Among baby cars there’s a three-way going on right now, and I don’t mean in a good way.

The shootout is for class honours, and it’s between the Ford Fiesta, Honda Jazz and Mazda2. All offer something special -“ be it fun, space or a combination of the two -“ to sort the fair-dinkies from the twinkies.

Since last September Mitsubishi stepped up to the challenge with its born-again Colt, a five-door hatchback that replaced the successful Mirage. So should the others stand firm with their pistols in hand?

Well, Mitsubishi’s $18,990 ask for the LS -“ and $2K more for the better-equipped XLS -“ does seem a folly against the $14,490, $15,390 and $15,990 openers asked by the Fab Three. But if you add to these what’s standard in the Colt (like automatic, anti-lock brakes, air-con, five-doors and a larger engine) then the Jazz is $21,690, the Fiesta $20,990 and the Mazda2 $19,730.

Plus there’s more! Scandalously, the Colt is the kinky lovechild between Mitsubishi and Mercedes, and shares plenty of DNA with the all-new A-class MkII due soon. I bet the Merc will cost almost double too.

And can’t you see the A-class influence in the shape and profile! Still, Mitsubishi has worked in distinctive and clever detailing, particularly around the nose, to really make the Colt a head-turner.

Meanwhile even Tina Turner’s hair can fit inside easily because it’s so tall and spacious, aiding around-town commuting. The dashboard boasts smart metallic accents, functional ventilation and audio controls, and distinctive blue instrumentation.

There’s fine seating all-round, with the front buckets offering excellent comfort and support. The auto’s column shifter is a cinch to use, the passenger’s seat flips open to reveal a handy box for hiding stuff like CDs, and there’s a nifty take-away curry hook.

But no rear parcel shelf to hide stuff beneath is unusual, and having no proper lap-sash seatbelt for the rear-middle passenger sucks. The Jan Bradys of the world need protection too, Mitsubishi!

That elevated rear bench splits, reclines a few degrees and slides to increase luggage space behind from 225 to 317 litres. But while it also double-folds forward for pyjama party capacity, the operation is heavy and fiddly and forces taller front seat occupants too far forward for comfort. The Jazz’s system is much smarter.

And while I’m whingeing, a bin, armrest or -“ better still -“ regular handbrake instead of that 60s-throwback foot-operated parking brake would be way better.

The steering is great for city parking but it’s too light and lacks the Fiesta’s feel. And while the handling is safe and responsive, quick corners are met with too much weight and lean. It’s no worse than the Honda though.

But the engine and gearbox is a great combination. The latter is a CVT transmission with continuous ratios rather than stepped ones, so it will whoosh forward with seamless ease. There’s a Ds slot directly below Drive that holds a gear for when some extra oomph is needed, along with a D-Low indentation for extra engine braking down steep descents.

Kept in Drive, the Colt can feel a tad languid off the starting line but will then swiftly streak forward with vigour once the revs have risen and all 72kW of power have kicked in. The 1.5 engine features trick variable valve technology called MIVEC, so it will happily spin up to 6,000rpm while providing a decent 132Nm of punchy torque across a wide rev range. Two areas where the 1.5/CVT combo really shines are: on the highway, where the tall gearing means that the motor is hardly working hard; and in fuel economy -“ averaging less than 9.0l/100km is easy.

Backing all this up is a solid big-car hush inside, and ABS brakes that bite with confidence. It also takes rutted urban roads in its stride although bigger bumps can upset the car’s demeanour slightly.

So does the Colt make it a Fab Four? With its designer looks, accommodating cabin and impressive economy, it is clearly better than the average baby like Toyota’s Echo or the Hyundai Getz. But it isn’t as clever inside as the Tardis-like Jazz, while the Mazda, or even the Fiesta, is a more entertaining drive.

So while this little Mitsubishi isn’t the best, it’s still a standout package that runs near the head of the pack anyway.

PRICE From $18,990 + on-roads

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