Lots of fun in tiny super-minis
Idiosyncratic super-minis offer scope for plenty of fun
Fun-to-drive hot-hatch or fashion-forward drop-top? There's no need to decide if you're talking about the Abarth 500C EsseEsse or Citroen DS3 cabriolet, because both are sporting superminis with the extra dimension of on-demand wind-in-the-hair motoring.
Idiosyncratic as each of these cars are, they are also remarkably close in terms of irreverent character, turbo-performance and price.
They also both represent efforts to create breakaway halo brands: small cars that are perceived as being a bit special.
The Abarth 500C Esseesse is priced from $46,990.
Fiat wants to re-establish Abarth as a separate make, just as it was in its 1960s heyday; hence, there are no Fiat badges on the $46,990 500C EsseEsse and the company insists it be referred to as an Abarth.
Citroen is more relaxed about its DS badge, but the DS cars are marketed as a separate range to mainstream Citroens. So while the $42,990 DS3 cabriolet still wears the classic chevron logo on its grille, it's dominated by the stylised DS badge.
Let's start with the open-top aspect of these quirky cars. Both have similar roof systems: a development of the classic roll-back fabric top which can be open in any one of three positions. In both you can position the top as a sunroof, further back to the C-pillar or fold the entire assembly away (including the glass rear window) to the beltline. All electrically powered of course.
The Citroen DS3 cabriolet is $42,990 and has a 115kW/240Nm 1.6-litre turbo engine.
You can operate the roof on the move or put the windows up and have plenty of cold-weather proofing while maintaining an open roof.
Usually, when ordinary hatchbacks are turned into cabriolets, the roof comes off and there's an immediate loss in structural rigidity. In other words, you get wind in the hair but you also get wobbles through the steering wheel and less accurate handling as the chassis flexes under load.
Not so with these two, which have kept their roof arches/pillars and thus most of their strength.
Just as well for the Abarth, which has a busy chassis. It's partly the hard suspension and partly the short wheelbase, but the little Italian is fidgety, super-stiff and designed to be driven hard and fast around corners.
Abarth 500C Esseesse Interior
Not that the 500C EsseEsse is super fast. Energetic, though, with 118kW/230Nm from its 1.4-litre turbo engine and 0-100km/h in 7.6 seconds. But the powerplant does its best work at the top of the rev range and our car is fitted with the two-pedal Dualogic gearbox, a robotised single-clutch system that can be grumpy at low speed.
Dualogic is a weird gearbox to get used to: there's no selector, just four pushbuttons that allow drivers to choose between first gear, manual/automatic modes, neutral and reverse. In manual you do your shifting via steering column-mounted paddles, but even in auto it's advisable to feather the throttle during cog-changes.
In short, the Abarth is a lot of fun but also a lot of work.
Citroen DS3 cabriolet interior
The Citroen is less engaging but also less exhausting. It's also just as fast as the manic Abarth. The DS3 is larger/heavier (by 150kg) and its 115kW/240Nm 1.6-litre turbo engine makes slightly less power. But the DS3 has more torque and with a conventional manual gearbox it's slightly quicker to 100km/h: 7.3 seconds.
The DS3 doesn't have the manic point-and-shoot chassis of the 500C EsseEsse, but it's still entertaining, though much more mild-mannered, with great composure and a comfortable ride.
Both cars look as special inside as they do on the outside. The Abarth's cabin is as over-the-top as you'd expect, with retro styling details such as a dashboard that's colour-keyed to the exterior.
The DS3 has a thoroughly contemporary cabin, with soft-touch materials and quite a bit of bling.
The Abarth 500C Esseesse (left) takes on the Citroen C4 cabriolet.
It's a matter of personal taste between the two in terms of design, although the Citroen has superior seat comfort and it's a lot larger inside than the Abarth, riding on a wheelbase that's 164mm longer.
You'd have to say the DS3 has a sportier - read lower - driving position as well, although the sit-up-and-beg stance inside the 500C is all part of the retro appeal.
There must always be some opportunity cost with a cabriolet in terms of practicality.
The roof mechanism necessitates the removal of the third door in both cars, which leaves you with a tiny box of a luggage compartment in the back.
The bottom line
Everything about the Abarth 500C EsseEsse is irresistible to the enthusiast. But while it delights, it can also be draining over long periods. If it's going to be a second car, this is the one. But for an everyday driver, the Citroen DS3 cabriolet is the winner.