particularly Tardis-like.
The Seat wins for boot space, too. Officially it has 355 litres compared to the Citroen's 300 and the Fiesta's 292, to be honest in reality it's noticeable that the Seat's boot is slightly bigger, but the rear lights cut into the boot opening, where the C3 and Fiesta have more convenient square-shaped boot openings.
Adding a variable boot floor costs £75 on the Fiesta (as shown in our pics), and £160 on the Seat (which wasn't fitted to our test car), and is worth doing as it irons out a big drop to the boot floor over the load lip, and up again to the rear seats (which are split 60/40 on all three cars) when they're folded. The Citroen doesn't have the option of a variable boot floor, so you have to live with the drop over the boot lip.
And the winner is...
On balance of all the things that you'd want from a small car, we'd go for the Seat Ibiza. The Citroen has slightly better equipment, the Ford a better ride comfort, but overall the Seat's got the smartest and roomiest interior, the best infotainment, the best refinement, and is just generally going to be brilliantly fit for purpose regardless of how you're going to use your small car.
It's also about the best here on balance of equipment and list price or finance costs, and the final thing to really put the 'super' in this supermini is that it's the safest one here, with standard driver's knee airbag and AEB emergency city braking and it's the safest here being the only one with standard emergency city braking.
The Ford Fiesta runs it very close, and is likely the better option if you're looking for a learner or new driver, since it's both cheaper to insure and a fraction cheaper to fuel, but make sure you add AEB and parking sensors. It's let down primarily by fairly poor rear passenger space, but otherwise it's easily one of the best all-round options in this class.
Citroen has done a fine job with the C3, which is the best equipped here, has a stand-out engine and really interesting style and personalisation options. It looks fantastic, and it'll be easy to live with, even though there are plenty of cars in this class that drive with more sophistication. Even so, it comes last in this test, if only by a nose behind the others, and if space or kerb appeal is a priority then the C3 should be above the Fiesta on your shopping list.
But for balance of everything? The Seat Ibiza does the supermini thing better than any other right now.