When one car does its job just as well as its rivals, it leads to difficulties in recommending it over another. Sometimes we are thrown the lifeline of replacement cycles - a car launched a year after another from a rival manufacturer could reasonably be expected to have raised standards in many areas.
But this spring presents a dilemma. The thoroughly competent Ford Fiesta arrives just months after the thoroughly competent Volkswagen Polo.
And it is joined by a sporty yet competent SEAT Ibiza, and the roomy and competent Honda Jazz, with the market already filled by the cheap yet competent Renault Clio and the not-as-cheap-as-it-could-be but competent Skoda Fabia.
And we must not forget the Peugeot 206, in which although many people find it impossible to get completely comfortable, they have been won over by its all-round competence.
Which leads us to the new Citroën C3. Joining the fray at around the same time as the Jazz, Fiesta, Ibiza and Polo, the C3 is a new departure for Citroën because it does not replace an existing model.
It will fill the gap between the Xsara and the Saxo - the smaller of which will remain on sale until it is replaced by the C2 next year.
Citroën believes the C3 brings with it enough individuality and freshness to make its mark in a tough, but growing sector.
Citroën UK managing director Alain Favey said: 'The high-specification and big car features of the exceptionally charismatic C3 will ensure that it attracts the attention of all types of drivers.
'And sporting a keen price tag, three levels of specification and a host of options, the C3 will meet the criteria of those wanting a 'little big car' with style and panache.'
Although the 'supermini' sector of the market does not have a particularly strong presence in fleet, with around two-thirds of sales going to retail buyers, there are attractions to arouse the interest of fleet managers with drivers in small cars.
Firstly there is the most economical diesel car currently on sale in the UK - the C3 1.4 HDi returns more than 67mpg on the combined cycle and although currently available only in eight-valve 69bhp tune, will soon be followed by a 16-valve 91bhp version.
For tax-aware company car drivers, the 1.4 HDi emits the lowest levels of CO2 for any conventionally fuelled vehicle available in the UK at 110g/km, although it will still incur the 3% supplement to arrive at a benefit charge of 18% of its list price.
However, its whisper of CO2 will allow fleet managers to plan for the long term by offering a car that will remain in the lowest company car tax band for years to come.
Petrol versions of the C3 also do well on fuel economy and emissions, with the manual 1.4i offering more than 45mpg and emissions of 148g/km (low enough to qualify for a tax charge of 15% of its price until at least 2004/05) while the frisky 1.6 achieves 43.5mpg with emissions of 155g/km (the 15% benefit-in-kind tax band until the end of the 2003/04 tax year).
The Citroën C3 also hopes to offer better value for money than its rivals with electric front windows offered as standard across the range, as well as four airbags, twin gloveboxes, remote central locking and automatic activation of hazard lights in an emergency stop.
There is also a height and reach adjustable wheel, height adjustable front seats and a programmable overspeed warning.
SX models gain ABS, electrically adjustable door mirrors and a CD/radio, while range-topping Exclusive variants have a refrigerated glovebox, underseat storage for the driver as well as the front seat passenger, rain sensitive windscreen wipers, cruise control and automatic climate control.
All models also have a plastic attachment in the boot called the Moduboard, which is split 60/40 and can be used in various configurations to protect or separate smaller items of luggage as necessary, and when folded away, leaves a generously deep boot. Cars can also be fitted with a large electric glass sunroof as an option.
Behind the wheel
IF small cars sold on looks alone, then the C3 would probably be sitting in most of the driveways across the country.
Its rounded appearance has a friendly quality, while its large headlights give it the appeal of a small puppy gazing out of the pet shop window. You want to take it home. The friendly appearance extends to its airy interior and centre console with a pair of cartoon-eye vents.
Although the plastics are mainly robust materials rather than 'slush-moulded' the quality seems quite good, dispelling concerns we had when we tried pre-production versions of the car last month.
The C3 is the tallest car in its class and this translates into generous headroom, both front and rear. As well as tilt and reach adjustment for the steering wheel, front seats are also height adjustable, so it isn't too long before a comfortable driving position can be found. Rear seat legroom is reasonable as long as you are not sitting behind a tall driver.
The C3's instrument layout has been simplified with an LCD speedometer set in a semi-circle with the rev-counter around the circumference.
The 1.4-litre HDi is a 'second generation' common rail unit and the first to be produced under the PSA Peugeot-Citroën partnership with Ford.
Despite a few rattles at idle it settles down quickly and is an unobtrusive companion on the move. It has more torque than the 1.6-litre petrol-engined C3 and fizzes along nicely thanks to maximum pulling power coming in at 2,000rpm.
The C3's electronically-assisted power steering is feather light at parking speeds, and the car feels easy to manoeuvre around town. Feedback from the steering increases as speeds rise and the C3 becomes good fun off the main roads. As the tallest car in its class, body roll was always going to be a problem and it certainly prevents cornering at the same sort of speed as you might try in a Peugeot 206.
But it is well contained for the most part and the ride quality is impressive, even on the poorly maintained roads that made up some of our test route. The only criticism of the C3's driving behaviour can be levelled at the tyre noise, which was highly dependent on the road surface – only on the newest, best roads were they silent.
THE C3 puts the fun factor back into the supermini sector, which seems to have taken itself very seriously of late.
High specification, even on base models, means the C3 represents good value for money, even against those vying for the position of best in class, like the Fiesta and Polo. The C3 offers an attractive and roomy small car.