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Archive 29

Car Review

Stuart Bladon assesses six contenders from
the battle for best small family hatchback

In the build-up to the launch of the CitroŽn C3, it was commented that 'the battle of the supermini is about to begin,' and there's no doubt that this category of car has taken a great leap forward. Competition is much stronger now. Gone are the noise and discomfort of predecessors, such that one wouldn't want to contemplate a long journey in one, and now they offer relaxed, economical travel, with 250 miles or more as no hardship for a morning or afternoon of knocking back the miles.

   How they compare is the vital question and we show here the important details and brief driving impressions for six top contenders. To these could well have been added the very impressive new SEAT Ibiza, but there are just too many to cover all small-medium hatchbacks in one go.

   Is there a hint of complacency at Ford, having dominated the small hatchback market for so many years with the Fiesta? One certainly begins to wonder, judging from the brevity and lack of detail in the Press information and following a driving appraisal in which the route hardly ever took in roads with a speed limit above 40 mph. There's a suggestion of lack of inspiration in the new Fiesta, which certainly does not have any of the novel thinking seen in the CitroŽn C3, for example, with its clever Moduboard arrange-ment for the folding platform in the load space, or in the Honda Jazz with its ingenious arrangement for folding the back seat scissors fashion, leaving the central area clear for large items such as bikes.

    At the top end of the range, the Audi A2 is very tempting, but the diesel is prohibitively expensive and even the petrol A2 is pricey. If I had to choose from these six cars, I would probably favour the CitroŽn C3 or the Renault Clio, in 1.4-litre petrol form (diesel only if very high annual mileages are in prospect), or the Honda Jazz if the generous internal space were important. But of them all, the Volkswagen Polo is, in my opinion, the best to drive.


CitroŽn C3 1.4i LX
Unlike some cars, where you keep noticing how the manufacturer has deleted this or made that an option, all in the bid to trim production costs, the new CitroŽn C3 bristles with clever, thoughtful features. You feel, instead, that the designers were out to build a small, friendly car that would please its owner rather than to make the maximum profit. Thus, you get things like a cigarette lighter as well as a power point for recharging the mobile 'phone, and there are illuminated mirrors behind the sun visors on every model. Parents will appreciate the button on the facia which allows rear doors to be locked from the driving seat when there are children in the back.

   "We are not trying to make out that it's a sporty car," I was told; "instead, the emphasis is on making it convenient to use and thoroughly practical as a family car. So there will be no three-door C3, and there is no sporty trim option - just LX and SX, plus the well-equipped Exclusive version."

   There are also only three engines - the 1.4-litre in petrol and diesel form, and a single model with Exclusive trim and 1.6-litre petrol engine. For this test we chose the 1.4-litre petrol model in its cheapest form as the LX, where it represents very good value.

   Automatic transmission is available for this engine, having sequential change-action - going up or down through gears in turn either as the driver commands by a touch forward or back on the control lever, or left to its own devices, giving very smooth and lively performance. The automatic option in this new small CitroŽn comes only with the SX trim, but with a price of £11,215 it is likely to be a prime choice for those wanting a very pleasing small hatchback with automatic transmission.

   A manual five-speed transmission is standard for all other models. The 1.4-litre engine gives good response and copes well with overtaking and hill climbing, while remaining exceptionally quiet and refined.

   The only aspect I found slightly disappointing with the C3 was the rather high level of tyre roar on certain surfaces; and although I am very happy to have a large digital display to show the speed, I wonder how popular this feature will be. Digital speedometers have not been liked in the past. This one has a small peripheral rev counter around it, but it's not very easy to read at a glance.

   Moduboard is the name given to the clever folding platform in the luggage space, which can be arranged in various ways to form compartments preventing items in the boot from flying about; and there are copious lockers, compartments and under-seat drawers in the car to keep everything tidy. The rear seat backs are divided and fold readily down on to the fixed one-piece cushion giving a very flat extension of the load platform.

    A sensible move is the elimination of interior door lock buttons; locking is by the remote sender or by a button on the facia. Many options are available including an unusually large glass sunroof for £500, anti-lock brakes (£350) and air conditioning for £750.

    As with most cars these days, the screen pillars are very thick for roll-over accident safety, but they are located well forward with a small fixed quarter window behind them so that they do not obstruct visibility too badly. With height adjustment for both front seats and a steering column which adjusts both ways, one can tailor a very comfortable seating position.

   The Citroen C3 clearly sets out to be a car designed to please and achieves this objective very well indeed.

CitroŽn C3 1.4i LX £8,995
Engine - 1,360 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 25.2 sec
Maximum speed - 104 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 48.3 mpg
CO2 emissions - 148 g/km (tax band A £100)
Insurance - Group 3E

Renault Clio dCi Dynamique 1.5
A long journey was in prospect: all the way from my home in Hertfordshire nearly to Scarborough in Yorkshire and the fuel gauge was on the half mark at the start. I was resigned to a time-wasting fuel stop on the way, but in fact the car I was driving, Renault's new Clio with 1.5-litre high pressure diesel engine, proved so economical that it made it easily without refuelling. The very informative trip computer fitted as standard on this model gave reassurance that fuel for at least another 100 miles remained in reserve.

   A fill-up was then done at leisure ready for the return, which was again covered on less than half a tankful. Overall consumption, even pressing on fairly hard to reach the northern destination in time, worked out at a commendable 55.4 mpg.

   What was also impressive was how quiet and relaxed this small car was when cruising along at the pace which most British drivers have adopted for free-flowing motorways, and how vigorously it accelerates without any delay in response to the throttle.

   It's a diesel, of course, with high pressure 'common rail' fuel injection, developing 65 bhp. As promised for some time, there is to be a more powerful version of the 1.5-litre diesel engine later for Clio, giving 80 bhp.

   Controls are all easy to operate, with a safety 'collar' on the gear lever to be raised before reverse can be engaged. The steering is light and accurate, with provision for adjusting the column for height. Although with drum brakes at the rear, the Clio stops very reassuringly and all models have anti-lock control.

   Appearance of the seats is slightly drab, but they are well-shaped, the driver having height adjustment as well as a small hand wheel to adjust backrest tension. The rear seat is divided 40/60 with provision for either cushion to tip forward first and then the backrest drops down forming a very level extension of the load platform.

   From the wide range of trim levels available, we had the Dynamique for test, which comes with such features as the ingenious trip computer - providing all sorts of information about trip distance, average speed, fuel range and consumption - and includes a tilt or remove glass sunroof, but not air conditioning. This is available as an option at £695 extra. A very effective radio/cassette unit is standard and, as usual with Renault, there is a remote control satellite just under the steering wheel on the right so that volume or station selections can be made without taking a hand from the steering wheel.

   One thing I particularly welcomed in the Clio, to cope with these lawless days when one always wonders how safe one is in a car, is that almost as soon as one sets off, all doors and the tailgate lock automatically. Unlocking is by the driver's door internal release handle, or by a button on the console if it is necessary to let a passenger in.

   It would be good to see a little more care taken over the fit and finish of the interior - on the test car one could almost see into the glove box past the gap at the side of the lid - but in all important respects the Clio is very impressive for its combination of speed and comfort with economy.

Renault Clio dCi 1.5 Dynamique £9,195
Engine - 1,461 cc turbo direct injection
0-80 mph - 29.0 sec
Maximum speed - 100 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 55.4 mpg
CO2 emissions - 115 g/km (tax Band A £110)
Insurance - Group 3

Ford Fiesta 1.4 Zetec
More than £800 of added value is Ford's claim for the new Fiesta, which comes with more equipment and some price reductions. There are three petrol engines - 1.3 eight-valve, and 16-valve units of 1.4 and 1.6-litre capacity plus the new 1.4-litre TDCi diesel. This assessment concentrates on the 1.4 petrol with Zetec trim - that's the third level, above Finesse and LX, but below Ghia.

   The engines are all notably smooth and quiet, but a little lifeless, especially the 1.4, which needs a lot of gear changing and high revs for swift progress.

   Only five-door bodies are available at present, but a three-door will follow towards the end of the year. A self-changing electronically controlled gearbox will be offered from October.

   Fiesta features which I particularly liked are the height of the driver's eye level in relation to the low base of the windscreen, with the wipers neatly parked at the bottom of the glass, and the generally tidy and well finished appearance of the facia panel and its integral console, with the radio and compact disk player mounted prominently.

   But it was surprising to find Ford persisting in this new model with some details which other manufacturers have tried and since abandoned, such as a self-locking tailgate which requires one to open the side door first and press an internal button - not very convenient when the driver is perhaps a woman with arms full of shopping and children.

   The rear seat squabs are divided to fold down for extra luggage space, but the cushion is in one piece.

   Also retrograde seems to be the use of a 'bar chart' for the fuel gauge, with a diminishing column of ovals to give a rough indication of fuel state. Beside it, in the rev counter, is the temperature gauge, which is also an electronic display and far too small to be noticed by many drivers in event of rising engine temperature. There is a digital clock, but it is located where the front passenger can't see it.

   The horn is sounded by pressing the perimeter of the steering wheel boss, not the centre part which drivers are apt to push in an emergency. But a good move is that the new Fiesta has a remote control satellite beneath the steering wheel on the left for controlling the volume and programme of the audio.

   One wonders if this new model was developed abroad without a lot of thought for the British market, because of the poor arrangement of the pedals in the right-hand drive version. There is no provision for the left foot to rest beside the clutch. Instead, it must be located underneath the clutch pedal, without any support.

   None of the new Fiestas has a sunroof as standard, but it's a £300 option. It was surprising to find that it still has a winding handle to operate it. I had presumed that all sunroofs were now electrically operated.

   The tidy handling, neat gear change and smooth ride offset the few rather disappointing features and certainly the attractive interior appearance should tempt buyers.

Ford Fiesta 1.4 Zetec £9,495
Engine - 1,388 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 27 sec
Maximum speed - 103 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 43.9 mpg
CO2 emissions - 151 g/km (tax band B £120)
Insurance - Group 5E

Honda Jazz SE Sport
Certainly they weren't wearing very much - just skin-tight jump suits - but 18 young adults of both sexes managed to cram into a Jazz as a remarkable demonstration of its carrying capacity. In rehearsal, I was told, they managed to get 22 in! It must have been a bit cosy, but it shows how much space there is in this cleverly-designed hatchback. It's also a very versatile car for family use because of the ingenious folding arrangement of the rear seat.

   Each of the two cushions folds upward to the vertical in one easy movement, and stays there, leaving a generous floor space available in the middle of the car. Then, if required, the backrests fold down, extending the load platform and making such a generous space available that one could even sleep there. Pulling down the metal support bar, which takes the weight of the occupant when the seat is occupied, releases the cushion from its position linked tightly against the backrest.

   Two aspects of Jazz are a bit disappointing. First, although the engine is very free-revving and smooth, it's inevitably rather lacking in power. Honda calls it a 1.4, but in fact its capacity is only 1.3-litre and, while it runs well enough on the level, it is rather susceptible to gradients and there is not a lot of surplus power for overtaking. The engine is a very efficient unit, with two sparking plugs per cylinder - but also only two valves - and it does well to develop 83 bhp from this small capacity. As often the case with Honda products, the layout and finish of the engine when the bonnet is opened are most impressive.

   The second slight drawback of Jazz is the lively, bouncy nature of the ride, with a lot of wheel thump over bumps. It improves somewhat when the car is heavily loaded. Evidently the suspension - by trailing arms, coil springs and torsion beam at rear - is intentionally rather firm to cope with the potential load capacity, even if you don't plan to have 17 passengers!

   There's an easy five-speed gear change and all controls are light and responsive. Three versions of Jazz are available - S, SE and SE Sport as tested - and only the top two versions have anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution.

   The facia layout is neat and orderly, with fully integrated audio set featuring a CD player on the top model, while the other two have a cassette player. Rotary controls at the bottom of the short console regulate the ventilation very effectively and air conditioning is standard except on the S model. Who needs an engine temperature gauge? The Jazz doesn't have one - there's just a warning indicator, blue when the engine is cold and then going out, to reappear in red in event of over-heating.

   A touch on the button beside the rev counter changes the digital display to give, in sequence, total mileage, trip mileage and fuel consumption since the trip was last reset. This worked very well and confirmed the fuel consumption as being close to 40 mpg most of the time.

   In the rear load space there's a pull-out blind to cover luggage and below the floor there's a space saver wheel with a lot of out-of-sight storage room around it.

   A clever design, with many particularly good points, the Honda Jazz is an appealing and rewarding family car. It's just a pity that - at least so far - it is not available with a larger engine or a diesel.

Honda Jazz 1.4i-DSI SE Sport £11,295
Engine - 1,339 cc atmo indirect injection; dual ignition
0-80 mph - 26.8 sec
Maximum speed - 106 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 90,000 miles
               - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 38.7 mpg
CO2 emissions - 137 g/km (tax Band A £100)
Insurance - Group 3E

Volkswagen Polo TDI PD 1.4
Cars keep on getting larger until eventually a new model is introduced farther down the range. With launch of the new Polo at the beginning of the year, every dimension was larger than before and the new one is now every bit as big as early versions of the Golf. The advantage is that there's more room for people and luggage; yet at the same time Volkswagen has managed to make it perform as well as the old Polo while using no more fuel and to offer it at the same price as before.

   For this test we took what impressed as the best of the outstanding new range - the one with the new high pressure 1.4-litre turbo diesel engine. At £12,060 it is still expensive for a car in this group, but the new 75 bhp three-cylinder diesel is so smooth, tractable and responsive that it stands out as the one for the buyer to go for if the budget will run to it.

   Handling and steering are excellent, coupled with good all-round visibility and very responsive brakes, all making it a most reassuring car to drive. The ride is on the firm side, but never uncomfortable, and the quietness when cruising at speed is almost uncanny on some surfaces.

   A long lever at the side of the seat gives easy height adjustment, but the seats tend to be a bit hard and fairly short in the cushion. A very neat console locates the radio/cassette unit high up, with the rotary controls for very effective ventilation and air conditioning beneath. Violet and red illumination of the instruments at night is very restful. Generous space is provided for oddments and there are pull-out drawers beneath the front seats. Even the centre armrest in the rear seat houses a small compartment.

   The Polo was used for a long journey, with 500 miles covered in two days, after which we emerged still feeling fresh and comfortable. The Polo proved even more rewarding to drive than the Renault Clio, but of course it costs more and does not quite come up to the impressive fuel economy of the Clio, nor is there a sunroof in the price. Not fitted to the test car, it is an option at £460, though this is for a glass sunroof with electric sliding action, not just a pop-up one as on the Clio.

   The Polo as tried had SE trim with three-door body; SE trim might well be considered preferable to the Sport model, since it gives a better ride and brings a saving of £720 on the price. Extra cost for five-door is £500.

Volkswagen Polo SE TDI PD 1.4 £12,060
Engine - 1,422 cc turbo direct injection
0-80 mph - 27.1 sec
Maximum speed - 106 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 48.5 mpg
CO2 emissions - 124 g/km (tax band A £110)
Insurance - Group 4

Audi A2 1.4 SE
One wouldn't expect any Audi to be priced in the bargain basement and it's no surprise to see the A2 rounding up our survey as most expensive car of the group; but there are some justifications for this. Like the big A8, the A2 is built of aluminium, resulting in strength with lightness. Its tall shape provides an air of roominess and space inside, while the quality of furnishings, trim and all the interior construction are to the high standards expected and found in the German car.

   Petrol and diesel versions are available and, for this test, we had the 'sparkler' - a four-cylinder 1.4-litre with twin overhead camshafts and 75 bhp output. The TDI diesel, incidentally, is a three-cylinder and costs nearly £2,000 more. Even with today's ludicrous fuel prices, an awful lot of fuel would have to be saved to justify that.

   The petrol engine is a smooth, eager unit and very much one that is scarcely heard and even less seen. Open the bonnet and you just get a small drop-down panel revealing the dipstick and swing-out reservoir tops for oil, water, and screenwash. But you can get to the engine by removing the special lift-off bonnet panel. Lively and responsive to drive, the A2 has a neat, short-travel gearchange and a steering column adjustable for both height and reach.

   The rear wing across the back window makes the A2 look slightly odd in rear view and there is no rear wiper, which is badly needed in wet weather. Forward visibility is good in straight running, with a single wiper which parks neatly at the base of the screen, but on corners the very thick A-posts are sometimes very obstructive.

   As preferred, the buyer can have individual rear seats like those in the test car, which fold up and can readily be removed, or a bench-type seat to take three. A surprising amount of rear load space is available, part of the secret being that the spare wheel is not only of space saver type but is also supplied deflated, with a system for inflating it when needed.

   A special feature is the two-piece glass sunroof which can be opened part way or fully, with the front panel overlapping the rear one; but this is an option, at £765. Equipment throughout is comprehensive, though again the electrically-operated rear windows are an option at £205, as is the impressive BOSE radio and CD player with auto-changer (£915).

   The economy of this small car did not come up to expectations, working out at 38.3 mpg, and well below the claimed 47.

   To appreciate the longevity of the Audi A2 one would need to own it for a long time and then the real merits of its unique construction would really prove their worth; but in the shorter term it is less easy to justify the price, which is perhaps one reason why not many of them are seen on the road.

Audi A2 1.4 SE £14,450
Engine - 1,390 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 24.7 sec
Maximum speed - 107 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 38.3 mpg
CO2 emissions - 146 g/km (tax band A £100)
Insurance - Group 6

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