Entry-level hatchbacks used to be cheap and not very good.
These days, they are still comparatively cheap but are now pretty good (apart from the nasty Chery QQ, of course).
And the best makers of penny-pinching superminis, whose brilliance belies their sizes, continue to be the Japanese.
The current best of the breed in our part of the “whirl” is the Mitsubishi i, which broke new ground not only for the esoteric kei-class segment but also for all small cars in general.
Now over three years old, the bonsai of motoring joy has just been re-launched with fresh colours and a tweak or two.
The i remains a benchmark in its class for engineering, packaging, quality and desirability.
Referenced here against the mighty little Mitsubishi is the facelifted 107.
This baby of the burgeoning Peugeot family is the i’s closest competitor in terms of pricing, positioning and smiles per hour.
The facelift’s most prominent feature is the chrome bar on the enlarged front air dam that also displaces the original licence plate mount, which has been repositioned to the bumper’s lower edge.
The newly added brightwork is more a distraction than an attraction, but the rest of the car’s cheeky styling is, thankfully, untouched.
Although it’s a basic runabout in Europe, the pocket-size Peugeot has just enough “high” specifications in Singapore to hide its Euro budget roots.
Both the 107 and i are uncannily similar in some ways – three cylinders, four valves per cylinder, a single “big sweep” wiper, radio antenna above the windscreen, clever alloy-look plastic wheel covers, and incredible interior space for their sizes.
But that’s where the similarities end, with the Mitsubishi aspiring to luxury and the Peugeot taking the sporty route.
The 107-style sportiness is not about sheer speed or outright grip; it’s about chassis balance and engine enthusiasm, with a dash of bravado for good measure.
Despite skinny 155/65 R14 tyres emphasising economy over excitement, the light-footed 107 cuts through corners quickly and handles its move from apex to exit in one smooth groove.
There’s no understeer to speak of; the car just gets underway, helped along by a low kerb weight of just over 800kg (a useful 100kg lighter than the i).
Power from the 1-litre 3-cylinder is joyful rather than forceful.
And if you play along by using the transmission’s manual mode, you’ll have a good time on the road revving the thing like there’s no tomorrow.
You won’t be driving fast per se, but progress will be furious for sure.
The same goes for the i. What its 659cc engine lacks in capacity vis-a-vis the 107, it makes up with technology in the form of turbocharging, variable valve timing and an “expert” engine control unit.
The result is almost the same output and, more importantly, a certain verve that translates into hearty performance.
It’s less accelerative than the French number and also less engaging (you can’t play with the gearbox in the same way you would the 107’s 2-Tronic), but the Japanese minicar revs eagerly and pushes (it’s rear-engined, rear drive) forward with vigour.
A nicely rorty soundtrack accompanies proceedings.
Less nice is the overall handling, which still feels detached despite noticeably improved steering feel on the go.
So the Mitsubishi loses to the Peugeot in driver’s entertainment, but in line with its luxury aspiration, the i scores higher in occupant comfort.
The ride is generally smoother in town and quieter on expressways, while the conventional automatic provides sweeter auto gear changes than the Pug’s semi-automatic.
Back seat space is superior in the i and comes complete with reclinable seat backs, but the 107 hits back with a bit more shoulder room and larger, more supportive head rests.
Boot space is deeper and more “packable” in the 107, which also has a token parcel shelf back there (none in the i), but the opening of the hatch is less ergonomic than the Mitsubishi.
Equipment-wise, the i again beats the 107, in some aspects making the Peugeot look decidedly austere.
The French austerity drive includes hand-adjusted side mirrors, “self service” pop-out rear windows, and just one gas strut to hold up the glass tailgate.
The air-con controls are stylishly designed but less slick than the i’s set-up, while the vents are less effective, especially when “pulling down” the temperature of the cabin after it’s been parked in the sun.
The audio system is an integral part of the dashboard like in the Mitsubishi, but the Japanese’s hi-fi has more speakers and thus stronger sound delivery.
Last but not least, the i offers “keyless” operation that is classier and more convenient than the 107’s “keyed” device.
The Peugeot claws back some points with its four airbags as standard (versus two in the Mitsubishi) and four-star Euro NCAP crash safety rating (the i is still untested).
The 107’s steering column is adjustable for height (its rival’s is fixed).
Practical people would also be glad to know that the Peugeot’s cabin is a better accommodator of odds and ends, thanks to numerous stowage points, which however exclude a proper glovebox, with an open tray taking its place.
As for perceived quality, the i has the edge over the 107.
Although both cars are properly put together and have smooth, shiny paintwork (Citrus Yellow on the Pug and Sunflower Yellow on the Mitsubishi), the i has tighter switchgear, more upmarket upholstery and plastics that are more pleasant in their textures and colours.
What the Japanese car doesn’t have are the Pug’s body-coloured door panels (cool) and exposed nuts around the handbrake (not cool).
At the end of the day, keen drivers would naturally pick the Peugeot 107, while everyone else would probably prefer the more clever, more comfortable and simply more complete Mitsubishi i.
2009 Mitsubishi i 0.6 (A)
ENGINE 659cc, 12-valves, inline-3, turbocharged
MAX POWER 64bhp at 6000rpm
MAX TORQUE 94Nm at 3000rpm
GEARBOX 4-speed automatic
0-100KM/H 15 seconds
TOP SPEED 135km/h
CONSUMPTION 19.2km/L (combined)
PRICE INCL. COE $56,988
+ Funky yet functional design, hugely impressive cabin packaging, urban agility and utter joviality
– Not very happy on the highway, limited boot and oddments space, daintiness prone to road bullying
2009 Peugeot 107 1.0 (A)
ENGINE 998cc, 12-valves, inline-3
MAX POWER 68bhp at 6000rpm
MAX TORQUE 93Nm at 3600rpm
GEARBOX 5-speed automated manual
0-100KM/H 13.7 seconds
TOP SPEED 157km/h
CONSUMPTION 19.2km/L (combined)
PRICE INCL. COE $61,900
+ Cheap French chic at its best, chirpy handling, ardent acceleration, how it turns “spartan” into “fashion”
– Costs 10 percent too much, no glovebox, no power mirrors, noisy ride and lousy air-con