A case of small car obesity Four adults on board? Not a problem. Smooth ride? It's never been better. The Corsa may be a little on the chunky side for a supermini, but it punches above its weight, says John Simister

Model: Vauxhall Corsa 1.4 16V
Price: from £9,695 (three-door), £10,295 (five-door). Range spans between £7,495 and £13,795
Engine: 1,364cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 90bhp at 5,600rpm, 92lb ft at 4,000rpm
Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 107mph top speed, 0-60 in 11.5sec, 47.9mpg official average,
CO2: 142g/km

People are getting bigger, both in height and girth. As with people, so with cars: every new model, it seems, is portlier than its predecessor. Vauxhall's new Corsa is the latest car to conform to the trend. It's supposed to be a supermini but really it's a proper medium-size car in everything except boot space, which is actually smaller than that of the best supermini of 20 years ago, the Peugeot 205.

I'm looking at a Corsa now, having just driven four models in the new range. It's a five-door, and has the hefty snout, high bonnet and ludicrous front overhang worn by most new cars nowadays, the better not to harm those inside it or outside in whatever sort of frontal crash it might be unlucky enough to encounter.

But it's only when seen side-on that the cover of its corpulence is blown. In most other ways, the Corsa does an unusually good job of disguising its bulk. By means of various visual tricks it looks smaller than it really is, the better to keep its supermini credentials. In this it's the opposite of its Fiat Punto cousin, a car which shares many of the Corsa's underpinnings but which looks like a car from the size class above.

Here is a "little" car able to carry four adults with space to spare, able to cruise quietly on motorways, able to do all the things expected of a car in the next size-class up yet which costs barely any more than the previous Corsa. In terms of metal and technology for the money, cars really have never been better.

As before, the three-door version looks different from the five-door. But this time they're really different. The five-door Corsa looks more the little Astra with the reverse slope to its rear side windows, while the three-door looks like a sporty coupé with its curved window line and cleaner flanks.

What are these honey-I-shrunk-the-car tricks, then? The base of the windscreen is pulled forward by about six inches and the headlights wrap far up into the front wings. The front corners are heavily chamfered, and the result of all this is a nose that seems short and stubby even though, in reality, it isn't. The windscreen ends up with a "fast" angle of rake, too, and the cabin is made airy by the big glass area.

At the back, the three-door's side-window line continues into the tail lights, pulling the whole shape together, and both body styles have a tail-up stance suggestive of an imminent pounce and, therefore, agility. Such are a modern car stylist's trompes l'œil, their efforts to make cars look good despite the demands of safety legislation.

Inside, the Corsa continues the quality-feel trend set by Renault's Clio and Peugeot's 207, with a soft-touch dashboard top like cars used to have. You can have the soft part in quite an insistent red, a gentle black or various other hues, and the centre console and the surrounds for the four round air vents can be had in silver or shiny "piano" black depending on model.

Corsas with electric front windows, which is most of them, have a secondary pocket below the door-pull in which a mobile phone might sit, as well as the other usual storage. The boot is quite versatile, too, and even has a false floor designed to create a flat load platform when the rear seats are folded. You can lower the false floor to sit on top of the real one if you need more cargo height. You can also stow the rear shelf behind the back seats.

This is all good, practical, new-car-age stuff, as are the grander models' translucent, illuminated control knobs and the option of sat-nav and a Bluetooth connection. But more important than any of this is how the Corsa feels to drive. Small(ish) cars should be nippy and fun, virtues promised in the previous Corsa's ad campaigns and which will be pushed yet harder this time.

Look at the Corsa's technical details, though, and you soon see a snag. It's that obesity thing: even the lightest Corsa, the 1.0-litre with three cylinders and 60bhp, weighs more than 1,100kg, and when even the press pack describes its performance as "reasonable" you know there's a problem.

That version was not available for test drive, oddly enough, and the fact that the next model up, the 1.2-litre, couldn't accelerate up a not-too-challenging hill in third gear probably explains why. The 90bhp 1.4 proved livelier, helped by shorter-legged gear ratios because it was a sporty SXi version, but the engine was noisier and it still felt overwhelmed by the Corsa's weight.

There was much more pep on offer from the 1.3-litre, 90bhp turbodiesel, and given this engine's remarkable economy - 61.4mpg "official" average - it would seem the optimum choice.

But it's the fourth engine, a new version of the Isuzu-built, 1.7-litre turbodiesel, that gives a proper indication of what a suitably powered Corsa can be like. This 125bhp unit, with a hefty 206lb ft of torque, makes the Corsa feel light and lissom, powering up hills while officially averaging 58.8mpg. Thus exercised, the Corsa can show off its dynamic expertise. It feels very solid and rides authoritatively over bumps, and it's keen to point into a corner and power out of it with a precision that will be a revelation to drivers of the old car.

The SXi versions have slightly lower, stiffer suspension and bigger wheels, which together make the ride more fidgety. They also have steering that becomes more responsive once the wheel is turned past 90 degrees, making for an agile Corsa in tight corners without making the responses nervous around the straight -ahead. All Corsas have electric power steering, which feels the most natural when matched to the heavier 1.7 CDTi engine, and all have smooth, easy gear changes (six-speeders on the two more powerful diesels). It all bodes very well for the forthcoming Corsas with their 1.6-litre turbo engines: an SRi and, perhaps with as much as 190bhp, a VXR.

It's a promising car, then, with many fine features and highly appealing looks. The driving position is excellent apart from an accelerator positioned too far beyond the brake pedal, the seats are very comfortable and supportive, the steering wheel can be adjusted for reach as well as rake, and you get used to the thickness of the windscreen pillars after a time. There are airbags everywhere, and the optional "FlexFix" system (£500) is a touch of genius: a built-in bike carrier that pops out of the back bumper, complete with extra tail lights. But it seems the time when 60bhp was a lot of power for a small car has gone for good.

The rivals

Renault Clio 1.4 16V, £10,780

Glutinous steering of our test car is claimed to be better in the latest Clio, and in other respects the Expression is a fine big car in miniature. More power than its rivals, too.

Toyota Yaris 1.3 VVT-I T3, £10,810

It's expensive and the engine is smaller, but the Yaris avoids the obesity trap and feels like a properly perky small car. Roomy, with a futuristic but plasticky interior.

Peugeot 207 1.4 16V S, £10,345

This 207 feels livelier than the Corsa, but is otherwise similar to drive and equally spacious. Choose according to your style preference, because there's little else to go on.

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