Model: Citroën C2;
Price: £10,995. On sale now;
Engine: 1,587cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 110bhp at 5,750rpm;
Transmission: Five-speed clutchless sequential gearbox, front-wheel drive;
Performance: 121mph, 0-60 in 10.6sec, 44.8mpg official average, CO2 151g/km.
You have probably noticed a lot of Citroën Saxos buzzing around over the past few years. You may also have noticed rather more of them than of the Saxo's 95 per cent DNA-sharer, Peugeot's 106.
This is strange to the car expert; the 106 was the original, the Saxo came later on, to the great dismay of Citroën purists who considered it a cheap trick and not remotely a proper Citroën. Too bad. The public has loved it, especially the younger public, who have been especially keen on the free insurance offers. That deal even extended to the sporty VTR and VTS versions, a masterstroke of marketing as high-energy Saxos became the staple fare of the "Max Power" generation and bass loudspeakers thudded ever more seismically throughout the land.
And my point is? That the Saxo is no longer, that the five-door, round 'n' cuddly C3 is selling spiritedly, and Citroën now brings us the C2. It is built on a shortened version of the C3's underpinnings (as will be Peugeot's imminent 107), comes only as a three-door body style and is aimed straight at the clientèle that the Saxo plugged into as much by accident as by design. So it is short, rounded in the nose and stubby in the tail, and has the strangest side-window shapes seen for quite a while.
The rear side window dips down low at its front edge in a way suggestive of a broken back but, against all standard aesthetic rules, it works. Like many new car designs, the C2 is not beautiful but its angular, sharp-edged shape looks metallic, mechanical, ready to pounce forward into a keen, sharp-edged driving experience. See how the wheels are bounded by wheelarches so chunky the front ones cut into the front edge of the doors? Meet the full-size radio-controlled toy.
There are several C2 models, all priced at near-bargain levels. Cheapest is a 61bhp 1.1-litre version at £6,995; most expensive is the racy 110bhp VTR - there's to be no hardcore VTS for a while, if at all - at £10,995, including that free insurance deal. In between come two 1.4-litre models, a petrol (75bhp) and a turbodiesel (70bhp, but with much more pulling power). Trim levels are L, LX, luxury SX, sporty Furio and that sportier VTR. All use the same basic dashboard as the C3 and its convertible Pluriel sibling, but beyond that the interior has taken its cues from the Smart car, epitome of urban micro-chic, just as the truncated tail has with its rear wheelarches seeming to protrude beyond the body's main envelope.
So all four seats are separate (at least they are in the high-image C2s; the base model gets a rear bench), and their dark-fabric centres are enlivened by big blobs of colour on the seats' edges, echoed in the middle of the door trim pads. The door-pulls and the gear lever are in translucent coloured plastic, and the rear seats individually slide, fold and stow away to enlarge the meagre boot. Access to that boot is by a tailgate horizontally split, like a range Rover's. The bottom part, made of plastic, contains a storage chamber and is strong enough to sit on.
We'll begin driving in the VTR, which sits on lower, stiffer springs and fat wheels, to suit its sporty station. To confirm this car as credible to the PlayStation generation, it comes with a clutchless, sequential-shift transmission (as does the Furio) with shift paddles attached to the steering column, just like a Ferrari. This is a better solution than having the buttons on the steering wheel, because you always know where to find them.
Driving fun surely awaits. And yes, the C2 VTR feels firm and responsive at first, instant gratification as promised. But, versus the Saxo, there has been some dumbing down. It does not dance through corners, letting you balance steering with accelerator; it sits planted and stable and unflappable with much less deep-level interactivity. Better for teenagers, worse for those who enjoy the subtleties of driving.
And there is that SensoDrive gearbox, which is an instrument of the devil to anyone who enjoys clean, quick gear changes under the control of the user. It changes down beautifully, but upshifts are either slow or jerky or full of clutch-slip. To me, it spoils the car - and the worst of it is that you cannot have a manual alternative. Citroën must think again here.
To confirm the need for this, I then tried the diesel: smooth, soft-riding, relaxed and blessed with a beautifully quick and easy manual transmission.
This diesel car is also claimed to be the most economical mainstream car you can currently buy. All told, despite its non-sporty mechanicals, it is surely the C2 of choice. Until Citroën creates a manual VTR, anyway.
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It took six years and a new 94bhp engine to make it happen, but Ford's cute, fun-to-drive Ka finally has a racy version. Its spirit is like the old Saxo VTR's.
Mini Cooper: £11,705
The halo effect of BMW quality and huge, must-have demand explain the Mini's higher price, but it's great both to drive and to own. The engine has 115bhp, and the service package is brilliant value.
Volkswagen Lupo 1.4 Sport: £10,275
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