When I was a student, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, most of my recently licence-equipped friends drove Minis.  Much as we’d like to think this buying choice was for patriotic reasons, the truth is that they were cheap to buy, cheap to run and – most importantly – cheap to insure.

As an added bonus, they handled like go-karts and could be customised to within an inch of their little lives.  Certainly no two in the college car park were the same.

These days, however, Mini is a prestige brand with a price tag and an insurance group to match.  So what’s a student to do?

Luckily, there is an answer, and it comes from a rather surprising corner of British motoring history.

Once the preserve of talented men in sheds with a penchant for tinkering, MG has embarked on a voyage of mojo rediscovery under the guardianship of its new Chinese owners, SAIC.

Tapping into its 90 years of heritage, the new MG3 was designed and engineered at the company’s Longbridge facility in Birmingham.

It’s a fresh-faced, handsome little tyke of a car, bristling with sports-car styling cues: the wide mesh grille, the edgy up-turned LED running lights, and the blacked-out A-pillars that create a wrap-around look to the windscreen.  These themes continue with a sharp shoulder line and kicked-up crease that flows towards the rear bumper where you’ll find a chunky diffuser with square tailpipe peeking out suggestively, topped off by a roof spoiler and bee-sting antenna.  It’s a very neat piece of design.

Customisation options abound, with a variety of roof and bonnet graphics said to be inspired by the British fashion industry, plus six alloy wheel designs, four exterior mirror colours and six interior trim options.

The interior is as appealing as the exterior.  The sportily-rimmed dials hang their needles at 6 o’clock, the Octagon-logo’d steering wheel has thick thumb-rests at the classic 10-to-2 position, while the stereo system has a subtle red ring that glows invitingly at you.

The ventilation controls deserve special mention for their funky operation – twist the temperature control and a series of horizontal lines change from blue to red.  Simple symbolism perhaps, but charming to use.

The cabin boasts more room than most of its rivals, and the seats offer a wide range of adjustment in most directions you can think of.  Only the steering wheel lets the side down, with adjustment for height, but not reach.

There’s plenty of kit in here, too, with all but the base model benefitting from DAB digital radio and Bluetooth integration, plus USB and Aux inputs under a special roller-topped cubby hole that can also accept a bespoke iPhone holder.  Sound quality is respectable, too.

All models are equipped with four electric windows, ABS, hill holder, electronic stability control, and other niceties, while all but the entry-level 3Time model feature remote locking and air conditioning.  3Form Sport models add alloy wheels and sport sills, while the range-topping 3Style brings cruise control, automatic headlights and wipers and rear parking sensors.

What’s surprising is that nothing we’ve described here costs more than £9,999.  In fact, forego metallic paint and alloy wheels and an MG3 can be yours for just £8,399.

That’s a price tag that normally adorns the window of something devoid of any semblance of driving finesse.

The MG3, however, is a car that seemingly elbowed its way to the front of the queue the day they handed out the chassis components.

Body control is taught, grip is tenacious, and feedback through the hydraulically-assisted steering is abundant.  The limit of adhesion arrives with friendly, gradual understeer, and the stability control only intervenes when absolutely necessary.  Even then, a button by the gear lever allows it to be disabled.

It’s engaging in a way that many a car twice the price can only dream of.

The 1.5-litre engine’s modest 105hp and 137Nm of torque mean you’ll need to push the somewhat slow-revving unit into the outer reaches of its rev range to make the most of the eager handling, but doing so doesn’t generate anything too coarse in terms of noise or vibrations.

The gear-lever, although a little loose, slots smoothly and cleanly into each of its five ratios, and while it’s easy enough to keep the little engine on the boil, there’s a sense that a small, quick-spooling turbo would do wonders for the driving experience.

That’s not to say it’s frustrating.  In fact, it’s almost endearing, and you’ll quickly find yourself willing the little MG through corners the way you might champion an underdog.

But then, that’s exactly what the MG3 is.  The MG brand has been through the wringer more times than perhaps any other, but it’s astounding that the Longbridge engineers have managed to extract such a cheerful and endearing little car out of what must presumably be distinctly average components.

And, while we might hanker for a little more in the engine department, the advantage of the 3’s rather modest output is a student-friendly insurance rating of group 4E.  It’s frugal, too, recording 48.7mpg on the official combined cycle, and we had no trouble maintaining a 45mpg average during our testing, while CO2 emissions of 136 g/km place it in VED Band E (£125 pa).

If practicality is more your thing, the MG3’s got your back.  There’s plenty of room for rear seat passengers, plus 285 litres of cargo space in the boot, rising to 1,262 litres with the seats folded and loaded to the roof.  More than enough for the regular trudge to and from Uni with a car full of washing.

The new MG3, then, is as cheap as it is cheerful, incredibly spacious, thoroughly practical, and far more engaging to drive than it has any right to be.  Throw in a few sensible customisation options – we like the red with black wheels and ‘Hope & Glory’ roof – and it exudes a beguiling sense of British ‘cool.’

One could even say it’s the spiritual successor to the original Mini.

Entry-level Price £8,399 Price as tested £11,231
Engine 4-cylinder, 1498cc Transmission Five-speed manual
Power 106ps @ 6,000rpm Torque 137Nm @ 4,750rpm
0-62 10.9 secs Top speed 108 mph
Economy 48.7 mpg CO2 136 g/km
Dimensions 4018 x 1887 x 1507 (LWH) Kerb Weight 1150 kg