Citroën DS3 hatchback

£13,295 - £20,995

DS is to Citroen as Lexus is to Toyota: a standalone but related brand. The French carmaker wants buyers to regard it as the stylish alternative to the Fords and Vauxhalls of this world – a brand whose models are distinctive and well equipped and which can be personalised to a certain degree.

The 3 is the smallest model in the DS line-up and is available in three-door hatchback and two-door cabriolet forms. The hatch is intended to compete with other stylish small cars such as the Mini, Fiat 500 and Alfa Romeo MiTo.

It's available with a choice of economical petrol and diesel engines. The most impressive in this respect is the 1.6-litre BlueHDi 120 diesel. The more powerful of the two diesels, it manages to return 78.5mpg and costs nothing to tax. However, the petrol models are easy on fuel, too, with the smallest of the four (the 1.2-litre PureTech 82) capable of 62.8mpg and costing £20 a year to tax.

There's only one automatic – a petrol – while the manual diesel and petrol versions have a choice of five or six-speed gearboxes. Our favourite is the six-speed manual with the most powerful petrol or diesel model. It's worth spending the extra just to have it, especially in diesel form.

The DS 3 is no mere styling exercise. It's actually good to drive, with decent body control in corners, quick and precise steering, lots of grip and slightly firm, although not overly uncomfortable, suspension. Inside, it's not quite as cramped as its three doors suggest.

There's reasonable space in the front, but in the back it's a bit of a squeeze, although no more so than in a MINI five-door. Getting in there is made easier by long front doors, conveniently placed grab handles and front seats that tip and slide out of the way.

There are five trim levels, ranging from basic DSign to top-spec Ultra Prestige. The DSign version is well equipped, with features including a leather-covered steering wheel, electric mirrors and windows, cruise control, chrome body detailing and a height-adjustable driver's seat.

But be warned: not only does standard equipment vary between trim levels, the available engines do, too. The second trim level up, called DStyle, offers easily the broadest mix. In fact it's our favourite trim, because it has 17-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, satellite navigation and dark-tinted windows and can also be specified with the most powerful diesel engine, the 1.6-litre BlueHDi 120.

The DS is a safe car, with a five-star crash-test rating from Euro NCAP to prove it and safety features such as anti-lock brakes, emergency braking assistance and electronic stability control as standard. However, city braking assistance is only available on the DSport and Ultra Prestige versions.