Agile handling and impressive straight-line pace are key to the success of any car here.

Few cars have to be as versatile as a modern supermini. Not only do these compact models need to be light and agile around town, they’re also expected to be refined on the motorway and fun on a twisty back road. This blend of abilities is hard to achieve in any segment, but that hasn’t stopped Ford’s engineers from getting the balance spot-on.

Even a short stint at the wheel of the Fiesta highlights the quality of its chassis and drivetrain. The steering is beautifully weighted, full of feedback and responds well to your inputs.

The Ford flows through bends with an almost laser-guided accuracy, while its supple suspension soaks up the worst bumps. Better still, on a long trip, it’s impressively quiet, comfortable and relaxing.

At the test track, the 1.6-litre TDCi engine proved smooth and punchy. It propelled the Zetec from 0-60mph in 12 seconds exactly – only the more powerful SEAT was faster.

Closest to the Ford in terms of driver appeal is the Renault. Although the steering lacks feel and weight, the Clio has an agile chassis and impressive long-distance refinement.

Plus, while it can’t match the outright pace of either the Ibiza or Fiesta, the Clio offers great mid-range urge. On the move, its torquey 1.5-litre dCi oil-burner is hushed, while wind and road noise are kept to a minimum. It’s certainly a more relaxing companion than the boisterous SEAT.

Our racy, Sport-spec Ibiza benefits from stiffer suspension for a more engaging driving experience. The downside of this is an extremely stiff ride, which crashes over inner city streets and becomes restless on motorways.

However, turn into a corner and the SEAT responds with incredible enthusiasm, gripping hard and demonstrating excellent body control. And as the Spanish model is the most powerful car in our line-up, it was no surprise to find it dominated our performance tests, sprinting from 0-60mph in 10.6 seconds. Less impressive is the noise from the new 1.6-litre common-rail diesel unit, particularly at idle – although it’s less intrusive at speed.

This isn’t a criticism you can level at the Citroen. Mechanical noise is very well suppressed in the cabin, while the smooth 1.6-litre HDi engine is surprisingly strong.

The C3 accelerated from 50-70mph in 10.2 seconds, which was the fastest of all our superminis, and demonstrates the potency of its mid-range responses. On the move, the C3 driving experience is dominated by its cosseting ride, but it will leave keen drivers a little cold. The vague gearshift of old is improved, yet it’s still not as precise as the class’s best, and while the steering has good weighting, it feels rather numb.

There’s also plenty of body movement when cornering and braking hard, so the C3 doesn’t put a smile on your face in the same way as the entertaining Ford or SEAT. As with the Citroen, the VW majors on refinement rather than agility. Its cabin is refined at speed, and the Polo copes with bumps nearly as effectively as the C3.

Over twisting back roads the car is capable, although it doesn’t offer any real driver involvement. The car’s real Achilles heel in this company is its 74bhp 1.6-litre TDI engine, which delivers lacklustre pace in a straight line.

Not only that, its low-speed responses are poor, which makes it feel extremely sluggish on the road. As a result, the uninspiring Polo comes last for driving enjoyment.

Ratings:Ford Fiesta: 5/5 Few cars in any class can rival the perfectly judged ride and handling balance of the Ford. Hot hatch-like agility is matched by great composure over bumps.Renault Clio: 4/5 The refined Clio comes close to the Fiesta in terms of driving dynamics. Its diesel engine is both smooth and punchy, but its steering is over-light and short on feedback.Citroen C3: 4/5 If you value refinement and comfort, the C3 is a strong contender. It’s a very quiet cruiser and soaks up even big bumps. Steering is well weighted, yet lacks feel.SEAT Ibiza: 3/5 ON twisty roads, the SEAT backs up its sporty looks with a sharp chassis. In Sport trim, though, the ride is firm, while the 1.6-litre engine is a little gruff.

VW Polo: 3/5 As with the Citroen, the Polo is quiet and comfortable. Its oil-burning 1.6-litre engine is slow, however, and the uninvolving chassis delivers limited thrills for keen drivers.

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