Why the comparison?
Citroen is making much of its DS3 being bang up to date and bucking the retro trend of the MINI, Fiat 500 and Volkswagen Beetle. The Alfa Romeo MiTo eschews retro looks too, in favour of simple Italian chic, and the pair of them are vying for the same sort of buyer who likes the idea of a hot hatch but with a bit more panache. They are also likely to appeal to buyers who want a break from the ubiquitous MINI.
How are they similar?
Small turbocharged engines are big news in small cars as they offer all of the economy we expect but with some real added punch. The Citroen DS3 1.6 THP Sport comes with a turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol engine that makes 150bhp, while the Alfa MiTo in our chosen Cloverleaf specification boasts 170bhp from its motor. This makes these chi-chi superminis decently swift, with the slightly less powerful Citroen dashing off 0-62mph in 7.3 seconds to the Alfa's 7.5 seconds - neither is a slouch. Top speed for the MiTo is 136mph to the DS3's 133mph, so there's not much to separate them.
Regardless of their pace, both cars provide wallet-soothing economy, with the French machine turning in 42.2mpg on the combined cycle and the Italian responding with 47.1mpg. The Alfa is also a little cleaner when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions of 139g/km where the Citroen emits 155g/km, but both are still relatively cheap for road and company car tax purposes.
From the outside, each car stands out in a crowd in its own way. Inside, the DS3 and MiTo tie for driver comfort and space, with both cars offering reach and rake adjustment for the steering and height adjustment for the driver's seat. The MiTo features classic Alfa cues for its dashboard such as the hooded cowls over the main instruments, while the Citroen hides its C3-derived instruments with some glossy trim. The two dashes match these cars' premium aspirations and quality appears strong in both. However, rear seat space is restricted (they are only available as three-door models), but it's the Alfa Romeo that provides that vital few extra inches for head- and legroom.
How do they differ?
For two cars chasing the same type of buyer, the MiTo and DS3 take remarkably different approaches. The Citroen is more of an out-and-out hot hatch - in this guise anyway - needing to be revved hard to give its best, and getting better the harder its driver presses. Its pace is impressive and the DS3 feels even feistier than its bare figures suggest, while the handling is planted, secure and entertaining. The steering could do with a little more sensitivity, but the ride is supple. The DS3 also makes a good fist of town driving and is easy to park.
The Alfa MiTo, on the other hand, feels like a more traditional hot hatch offering with a firm ride that doesn't give as much low-speed comfort as the Citroen's. At higher speeds, the MiTo's suspension is lenient on the occupants' spines, but there is more road noise in the MiTo than in the Citroen. On twisting roads, the MiTo can keep up with the DS3 easily, but this is down to the Alfa's impressive mid-range oomph where the Citroen's engine needs to be worked hard. It's best to let the Alfa's engine strut its stuff through the revs as it's flexible and has a more appealing sporty rasp than the French machine's.
Using the MiTo's 'DNA' system - which offers the driver a choice of Dynamic, Normal and All-weather settings for the steering and accelerator responses - lets the driver tailor the car to the conditions and their mood. The Dynamic mode is great for the occasional quiet stretch of interesting road and Normal is ideal around town. However, the Alfa doesn't quite have the mid-corner composure of the DS3 on bumpier roads, where the MiTo is more easily deflected from its intended course with some squirm noticeable through the steering wheel. The Italian can also fight its front wheels for grip in tighter corners when driven enthusiastically where the French hatch feels more firmly connected to the road.
So which one would we have?
With similar - and impressive - levels of standard equipment and comparable performance and economy, it could be a tricky job to separate this pair. However, a quick look at the price lists suggests the Citroen is the easy winner thanks to a price tag of £15,900 where the Alfa comes in at £17,895. That's quite a difference. The Alfa's more grown-up feel and predicted better used values help bridge this gap, but it's the MiTo's better mid-rev punch that equals the score. However, the Citroen just edges the win here as it's marginally the more comfortable around town and a smidgeon quicker off the line. But it's that price difference that ultimately swings our vote towards France.