Group tests

Ford Ka v Citroen C1 v Fiat 500 v Chevrolet Matiz

They’re the most fun you can have on four (and sometimes just three) wheels, but which budget hire should you rent?

A whiff of clutch, the tang of brakes and the squeal of tortured rubber. The bap-bap-bap of rev limiters, the crunch of beaten synchros and the toot of teensy horns. Don’t you just love hire cars?

Let’s sow the seed of mischief. Handbrake turns? You’ve never dared attempt one before, but here’s a dusty lay-by begging for experimentation. The rev limiter. If you hit it hard enough, often enough, will you break on through to the other side? Brakes. How much abuse before they wilt and smoke? Just a few of the questions best answered in a rented car.

Driving one should be seen as part of a rounded automotive education, every bit as key to the evo philosophy as your first trackday or having a fingertip knowledge of your local B‑roads. But which rental should you wreck? Or should that be which wreck should you rent? Either way, we’re here to help.

This is how it will work. Each member of our team will fly to Nice and rent a car. We know it’s cheaper to sort the paperwork in advance, but do that and you can’t pick your exact car. There are some rules: it must be in the cheapest group, no duplication is allowed, and it’s first come, first served.

I’m the exception. The whole idea was kick-started by the Ford Ka. It’s always guaranteed a week or two of fun and frolics if you were lucky enough to find one at a foreign airport. And now there’s a new Ka, the only trouble being this particular German-registered example is in London, when it needs to be 1000 miles further south. Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound.

Fast forward 16 hours and I’ve learned a few things. One, for a city car it’s perfectly refined and comfortable. Two, when I parked next to a new Vauxhall Corsa at some services near Dijon, I tried to get back into the wrong car. Three, above 90mph the wind lifts the wipers clear of the screen. And four, the USB port doesn’t recognise my iPod, which left me with the choice of French radio or the sound of a thrashed-out 1.2. After five hours of ‘Joe le Taxi’ I remembered I had my headphones…

Whiling away the hours I recall Peter Tomalin’s musings on the Veyron from issue 124. Something along the lines of ‘would you be brave enough to keep the throttle pinned for 15 seconds?’ This got me thinking. The Ka’s tyres chirrup away from the next toll booth and fifteen seconds later I’m cresting 65mph. Yeah, baby. I test my bravery by remaining at full throttle as long as possible. After 15 minutes I get bored. The most I see is 103mph. I’m realising the Mediterranean is a long way when you only have 67bhp.

7.15pm. I arrive at the hotel in Nice precisely 15 seconds ahead of John Barker, who has snapper Chris Rutter in tow. It’s dark, but I’d recognise that familiar thrum anywhere; his choice has three cylinders. ‘I’m quietly confident,’ John says of his Citroën C1. ‘It’s a likeable lightweight with a characterful heart.’

While we wait in the bar for Henry and Stephen to arrive, John confesses that he got on an earlier plane so he could take his time sizing up the options in the extensive lots of Avis, Hertz, National, Europcar et al. Just then two round headlights nose in. John and I are outside in a flash and we’re spluttering indignantly.

Stephen Dobie, evo’s newest recruit, has arrived in a Fiat 500. He spotted a loophole. ‘You didn’t say nothing about not adding a premium pack,’ our Sunderland-bred staff writer tells us. I’m sure I detect a triumphant note in his voice, but he’s new and young, so despite the fact he’s spent 220 euros on two days’ rental, against John’s 150, we let him off. Besides, it’ll be interesting to see how the Ka and the 500 compare, as the two cars share underpinnings.

As we’re formulating a plan, my phone rings. It’s Henry and the conversation goes something like this: ‘Can I have a 107?’ ‘Sorry, John’s got a C1.’ ‘What about a Panda?’ ‘Nope, Stephen’s bagged a 500.’ I’m treated to some upmarket cursing, then: ‘Right, I’ll see you in 20 minutes.’

It’s a Chevy Matiz. We’re hooting with laughter, but Henry doesn’t see the funny side. ‘I looked sodding everywhere for a Twingo,‘ he says, ‘and the only one I found was parked round the back at Hertz with its nose stoved in.’ Adding insult to injury it turned out Hertz also has separate entrances for Gold and Prestige customers, and when you’re renting a Matiz your neither, so Henry was sent back out and told to come in through the correct door…

THE FOLLOWING MORNING our rented group test heads off along the coast road to Monaco. We want to complete a timed rush-hour lap of the Grand Prix circuit – a prospect which has Stephen looking particularly nervous. Turns out that not only has he never driven a left hooker before, but he’s never driven abroad.

Monaco is not the place to start. It’s like a giant marble run. You fall into the city at the top and cascade down, round switchbacks, crowded one-way systems and dingy underpasses, finally clattering to a halt in the harbour. Hopefully not literally. Half an hour in it’s clear our cars, despite having covered roughly 10,000km each, aren’t entirely fault-free. The 500’s gearknob is loose, the C1 has a rattling tailgate and Henry has the distinct impression he’s not the first to abuse the Matiz – the hint is in the slack handbrake cable.

The 500 isn’t quite cutting the dash Stephen expected, either. In fact the entire Monégasque population appears to drive either an Italian supercar or a baby Fiat – all far more tastefully appointed than our sludge-brown/cream-cabined example. Nevertheless, I’m finding it hard to defend the podgy Ka when the 500 is close by. This is not one of Ford’s better efforts, carrying too much visual weight – a contrast to the dainty C1, which also does without the luxury pretensions. John’s verdict on the Chevy? ‘A coffin with castors.’ It’s the kindest comment levelled at the Matiz all morning.

The famous Monaco tunnel is closed for repairs, so with Plan A scuppered, we settle for hounding each other around the Loews Hairpin and Casino Square, before deciding we’re not learning enough about the cars and heading for the hills.

Sospel is perhaps ten miles inland, but culturally and geographically it’s a world away. This is a mountain town, gateway to the infamous Col de Turini and home to more hairpins than Marge Simpson’s barnet. We lunch, then set to work analysing our cars.

The Ka is our benchmark. John hops in, so I collar the 500 and give chase. There are plenty of similarities inside: high-mounted gearlever, sense of space, and what John calls ‘big-car completeness’. We blast off towards the first hairpin, muted, plain-song 1.2s humming happily.  The Ka pulls out a fractional lead by dint of its swifter, tighter gearshift. It’s a lead that grows markedly for the next few miles as the Ford’s polish shines through. Decent brakes, decent grip, decent steering, but decent car? I catch up with John in a lay-by. ‘I’m a bit underwhelmed by that,’ he says to a backdrop of smoking brakes and ticking engines. ‘There’s a numbness, a lack of feel, feedback and charm that seems to be the price paid for its impressive competency.’ I’m forced to agree. From behind it looked neat, undramatic and arguably no more fun to drive than the Fiat, which Stephen accurately described as having ‘scarily light’ steering. We come to the conclusion that both are too professional. The Ka has lost its sense of fun; the 500 has sacrificed all in its pursuit of style.

If we want a hilarious spectacle, we need to look elsewhere. And here it comes: a tunefully warbling Citroën followed by a three-wheeling Chevrolet. The contrast is marked. Here thin tyres scrabble and squeal for grip, suspension arms dangle from arches and there are smiles on faces. And, yep, as he unfurls himself from the Matiz, that includes Henry. ‘The one-lunged asthma-sufferer of an engine delivers all the pace of a mobility scooter,’ he says, ‘and the steering is a sort of ball-park device that you twirl frantically until, at some point, the Matiz leans far enough for you to get a knee down. Oh, and I never did work out which tyre had more grip – the Kumho on the front left, or the Dayton on the other side…’ But he’s grinning. ‘This is the point of a hire car,’ he adds. ‘You should love to hate it.’

John takes it for a strop and returns 20 minutes later. ‘I haven’t driven a car this dynamically coarse for many years,’ he says. ‘You know within three feet that it’s crude, ill-refined and that it’s your duty to punish it.’

Meanwhile, the C1 is casually notching up a few conquests. Those championing other cars have been snaffling it for drives along the D2204 and returning with carefully expressionless faces. They try their best to pick holes – ‘massive gap from first to second’, ‘thrummy becomes thrashy at the top end’, ‘plastics are a bit Kinder Egg’, etc – but I can see through the facades, so I head out.

The C1 is eager, agile, sounds like half a 911, and loves being hurled at corners, diving in, cocking a wheel and bobbing out the other side. Loathe though I am to admit it when I return to our staging post atop the Col de Braus, JB has trumped us all with his choice.

And the Ka? Well, it’s sensible and probably very good to own, but fun holiday memories are not made of this. In fact, it loses out to the 500, because at least the Fiat cuts a dash on the Promenade des Anglais. And the Chevy? Truly, madly, deeply rubbish it may be, but it’s midway between being frighteningly bad and the most entertaining car here. You’re not going to forget driving it in a hurry.

As the light fades and Chris packs up his lenses, there’s time for us to try and track down the source of the popping and banging we’ve heard echoing round the hillsides all afternoon. Five minutes later on an open, if lightly trafficked public road, we’re standing next to the previously secret 2009 Skoda Fabia rally car and it’s pilot, Gilles Panizzi, busy conducting a spot of tarmac testing. Henry looks lustfully at his dream rental, but settles for an autograph. We turn to go, heads high. Just in time to see a battered Peugeot 305 estate scrape its way down the side of the Fiat 500…

Extra Info

Going mental in a rentalWe were on honeymoon in Mauritius and the hotel was a tropical Colditz. After a week we were desperate to break out and see the island, so we hired a car, a Peugeot 106.

After a few hours touring the sights we headed off down a promising-looking dirt track in search of a beach. Soon we were yumping and bumping along, splashing through puddles, as I demonstrated to the new Mrs Marriage that, even if the 106 wasn’t, I was born to rally.

Then we came to a tempting corner with a big puddle on the inside. Except the water looked black and rather dee… Too late. The 106’s eager nose dived in, water cascaded over the bonnet, silence descended.Luckily, Mrs M saw the funny side, but the car didn’t take it so well. It was misfiring, lurching and smoking badly. We nursed it back to the hotel at 20mph, whereupon my darling wife gamely suggested that smoothing things over would be best achieved with a feminine touch. Ten minutes later she came back with the keys to a Suzuki Jimny. But that’s another story. Ollie Marriage

We had a diesel Golf and were at the ultimate hire-car playground, the Nurburgring. With our work over for the day we couldn’t resist buying a three-lap ticket for the evening public session. Former ed-at-large Richard Meaden was at the wheel first, with snapper Anthony Fraser and me goading him on.

Little Dickie took no mercy on the brakes, tyres, engine and gearbox; he hopped over kerbs and at times even used the grass. We giggled like schoolgirls as we overtook a 911 and laughed like drains when we caught big air at Pflantzgarten. Pity the circuit officials didn’t see things in the same light. At the end of our lap they banned us from the rest of the session for driving too fast… Roger Green

This is not a tale about a car I’ve hired. It’s about a car I owned, whose hire-car past came back to bite me.

Before me, this Lancia Fulvia HF was owned by a classic-car hire company that went bankrupt. Once I started writing about it in Octane magazine, its past came alive. ‘I hired that car,’ readers would write in to tell me. ‘Here’s a picture of me giving it death on the Prescott Hill Climb.’ I’d write back: ‘Hope you were kind to it.’ They’d reply: ‘Well, I only over-revved it a bit…’

Always a bit smoky, it began to leak much oil and water, so I took it to bits. An expensive engine rebuild followed. Moral: don’t buy an ex-hire car. John Simister

September 1985. I’d gone on a bargain break to Lanzagrotty with my girlfriend, a mate and his latest squeeze, and on our first day on the island I decided we should go off the beaten track to seek out what looked like beach nirvana on the map.

It soon became clear that our Fiat Panda hire car wasn’t the ideal device for serious off-roading, but being tough farmer types we pressed on. The girls started to get a little tetchy when we hadn’t seen another human for over an hour. Conversation between girls and boys stopped completely after we’d been off-piste for well over four hours. Truth was, we were completely and utterly lost.

As the sun began to set we abandoned all hope of finding a beach and headed back inland. Said girlfriend and I are married now, which is surprising after what she called me at the end of that day… Harry Metcalfe


 Ford KaChevrolet MatizFiat 500Citroen C1
EngineIn-line 4-cyl, 1242ccIn-line 4-cyl, 995ccIn-line 4-cyl, 1242ccIn-line 3-cyl, 998cc
Max power68bhp @ 5500rpm64bhp @ 5400rpm68bhp @ 5500rpm68bhp @ 6000rpm
Max torque75lb ft @ 3000rpm67lb ft @ 4200rpm75lb ft @ 3000rpm69lb ft @ 3600rpm
Weight (kerb)940kg855kg865kg790kg
0-62mph12.9sec (claimed)14.1sec (claimed)12.9sec (claimed)13.7sec (claimed)
Top speed99mph (claimed)97mph (claimed)99mph (claimed)98mph (claimed)
HIred fromn/aHertzAvisNational
Hire costn/a£87 per day£107.50 per day£77 per day
evo rating3/51/55/54/5

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