Citroen DS3 vs Alfa Mito vs Mini Cooper S

THE HOT CHOCOLATE gulped down at the Engen 1-Stop is now just a distant memory as the bitter cold creeps into the cabin of the Mini Cooper S. Ahead of me loom the N1 tollgate’s booms, and beyond that the Huguenot Tunnel. I’m playing chase with the Mini’s fiercest foes yet: Alfa’s Mito Quadrifoglio and Citroën’s new DS3 THP, each scything their way through traffic. None in this trio is a middling hatch; each oozes an indisputable Euro cool, each qualifies to be the premium darling in the junior academy. But we’re going to get even cooler to find a victor.

‘Looks like it’s going to rain,’ mouths snapper Peet from the seat next to me. I more or less make out what he’s saying despite the fact that we’re being rudely buffeted by icy winter wind thanks to an open sunroof. He’ll be standing up through that just now. Grey and drizzly, the weather is quickly dampening our mood. Then total darkness, quickly followed by yellow light as the cars are bathed in the overhead lamps of the 3.9km-long tunnel. None of us are above man’s natural instinct to hoof it in these acoustically enhanced surroundings. ‘Whoop! Tss! Baark!’ Aah! It’s music to our ears as three turboed four-pots conduct a crackling, hissing mechanical symphony in the Huguenot’s chambers. Even with a 90kph speed limit, the road offers up some entertaining jinks as we traverse its 22-year-old surface bumper to bumper. Fun, sure, but nothing prepares us for the scene as we explode into the light once more. SNOW! Light, fluffy and everywhere. White dusted mountain ranges flanking the highway, surreal to our summer mindsets, are a signal to bring our tiny convoy to a halt.


Stopping firmly comes naturally to these performers, but it’s not an easy thing to do when they offer up such thrills on the move. It’s a chance though to take in the visual treats these sporting European fashion accessories have to offer. They’re all cast in a deliciously different mould: the Mini a throwback pastiche of the 1950s icon, the Mito a slippery Italian blend of muscle and stance, the DS3 a futuristic concoction that does an un-retro about face, yet still parallels the Mini’s formula. They even share an engine.

The DS3 is resplendent in yellow, with a blackened zebra-themed roof, attention-grabbing white 17inch alloy hoops, and bold chrome blade along its flanks. It fights hard for attention, with the shark-fin C-pillar treatment stealing the show and leaving no doubt that Citroën has regained its design mojo. Our test unit is perhaps not specced in the best colour combination from the extensive Citroën palette, but the result is striking and immediately ages the ‘familiar’ Mini.

The Alfa too gives the Mini a drubbing in terms of fresh aesthetics. Despite the cutesy surprised expression on its face, it’s the more macho car here, due in large part to those severely pumped arches housing anthracite alloy wheels. The anthracite treatment extends to the rear-view mirrors and head and tail lamp surrounds, giving this Quadrifoglio Verde spec (Cloverleaf badge on front wing) an all-round tougher look. Price to pay is that the aggressively sculpted front apron is prone to scraping, when it isn’t viciously colliding with speed bumps. Suffer for beauty? My favourite angle has to be three quarters from the rear – Ggrrr! If that doesn’t stir you into action then you’re clearly staring at the wrong car. The Alfa is the white one with the very yummy booty.

Alas, shock and horror notwithstanding, the tried and tested Mini, while the oldest (re)design here, relies the least on gimmicks to turn heads. Yet it still manages to do that convincingly, proving that newer isn’t always better. Still, I’ll take the Alfa’s curves over the sharky Frenchie and the Germanic slab any day. The Mini, despite its bloating over the years, is by far the most compact car here, and you’ll notice that when you clamber aboard.


Circles. I’m bombarded by them! Climb into a Cooper and the damned things are everywhere from the protruding speedometer which occupies centre stage on the dashboard, to the air-vents, dials, buttons, knobs, speaker pods. Even, dammit, the door handles, the button which pops the glove box open, and that tiny digital display on the centre stack which offers up an ellipsoid festival. Predictably, this is not the kind of cockpit that dares introduce a flat-bottomed steering wheel, but the full, chunky rim fills your palms perfectly. Fit and finish is excellent and the choice of materials sumptuous, especially in leather trim. In the striving for premium however, one feels that tip of the hat to the original model has become a full-blown head butt.

That’s not a crit to level at the French firm, because in the yellow car – and despite working within the C3’s constraints – Citroën has created a very cool bespoke cabin. A sweeping wave of piano black plastic forms the dash. It can be colour matched with the bodywork, but dear reader we’d strongly suggest restraint. You’ll be glad come trade-in time. A meaty leather-ensconced steering wheel completes the premium tactile experience.

The Mito doesn’t offer up the leather seats that distinguish the other cars (an option on the Mini) but the faux carbon fibre dash (squishy to the touch) remains a favourite amongst testers. Dark grey plastic on the hangdown area is a bit uninspired and climate controls lower down than I would prefer, but ergonomically the Alfa is more or less on par with its peers with a similar feel to the helm. Pity to spoil it with that mildly revolting gear lever.

Getting comfortable in each car is a relatively simple process with the Citroën’s buckets being the most cosseting, the Mini a bit too flat, and the Mito not lowering enough to properly drop you into its belly. Multimedia options and cellphone connectivity are excellent across all cars, and are easily on par. At this price point and level of quality the differences between each car come down to the language the cockpit speaks. In the Alfa it’s very much ‘Race’. In the Citroën it’s ‘Style’. The Mini? It continues to screams ‘Old-school cool!’ But as venues for some quick driving it’s ‘Even-Stevens’. And so we get on with it, heading deeper into the snowscape and a lairy little jaunt through Ceres and on to the Gydo Pass, where our front-drivers tussle for their own King of the Mountain honours. But first, some background.


On paper it looks like a dead heat. Alfa’s 1.4-litre turbo motor is the smallest here, but thanks to some clever engineering and aggressive mapping its 124kW is a near match for the 128kW from the Mini’s turboed 1.6-litre mill. That convincingly trumps the 115kW the DS3 has to play with, from a slightly de-tuned version of the 1.6-litre unit shared with Mini. Both PSA-sourced engines churn out 240Nm, ten newtons less than the feisty little Italian car achieves. Kerb weights are almost matched, with the Mini at 1130kg, Alfa at 1145kg and the Citroën marginally pudgier at 1165kg. No rocket science, given the power to weight ratios, that the claimed 0-100kph figures are 7.3 seconds for the Citroën, 7.5 seconds for the Alfa and 7.1 seconds for the Mini. Our separate track test on the Cooper, in hardly ideal rain-soaked conditions, however, offered up slower figures – so not a fair yardstick. All three enjoy six-speed manual transmissions, with some suspension differences. The DS3 and Alfa ride on MacPherson struts up front with torsion beam rears, while the Mini seeks to emulate the go-kart handling enjoyed by the original (with its rubber cone Moulton suspension) using a modern multi-link trailing arm set-up. And while the DS3 arrives at the party pre-wired with a mood enhancer, the Mini and Mito leave that selection to the driver. In the Mini, sport mode is activated by a button ahead of the gear lever, which sharpens engine and steering response, and firms the dampers. Alfa’s DNA toggle nudges forward from N (Normal) to D (Dynamic) for a similar effect. With that all done, how do they dance?


The pass looms large. This is it. Twist the key, bury the clutch, shift into first and rev the Citroën to around 3000rpm, letting that bassy exhaust note fill the cabin. Drop the clutch, feel the front wheels bite down and nail the throttle – you’re away! It’s a good sound this. Jumping off the gas drops the pitch and out hisses a faint reminder that the DS3 has a turbo spooling under the hood. Because of its relatively softly sprung suspension, the ride is smooth over bumps, and handling pretty predictable. Chuck it into the corners and the steering firms up convincingly, allowing you to place the wheels moderately close to where you’d like them. It’s no scalpel but it’s good, until you start rowing through the gears on more demanding roads. The gearbox is vague. The lever is loose. And from 4th, selecting 1st gear instead of 3rd is scarily achievable.

Climb aboard the Mito and once you’ve settled into the Alfisti driving position (arms bent, legs straight) and have looked past the garish gear knob, you find yourself itching for some esses. With D for Dynamic engaged (it should be your default action) you perform the same launch procedure to begin an assault on the horizon. The sound is richer in here, the exhaust howls, induction barks resonate when you jump off the loud pedal and the wastegate makes itself heard. It feels quicker than the Citroën, more than the 9kW promises, and definitively more engaging. The Mito’s suspension does a less convincing job of smoothing over the bumps though offers up less roll than the DS3. Still, it feels softer than you’d expect in the bends, but after the third corner you learn to safely gauge the travel, giving confidence to push harder. Now the Alfa comes alive. Approach the corner, climb on the brakes, feel the nose pitch fractionally, aim the front wheels at the apex and when the corner opens up, boot it. The front is easy to place and the gearbox is much improved over the unit that did duty in our 2009 long-termer. The long clutch pedal travel takes getting used to but already the Alfa is making good on its reputation as a driver’s car.

You wouldn’t think hot hatch handling could get much better than Mito, but then you climb into the Mini. A part of me wanted the Mini to get its arse kicked by the new metal but as soon as I turn-in to the first corner I realise it’s not going to happen. That go-kart analogy is not wasted here. Stroke the accelerator from idle and immediately an offbeat soundtrack bursts from those centre mounted tailpipes. It’s crackly, a bit bonkers, and loud as hell. The cabin resonates with more induction noise, turbo whistles and pops than a giant bag of Rice Krispies. Barrel into a corner, dive on the brakes and you find it takes a lot to unsettle this flat-as-a-pancake chassis. The steering response, despite electrical assistance, feels entirely mechanical, throttle response razor-like, with quick left-right darting motions felt directly in your forearms. The Mini is the chase car, then the overtaker, and finally the mightiest on the mountain. It casts the smallest shadow here, but dynamically it delivers up the biggest Cheshire cat grin of them all. Icy pass done on the up route and then retraced to make sure, we set our compass for a fast cruise to Tulbagh where lunch and respite from the icy winds beckons. It’s a good time to weigh the pros and cons of our fashionable charges.


The Mini Cooper S is superb, it’s the daddy. It’s also the priciest at R280 000. Our test unit has been specced up with another R45 000 in extras, which makes the even hotter John Cooper Works derivative look affordable. The Alfa and Citroën are both fantastic alternatives, with the DS3 upping the ante on style and practicality. It’s easy to live with and boasts the most cabin space here and that means you won’t be crushing the limbs of rear occupants. For a Citroën to mount such a convincing attack on Mini however speaks volumes about the quality of the French offering. Thing is, will the company’s after-sales service let them down as it has in the past? With a newly committed dealer network, I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt. While Italian styling means the Alfa is very pleasant on the eye, it’s under-the-skin changes make the difference here. With the award-winning new Multiair engine Alfa has extracted striking performance from its modest 1.4-litre lump. For a compact car the Mito feels very resolved. We loved our long-term unit and in Cloverleaf spec Alfa’s ironed out the issues, most notably the woolly gearbox. Older than DS3, newer than Mini – it’s the Goldilocks choice. The Alfa Mito is the one I’d park on my driveway. At R264 000 – R9 000 more than the French car, R16 000 less then the German Brit – it’s competitively priced and offers oodles of kit as standard to complement very capable dynamics. Throw in the kind of smouldering looks capable of melting the snow from these mountain peaks and the Mito’s case is solid.


Welcome to my corner of the automotive world! I'm Mandy Lawson, better known as mandla85, and I'm absolutely obsessed with everything related to cars and motorsports. You bet I'm interested if it has four wheels (or sometimes two!) and an engine. For me, cars aren't just a means of transportation; they're a passion, a lifestyle, and an endless source of fascination. I love diving into the world of automotive engineering and design, exploring the latest trends, and uncovering the stories behind the machines. Email / Facebook