The Volkswagen Polo is as big as a Mark III Golf. The new Ford Fiesta is, in essence, a Focus which has been reduced by about 10%. The Citroen C3, which has grown into a gap somewhere between supermini and lower-medium. But are our test trio are size-busting bargain?
They are. All three cost roughly 20p per mile to run over a typical three-year/ 60,000-miles. We have chosen 1.4-litre petrol models in the trim level one up from entry-level.
The C3 and Fiesta share the same on-the-road price of £9,995, although for benefit-in-kind tax purposes the Fiesta is the cheapest because of its lower P11d price of £9,850 - £20 less than the C3 because the Fiesta has swallowed the £20 higher VED charge in its on-the-road price.
The Volkswagen Polo has the highest price here at £10,690 on-the-road, but it leads the way on projected residual values.
CAP estimates the Polo will retain 41% of its price new after three years/60,000 miles, 'losing' £6,365 over that period.
The C3 and Fiesta are both predicted to retain 38%, leaving a cash lost figure of £6,220.
In terms of running costs the C3 costs 19.71p per mile over three years/ 60,000 miles, helped by having the lowest depreciation and fuel costs.
The C3 records 45.6mpg on the combined cycle, edging it clear of the Fiesta (44.1mpg) and Polo (43.5mpg).
In terms of carbon dioxide emissions, the C3 is also the leader, emitting 148g/km. Under the emissions-based benefit-in-kind regime, the C3 will be taxed at the lowest level of 15% of list price for the first three years of the regime.
At 153g/km, the Fiesta falls into the 15% band for years one and two of the system, rising to the 16% band in 2004/05.
With the highest emissions of our trio at 156g/km, the Polo is taxed at 15% for years one and two before rising to the 17% banding in 2004/05. And while we're on the subject of tax, the C3 falls into the lowest band for VED at £100, while the Fiesta and Polo's tax discs will cost £120 each.
Citroen C3 1.4 SX
The C3 breathes new life into the sector with its rounded lines and 'smiley' face.
The innovation continues inside, with a central LCD speed indicator surrounded by a semi-circular rev-counter which resembles a kitchen weighing scale.
Luggage space can be maximised by folding away the Moduboard luggage divider.The 1.4-litre engine feels quite sprightly on the move and with the lowest torque output of our trio, the C3 gains bonus points for reaching its maximum at lower revs.
Engine (cc): 1,360
Max power: (bhp/rpm): 74/5,400
Max torque: (lb-ft/rpm): 89/3,400
Max speed (mph): 104
0-62mph (sec): 12.4
Standard equipment: Variable power steering, four airbags, ABS with brake force distribution and emergency braking assistance, remote central locking with deadlocks, air conditioning, electric front windows, front fog lights, CD player, Moduboard luggage divider, driver and passenger seat height adjustment, adjustable steering wheel, three three-point rear seatbelts.
Ford Fiesta 1.4 LX
The styling is a combination of straight lines and gentle curves, and although it is similar in shape to the Focus, it does not look as dynamic.
Quality has improved, with sturdy switches and damped controls. While the instruments are clearly laid out and the improvement in quality is welcomed, the whole package is too conservative.
However, the Fiesta provides a class-leading driving experience. Ride quality in unequalled in this class and amazing for a small car.
Despite being the most powerful car here, the Fiesta doesn't feel any quicker in a straight line than the Polo, and is slower than the C3, but the 1.4 builds up speed smoothly and feels more comfortable above 2,500rpm.
Engine (cc): 1,388
Max power (bhp/rpm): 79/5,700
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 94/3,500
Max speed (mph): 103
0-62mph (sec): 13.5
Standard equipment: Variable rate power steering, tilt-adjustable steering column, leather-covered steering wheel, air conditioning, electric front windows, driver and front passenger airbags, electrically operated and heated door mirrors, remote central locking with double locking and alarm, Quickclear heated windscreen, CD/radio.
VW Polo 1.4S
VOLKSWAGEN has ruled the roost for a long time when it comes to image and it seems no other volume manufacturer can come close. The result is that VW cars have desirability built into the badge and it lasts well beyond the first owner.
The Polo has a straight, clean line, while the Fiesta includes a strange zig-zag seam. Inside, the Polo is dark, plain and simple - but although it is the most expensive car here by a few hundred pounds, it is the least well equipped. Of course there is ABS (like the C3 1.4 SX), and a four-way adjustable wheel and front seat height adjustment (also like the C3). Both the C3 and Fiesta also have electric front windows and electrically adjustable door mirrors. But while the others have a CD/radio the Polo makes do with a radio/cassette.
The Polo is very good to drive, though, and comes very close to the Fiesta in terms of its driving experience.
The engine is lively enough, and with 90% of maximum torque available from 2,200rpm, the engine doesn't need to be revved to make swift progress.
Quality in the Polo is the best of the three cars tested.
Engine (cc): 1,390
Max power (bhp/rpm): 74/5,000
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 93/3,850
Max speed (mph): 101
0-62mph (sec): 12.9
Standard equipment: Four airbags, ABS anti-lock brakes, electronic power steering, central locking, driver and passenger seat height adjustment, four-way adjustable steering wheel, electric front windows, radio/cassette, electrically adjustable door mirrors, two rear three-point seatbelts.
WITH running costs of these three cars separated by about a penny per mile picking a winner on paper is always going to be a tough call.
The Citroen C3's advantage is that ultimately it is the least expensive to run over a typical three-year/ 60,000-mile fleet operating cycle, and would keep its driver protected from company car tax increases for longer.
It is also well equipped - the standard equipment list is longer than the Fiesta's and the Polo's - and its styling is fresher and more appealing.
Although its interior stands out for being different from the rest of the pack, the materials are not as pleasant to the touch as those of its two rivals here.
It might be adequate for the price, but if Ford can do better for the same money then you have to look at your priorities.
The Polo is an impressive all-round package.
It is thoroughly pleasant to drive and is still the class leader for quality, while inside it is almost as spacious as the previous generation Golf.
However, its slightly higher price, while offset by higher a residual value forecast, does not explain the exclusion of air conditioning and a CD player on the standard equipment list.
The new Fiesta is our winner, providing excellent value for money and the best driving experience of the three cars tested.
But its near-perfect ride/handling balance along with generous interior space are not good enough alone to give it the victory.
The new Fiesta is also only marginally more expensive than the Citroen C3 to run over three years and 60,000 miles, matches the C3's benefit-in-kind tax bill for the next two years and makes the Polo begin to look pricey.