The sun roof is dead – long live the Visiodrive!

It sounds like a new sort of computer game, but it is not. It's a windscreen. Meet Visiodrive, the supermini vista concept which lets you look at the sky as easily as the road ahead (not at the same time, please). It's hard to come up with a new idea for a small hatchback, and too often carmakers are reduced to precarious claims of ever-lower CO2, ever-higher quality and ever-cooler lifestyle promises, but here is something you can really see.

As of now a mere glass panel in the roof, openable or not, is old hat. In the new Citroën C3 there's an unbroken sweep of complexly curved, gradually tinted transparency from bonnet to beyond the back of your head, punctuated only by the interior mirror. It makes the C3 amazingly airy and curiously vertical in feel, because your field of vision is bounded only laterally. It's like driving a modern, glass-walled telephone kiosk.

Of course, there are times when the downlighting can get a bit much, especially when driving into the sun. So there's a blind you can pull forward to create the shade of a normal roof, complete with a pair of sun visors attached to its front edge. Fine, you think; but you can't turn the sun visors to the side, and there's a large, unshaded gap between them.

If you favour a normal roof with normal-size, swivelable sun visors you will have to buy a base-model C3 instead of a grander version. So, given that we're talking about a Citroën from the company once keener to do a discount deal than nearly any other, how grand is grand?

Citroën has a new slogan for the C3. In French, it offers " un niveau de qualité ... en rupture". I like the rupture bit; breakthrough quality, that's the idea, and Citroën is aiming to match an Audi A3 or a BMW 1-series here, albeit in a smaller car. The claim is justified, up to a point which ends with the hard plastic rear upper door trims. Those aside, this new C3, priced from £10,800 to £16,200, could hardly be a greater contrast to its Airfix-kit-like predecessor.

It does retain the old one's rounded profile, though, a look intended to call a CV to mind, although this time there's no official allusion to the "tin snail". Quite right, too; with its solid feel, its neat, bright-metal detailing and genuine air of expense, this new C3 with its more assertive snout is in a different world. Remarkably it weighs no more than the old car, and despite ample cabin and boot space it's shorter than most other recent so-called superminis at just under four metres. But it's a pity the glovebox in right-hand drive cars will be tiny despite its large lid, because on the left is where a stack of electrics live.

Driving the C3 is an instant pleasure. It feels as a small French car should: fluent and bump-flattening over undulations, with a relaxed, unflustered motion, yet keen to respond to accurate, crisp steering and gripping tenaciously in corners. It reminds me of how a Peugeot 205 or a Renault 5 felt a quarter of a century ago. Except that a C3 is much quieter, and its engines are both lustier and more parsimonious on fuel (67.3 mpg, 110g/km). I tried two; the first, in top Exclusive trim with a 90bhp diesel engine (70 and 110bhp are also available), wore wider, lower-profile tyres, which made the ride lumpier than in the second C3 equipped as a VTR+ and powered by a 120bhp, 1.6-litre petrol engine. Both engines are adequately lively, the smooth-running petrol one proving the more engaging, but this is not meant to be a sporting car. Wait for the imminent DS3, Citroën ;n's handsome Mini rival with three doors and luxury trim, for that.

Two 1.4-litre petrol units, of 75 and 90bhp, are also offered, the former joining a 61bhp 1.1 and the lowliest diesel in its possible combination with the entry VT trim level. The VT lacks Visiodrive, but even here you get electric windows and central locking.

I like the C3 a lot, Visiodrive or not. I used to think the French made the most satisfying superminis, and in the C3 the form returns. Peugeot has promised its 207 replacement will be smaller, higher quality, prettier and better to drive. That's excellent news, but its Citroën cousin has got in there first.

The Rivals

Ford Fiesta 1.6 TDCi Titanium: from £15,395.

Highly stylish, with a dashboard resembling a giant mobile phone keyboard. The keen driver's choice but quite a firm ride.

Mazda 2 1.6 D90 Sport: from £13,317.

Excellent value, great fun to drive, looks cutely modern, cabin is full of hard plastics. Engine virtually identical to the Citroën's.

Renault Clio 1.5 dCi Privilège: from £15,520.

Posh version of the Clio, has a plush cabin and a punchy, refined engine. Quiet, undemanding, popular and just a little bit unexciting.

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