European cars are normally associated with high purchase and running costs, but these days you can get into a Euro vehicle for under 20 grand.
The lower end of the passenger car market may not be as big as it used to be – such is the SUV-crazy age these days – but there are some solid options available for not a whole lot of money for those who want something that isn't a Toyota or Mazda.
Here we've assembled two pint-sized European hatchbacks, both priced at the pointy end of the light car segment.
From Germany (though built in South Africa) we have what is widely considered the class benchmark, the Volkswagen Polo, seen here in DSG-equipped Launch Edition trim priced from $22,990 before on-road costs.
Meanwhile, the Volkswagen's challenger is the funky newcomer from France – the Citroen C3 – available locally in one variant that kicks off at $23,490 plus on-roads.
Both are very different takes on a familiar formula, so let the games begin.
Price and Equipment
Both vehicles come as standard with touchscreen infotainment systems featuring smartphone mirroring, alloy wheels, turbocharged three-cylinder engines, rear-view cameras, automatic headlights and wipers, electric mirrors, six-speaker stereos, cruise control, leather-trimmed steering wheels, and electric windows all round.
Each also features tyre pressure monitoring, Bluetooth, AUX and USB connectivity, halogen headlights with LED daytime-running lights, and front fog-lights.
The Polo one-ups the C3 with its larger 8.0-inch screen (compared to 7.0 inches), a 'see me home' function for the headlights, variable intermittent adjustment for the wipers, heated side mirrors, a CD-player and memory card reader, a leather-trimmed handbrake, autonomous emergency braking (AEB) with pedestrian detection, and an extra cog in its automatic transmission (seven versus six).
However, the Citroen counters with lane-departure warning, speed sign recognition, larger alloys (17 inches versus 16), rear parking sensors, DAB+ digital radio, and automatic climate control compared to the Volkswagen's basic-looking manual air-conditioning.
Both test cars are also fully optioned, bringing their respective prices painfully close to mid-spec versions of larger players in the next class up.
Our Polo long-termer is specified with the Driver Assistance Package ($1400) – which adds adaptive cruise control with stop&go and Traffic Jam Assist, dipping and folding electric mirrors, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, all-round parking sensors, and a semi-autonomous parking assistant – along with the eye-catching Energetic Orange metallic paint ($500). As tested, the Volkswagen is $24,890 before ORCs, which is pretty much Golf money.
Meanwhile, the C3 has been optioned with Almond Green solid paint ($290), black alloys (no-cost option), a fixed panoramic sunroof ($700), and the Citroen ConnectedCam that doubles up as a dash monitor ($700). The Citroen has a list price of $25,180 before on-roads, sacré bleu!
It's worth noting that while both vehicles are equipped with six airbags and your usual suite of electronic safety aids like stability and traction control, the Polo is stamped with a five-star ANCAP safety rating, while the C3 is rated four – largely due to the lack of AEB on Australian versions, even as an option.
We'd argue the Polo is better value overall thanks to the standard safety tech and larger infotainment screen, though the Citroen has a decent equipment list for those who don't really care about AEB or driver-assistance features.
Winner: Volkswagen Polo
Interior Comfort and Practicality
As the market moves towards SUVs because of their superior perceived practicality, many carmakers have started making their smaller models far more practical than their predecessors – the Polo is a perfect example.
Thanks to the now-ubiquitous MQB platform that underpins it, the Polo is longer and wider than ever, while also not being much heavier. This results in a 'light' hatchback that is around the same size as a Mk4 Golf, while also offering a larger boot than the Mk6 Golf.
At 351 litres, the Polo's luggage area is right up there with the best in the class, and a good 50L up on its French competitor (300L). It also expands to a massive 1125L with the second row folded, trumping the C3's 922L claim.
Above and in all sets: Citroen C3 top, Volkswagen Polo bottom
The Volkswagen also features an adjustable floor panel that can be moved to maximise overall capacity, or minimise the load lip and allow for a flat area when the second row is folded.
Meanwhile, the Citroen makes do with a fixed floor, leading to a noticeable hump between the boot and the seat backs with the rear bench folded – we know which car we'd take to Ikea.
Heading forward in the cabin, the Polo offers far superior head room to the C3, not helped by our tester's optional panoramic roof, while leg room is also better than its French counterpart. This reviewer is a little over six-foot-one, and can fit behind his own driver position comfortably – meaning full-size adults can sit in the back.
In the Citroen, meanwhile, the intrusive panoramic roof means the reviewer's head was firmly wedged against the ceiling, which is by no means a comfortable position.
However, the C3 does beat the Polo in front-row comfort, thanks to its soft and supportive pews that almost feel like couches or armchairs. The Volkswagen's more basic seats are by no means uncomfortable, but the Citroen's offer more support and feel like they're gently 'hugging' you.
In terms of ambience, the verdict really depends on whether you prefer overall design or finish.
The Polo exclusively features a soft-touch dashboard, though the yielding surface is harshly juxtaposed by the hard and cheap-feeling plastic on the doors. It also uniquely gets a leather-trimmed handbrake lever, and a nicer textile headliner.
Without the coloured dash insert offered abroad, the Polo's dash, however, is rather boring, and the metallic grey insert doesn't look or feel that nice either – taking away from that otherwise premium feel.
Meanwhile, the Citroen has a lovely French flair to the interior design, opting to go for quirky 'squircle' theme and retro-meets-modern design touches throughout.
While there's no soft-touch dash or door trims, the plastics feel hard-wearing and cohesive throughout, while the nice chrome accents in the air vents and on the steering wheel feel nice and offer a good contrast to the darker colours in the cabin.
The fabric used on the C3's seats is also more visually exciting and feels great, and the pull straps in the doors are a cool touch as well.
Regardless of whether you prefer style over substance, or vice versa, the Polo cannot be beaten in the practicality stakes, and therefore wins this round.
Winner: Volkswagen Polo
Infotainment and Technology
Both vehicles offer large touchscreens as standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, though the Polo gets a leg up thanks to its larger 8.0-inch display compared to the C3's 7.0-incher.
The Citroen's screen is also home to other functions like the climate-control air conditioning – which the Volkswagen lacks – as a result of the PSA Group's minimal approach to physical buttons. While it looks clean and swish, actually using it can get a little fiddly if you want to change temperature or turn on recycled air on the move.
The menus are attractive and the system is relatively responsive to inputs, though we noticed if you have your iPhone plugged in before the vehicle is turned on, Apple CarPlay won't show up on the screen, rather using your phone as an iPod. A couple of instances saw the Citroen's display freeze or glitch randomly, which is just plain annoying.
Volkswagen, meanwhile, has fitted the entire Polo range with its excellent 8.0-inch media display, which features on various models in the company's line-up.
While the Polo's unit lacks inbuilt navigation, even as an option, the display maintains the attractive menus and smartphone-like response to inputs, while also starting up smartphone mirroring software the first time, every time.
It's also mounted higher in the dash, aligned with the driver's instruments so it's more in your line of sight – compared to the Citroen's lower mount level, which requires you to take your eyes further off the road should you need to use the screen.
The Volkswagen's screen also features two physical knobs for volume and tuning on each side, whereas the Citroen only has one volume knob mounted below the display.
Winner: Volkswagen Polo
On paper, not much separates these two. Both have turbocharged three-cylinder engines with similar outputs, though one has a torque-converter automatic, while the other features the dual-clutch variety.
Let's start with the C3. Power in the little Frenchie comes from a 1.2-litre 'PureTech' three-pot turbo making 81kW of power at 5500rpm and 205Nm of torque at 1500rpm. Drive is sent to the front wheels via a conventional six-speed auto, which offers a manual mode if you feel like changing ratios yourself.
Meanwhile, the Volkswagen is fitted with a 1.0-litre turbo triple putting out slightly more power but slightly less torque than the Citroen, with outputs rated at 85kW (@5500rpm) and 200Nm (@2000–3500rpm). Like the C3, the Polo is front-wheel drive, though power is channelled through a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic. The Volkswagen's transmission offers a sport mode and a manual mode, too.
While this pair have similar technical specifications, Citroen and Volkswagen have taken very different approaches to how their little hatchbacks drive.
In typical Volkswagen fashion, the Polo drives with a level of maturity and class normally associated with more expensive vehicles – but that doesn't mean it's perfect.
Just about everything to do with the chassis and suspension feels taut, and while that makes it drive a little more on the sportier side, the little Volkswagen can feel somewhat jittery over a series of imperfections and doesn't absorb sharper hits quite as well as you may expect.
The powertrain is punchy and refined on the move, but that's after you've adjusted to the hesitation the gearbox and engine exhibit at lower speeds.
From a standing start, the transmission takes what at times feels like an eternity to engage after the idle stop/start system has fired the engine up again. And when rolling through slip lanes and roundabouts, the DSG can be caught out in too high a gear and needs a moment or two to shift down a couple of cogs.
It's more or less an issue with the transmission's calibration, which hunts for the highest gear as early as possible in the name of efficiency – though it's to the detriment of low-speed driveability. Once moving, though, the DSG's shifts are snappy and almost imperceptible.
We really need to kick the Polo, however, because urban environments and slow-moving traffic are where this vehicle will spend most of its time, and it can be quite frustrating. Eventually, however, you'll adjust to the quirks and find ways of anticipating traffic flow and driving conditions to compensate.
Otherwise, you can opt for the six-speed manual for $2500 less that addresses those complaints and is far more engaging.
The Citroen, meanwhile, feels like it has been tuned to drive and ride like a big luxury sedan. In addition to the couch-like front seats, the suspension is super supple – a stark contrast to that of the Polo. Speed humps, potholes and uneven surfaces are handled with a finesse normally associated with SUVs and luxury cars. It's genuinely plush.
The C3's three-cylinder turbo feels just as enthusiastic as the Polo's, and while it's a little louder in the cabin, it's a characterful hearty and thrummy note that fits well with the Citroen's cheeky and youthful design.
Compared to the Polo's dual-clutch self-shifter, the Citroen's Aisin-sourced six-speed torque-converter auto doesn't exhibit the same low-speed gripes as the Volkswagen, though there are still niggles that plague the Citroen's driveline.
Under harder acceleration, the transitions between first and second, along with second to third, can be a little lurchy, giving a similar feeling to robotised manual transmissions. Additionally, the Citroen's idle stop/start system has its own quibbles that at times make it even less pleasant than the Volkswagen's.
Firstly, for some reason you have to completely release the brake pedal for the engine to turn back on. While that doesn't seem like that big a deal, it can become an issue when combined with the next complaint.
It appears the hill-start assist system doesn't properly engage while the stop/start function is in operation, meaning that the C3 can violently roll forward or backwards on hills if you haven't fully released the brake pedal. Not only can this be annoying and sometimes scary in traffic, parking the Citroen on a steep driveway reveals similar issues.
In saying that, considering the urban focus of both vehicles, the C3 just edges the Polo in terms of everyday driveability.
Fuel economy from both vehicles was pretty good, with the Citroen showing an indicated 5.9L/100km on our 29.7km mixed test loop, while the Polo managed an impressive 5.2L/100km.
Both vehicles officially claim a combined figure of 4.9L/100km and require minimum 95RON unleaded. The Citroen's fuel tank, however, is slightly larger than the Volkswagen's (45L v 40L).
Winner: Citroen C3
Despite both vehicles coming from European manufacturers, owning one isn't going to break the bank.
The Polo is covered by Volkswagen's three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with complementary 24-hour roadside assistance for the duration of the warranty period.
Meanwhile, the C3 gets a superior five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with five years of roadside assistance, which was introduced in February and retrospectively applied to all 2018 model-year vehicles purchased before then.
As for maintenance costs, both vehicles require servicing every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first.
The Citroen's first five visits ask for $375, $484, $639, $489 and $380, equating to $2367 for the first 60 months or 75,000km of ownership.
Volkswagen, meanwhile, charges $307, $549, $357, $834 and $357 respectively for the first five visits, totalling a slightly dearer $2404 over the same period.
Given the longer warranty period and slightly cheaper servicing costs, the Citroen pips the Volkswagen in the ownership stakes.
Winner: Citroen C3
It's hard to rule a clear winner on this one, because the C3 and Polo will appeal to really different buyers.
Should practicality, technology and overall refinement be your priorities, the Volkswagen outclasses its French counterpart in the company's typical understated way, though its low-speed niggles and firm ride could be enough to turn you off.
On the other hand, the C3 shines (pun intended) in the areas of comfort, warranty and style. However, the lack of any active safety features, premium price tag and inferior practicality are a bit of a letdown. Additionally, the bold styling won't appeal to all.
While the Polo wins this test, we'd recommend taking both for a drive if you're in the market for a premium light car, especially given that Citroen is currently advertising the C3 for $23,990 drive-away.