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Archive 34
Car Review



Stuart Bladon looks for good value in the medium
car sector, and tests six offering special appeal


It's important to stress that this is not a group of rivals - more a selection of six recently-launched models all with engine capacity under (but close to) 2-litre size. They cover a wide price range from £12,750 to more than £20,000.

   Reflecting the ever-increasing interest in diesels to combat high fuel costs, we have four diesels and two petrol cars. Comparison of performance is interesting, confirming that diesels are no longer sluggish. Indeed, the fastest car in the group is a diesel - the Audi A4 TDI. As usual in this series, we give the acceleration time from rest to 80 mph, not so much because - 70 limit notwithstanding - it's the cruising speed adopted by the majority of British motorists, but because it gives a broader indication of overtaking ability than the more-often quoted 0-60 mph acceleration time. Even so, there is less than three seconds between the slowest and fastest.

   Fuel consumption figures are those actually attained on test over several hundred miles and, of course, it's here that the big difference between petrol and diesel emerges. The best economy achieved was the impressive 54.7 mpg by the SEAT León, and it seems that the 110 bhp version of the 1.9-litre TDI engine is more economical than the 130 bhp version fitted in the Audi A4.

   Please bear in mind that prices may change from those quoted, although we endeavour to update them as soon as we are informed of any revisions. The reports which follow are grouped in ascending price order, beginning with the competitive Nissan Almera.

      
     

Nissan Almera SVE 1.8
Keeping eyes on the road at all times is vital for safety, yet many cars have fiddly controls and instruments or information displays which are hard to read without peering down at them. So it was a joy to come across one - the new Nissan Almera - in which all is simple, logical, and a model of clarity. There's a large display right at the top of the console giving in turn and at a glance such information as mpg, time of both day and journey travel, average speed, outside temperature, and audio selection.

   The instruments are also clearly marked so that they can be read without squinting down at them, and audio functions such as adjusting volume can be controlled by switches on the left quarter of the steering wheel.

  Extensively revised last September, the new Almera adopts many of the features launched in Nissan's new Primera model, and prices were adjusted downward so that the range now starts with the 1.5S at £9,995 and a specification which includes air conditioning, CD player and remote central locking. The test car was the 1.8 five-door hatchback with SVE trim at a very competitive £12,750 including alloy wheels, sunroof and leather trimmed steering wheel.

  The 1.8-litre engine tended to be a bit jerky when cold, but soon settled down to give smooth, lively performance with impressively low noise levels. The Almera is comfortable and easy to drive, with well-balanced cornering and precise steering. Seats are well shaped, but although two height adjuster knobs are provided, they raise only the seat cushion, rather than the whole seat, and the range of height adjustment is rather limited.

  Almera comes with three, four or five doors, and in addition to the 1.5 and 1.8 petrol engines, there's a 2.2-litre diesel, though it is priced £1,000 higher than the equivalent 1.8 petrol. Unless one's annual mileage is going to be very high, the 1.8 petrol as tested here would seem the best choice of the three and on test it returned overall consumption of 33.1 mpg. Whichever engine is specified, Almera should prove a very pleasing car, especially for its practical design and well-planned interior.

Nissan Almera SVE 5-door 1.8 £12,750
Engine - 1,769 cc atmo* indirect injection
0-80 mph - 18.6 seconds
Maximum speed - 115 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 33.1 mpg
CO2 emissions - 180 g/km (tax band D £140)
Insurance - Group 7E
*Atmo = atmospheric or non-turbo

Fiat Stilo Dynamic JTD 5-dr
Originally I had booked a 1.8-litre petrol-powered Stilo for test, and as it was dark when I drove it for the first time, perhaps it was excusable that several miles had been covered before I realised that it was a diesel. On arrival home, a message confirmed the change of test car, with the comment: "Hope you don't mind." Well, I certainly didn't mind, and was highly impressed to find that diesels have now become so good that one can hardly tell the difference. The rev counter, of course, is the recognition point, because diesels don't rev much over 4,500 rpm, and if the rev counter is calibrated to over 6,000 rpm you can be sure it's a petrol model. Nowadays there's not the clatter on start-up that there used to be, and the noise level when cruising is a match for the petrol car, thanks to higher gearing meaning that the engine is less 'busy' than the equivalent petrol model.

   In the case of the Fiat Stilo, it is also impressively lively and responsive, with its 1.9-litre turbocharged engine giving 115 bhp. The gear change is easy to use, which is as well since one of the penalties of diesel is that one does have to make much more use of the gears, changing down to fourth or third once speed is below about 40 mph.

   The steering is electrically powered and an unusual feature is that the driver can select very light action, ideal for city use, or reduced assistance for highway driving.

   With Dynamic trim, the test car was near the top of the Stilo line-up at £13,835, but it is well equipped, bringing such features as provision for the front passenger seat to fold down serving as a table when unoccupied, and a rear seat which as well as folding flat for extra luggage space, can be moved forward or back, giving extra space for rear passenger legroom or for luggage, as required. The three-door model is £500 cheaper and the less well-equipped trim level called Active is £1,000 cheaper.

   The only two disappointments with Stilo were the long time before the heater began to warm through on a cold morning, and the very poor navigation system. The map display is obscure with the background looking all the time like a sandy beach, while the directions again and again urged the driver to make a U-turn, instead of identifying the new location and re-routing.

   Overall fuel consumption during the test was 40.8 mpg - on the low side for a diesel of this size, but perhaps affected by the sporty nature of the Stilo which encourages brisk driving. It's certainly an attractive looking car - one of Fiat's best styling efforts, I thought; but don't call it that - Fiat likes the name to be pronounced 'Steel-oh'. It's practical and roomy inside, with good acceleration and tidy road behaviour making it a pleasure to drive.

Fiat Stilo Dynamic 5-door 1.9 JTD £13,835
Engine - 1,910 cc turbo direct injection
0-80 mph - 18.4 seconds
Maximum speed - 118 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles (extendable)
                   - 8 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 40.8 mpg
CO2 emissions - 143 g/km (tax band A £110)
Insurance - Group 5

SEAT León SE 1.9TDI
Many of the prime features of a Volkswagen come with a Spanish-built SEAT - notably the good build quality and neatness of interior design and finish - and, of course, you get much the same choice of engines. The León is the mid-range five-door hatchback of SEAT's range, with S or SE trim, and choice of 1.4-, 1.6-, and 1.8-litre 20-valve petrol engines plus the excellent 1.9-litre turbo diesel which features in so many of the VAG models. There is also a very high performance model - the Cupra R. The test car might be considered the 'sensible' choice of the Leóns, having the TDI engine in 110 bhp form.

   This is a very good diesel, giving lively response and fast cruising without effort, but it proved rather lumpy and inflexible at low revs. Once the turbo boost is on song, the pick-up and torque delivery are satisfyingly good. Power is delivered through a five-speed gearbox having neat leather-trimmed knob with shiny top and large floppy gaiter.

   León's suspension is a bit thumpy and bumpy on poor roads, with quite a lot of tyre roar. This is the drawback of the SE package, which has sport suspension, but the pay-off is easy, predictable handling without too much inclination to understeer on corners. An attractive leather-trimmed three-spoke steering wheel is fitted, giving very accurate control, and the column is adjustable in both directions to give a comfortable driving position.

   The brakes are discs all round, vented at front, and give firm response to light pedal loads.

   External appearance of the León is enhanced by the neat lamp units all enclosed within a curved single glass moulding, with the sidelamps inboard and dipped/main beams outboard. Inside the car there are two good map lights, and a pleasing feature is the way the sensibly bright interior light comes on for a few minutes when a door is opened.

   With their marked wrapround giving good lateral support, the seats are very comfortable and a large rotary handle at the outer side alters backrest angle, while both front seats also have a pull-up ratchet lever for height adjustment.

   There is good provision for extending the already quite generous load space, with both the backrests and the cushions of the back seat divided. The headrests must be removed first, and then the cushion pulls forward and tips, allowing the backrest to drop down serving as a very level extension of the load floor. A very effective and easy to operate radio/cassette unit is supplemented by a six-pack CD changer taking up most of the space in the facia locker. The whole of the interior is impressively neat, but the black finish is a little sombre.

   The León is a roomy and practical car of fairly compact overall dimensions, and it's very good to drive. Many additions come with the SE trim package, but one might consider going for the standard S model instead at £2,400 less.

SEAT León SE 5-door 1.9 TDI £14,650
Engine - 1,896 cc turbo direct injection
0-80 mph - 19.9 seconds
Maximum speed - 120 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 54.7 mpg
CO2 emissions - 140 g/km (tax band A £110)
Insurance - Group 7

Toyota Avensis T3x 1.8
Most recently launched of the new cars covered here is the Avensis, which came on the UK market on 1st March this year. Five specification levels are offered, given the rather uninspiring titles T2, T3-s, T3-x,T4, and T Spirit, initially only with 1.8- or 2.0-litre petrol engines. In May, the range was widened by addition of a 2-litre direct injection diesel engine. With T3-x status, our test car is just under half way through the Avensis line-up, and with a price of £15,495, it has taken a big jump in cost from what might have been considered the equivalent in the previous range, the 1.8 GS at £14,280. Toyota would no doubt argue that the many improvements in the new model justify the increase, and it's certainly an attractive shape with its low front, high tail, and curved styling features continued from the nose cone rearward along the bonnet.

   One of only two petrol cars in this group, the Avensis gave the fastest acceleration time, with its 1.8-litre engine delivering a peak of 129 bhp, taking the Avensis from rest to 80 mph in only 17.1 sec. The engine is smooth and quiet on part throttle, but gets a bit raucous when working hard and at speed. It cruises well, but tends to notice the hills, calling for more throttle to keep the speed up. The engine has variable valve timing, and Toyota claims that the whole Avensis line-up, including the new diesel, meet the requirements for Stage IV of the ever-toughening EEC emission regulations, due to come into force in January 2005. The Avensis 1.8 gives 171 g/km of CO2 putting it in Band C for the annual car tax (£140).

   An unexpected debit point was to find that the five-speed manual gear change was often rather sticky and felt reluctant to move, particularly into second. Ride comfort is good, but some surfaces react with it to produce high tyre roar levels, and there is quite a sharp report from the suspension as the wheels pass over bumps or such frequent disturbances as cats' eyes.

   Avensis handles neatly with modest tendency to understeer and the steering, which is electrically powered on this model, is light in action and very precise. The steering column is adjustable in both directions to give a comfortable driving position; the audio remote controls are on the left of the steering wheel.

   On the right, there is a switch to change the computer read-out, which appears at the top of the console in a sensibly deep recess so that the display can be read easily even in bright sunlight. The display gives in turn average speed, instant mpg, and average mpg since refuelling, and is very clear to read. Disadvantages are that the driver does not have much control over it, since mpg is calculated only from the last fill-up, and the average speed resets after a stop. The mpg read-out also proved wildly optimistic, often showing over 50 mpg when the real value was below 40. Rain sensing wipers switch on automatically as the first few drops land on the windscreen.

   As is familiar to anyone who has driven a Lexus, the instrument panel is plain black until the ignition is switched on, when electronic displays light up with a large and very clear rev counter and speedometer, in beige on a black background. A digital display in the speedometer gives outside temperature, total and trip mileometers, while digital time display is in the rev counter. This is also clear, but not easily in view for the front passenger.

   Cloth upholstered seats are unusual in having ratchet adjusters to provide easy positioning of backrest angle, and for the driver only there is another ratchet adjuster to set driving seat height. The rear seat is divided 40/60 and folds on to the fixed one-piece cushion to extend the load space but doesn't provide a very level extension.

   Very efficient brakes are fitted, using discs all round, vented internally at front; and there are five-spoke alloy wheels with a full-size spare on steel rim under the boot floor.

   Avensis is offered with four-door saloon body as tested, or five-door hatchback, at identical prices, and there is also a Tourer estate for £1,000 extra.

   The Avensis looks good, with attractive interior design, and is pleasant to drive; but I did get fed up with the annoying gong sounding if lights were left on - sometimes intentionally when stopping on a busy road, or when a speed of 5 mph was reached before fastening the seat belt.

Toyota Avensis T3x 4-door 1.8 £15,495
Engine - 1,794 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 17.1 seconds
Maximum speed - 124 mph
Warranty  - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                    - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 34.2 mpg
CO2 emissions - 171 g/km (tax band C £140)
Insurance - Group 7E

Renault Megane Hatch Privilege 1.9 dCi
When we had that heavy fall of snow in eastern England this year followed by severe frost I was very glad to be in the Renault Megane, with the advantage of traction control. The roads were certainly very tricky but the Megane behaved brilliantly throughout, and often after helping to push cars that had become stuck on a hill, I was able to get back into the Megane and move off unaided with no difficulty. Traction control comes with an Electronic Stability Programme and tyre pressure monitoring, in a package costing £750 extra.

   After a while I came to like the unusual styling of the Megane, and that curved but near vertical back window is certainly effective for good rearward visibility, though its wiper needs to be on at constant run in wet weather.

   The Megane range is divided into Hatch and Sport Hatch, and a wide choice of engines begins with the 1.4-litre petrol. Also offered are 1.6- and 2.0-litre petrol engines, and there are two diesels - a 1.5-litre and the very effective 1.9dCi unit fitted in the test car. It is extremely quiet and smooth, giving relaxed fast cruising and lively acceleration. With the 2-litre petrol engine and this1.9 diesel, the Megane comes with a six-speed gearbox whose very high ratio in sixth contributes to the low noise level.

   Renault continues its 'auto locking' policy with this model, which can be driven, locked and unlocked without taking the key from pocket or handbag. Once the key comes within range of the detector, the driver's door becomes unlocked; then simply press the START/STOP button, depress the clutch pedal, and the engine fires up after the few seconds delay while the diesel glow plugs warm up. Similarly, there's no need to lock up when leaving the car - simply touch the button again to stop the engine, and press a button on the driver's door handle to operate the central locking as the key is walked out of range.

   The suspension gives good bump absorption and little tyre roar, but there is quite a lot of thump over small bumps and concrete ridges. The steering is very precise, with a tight turning circle, and the brakes, using discs at all wheels, are almost too sharp in response, making it sometimes difficult to stop without a slight jerk in traffic.

   Seats are comfortable, with a large centre armrest in the front. The rear seats tip forward for extra load space after first releasing the cushions which then flop down loose into the footwells.
Ample stowage space is provided for small items, including concealed recesses below each front door armrest. A panoramic electric sunroof costs £600 extra, or comes with leather upholstery for the seats plus electric heating, as part of the luxury pack for £1,000 extra.

   Renault has cleverly incorporated an easy-to-use navigation system in the Carminat unit on the console serving also as radio and six-pack compact disc player, but the navigation system proved disappointing once the car had departed from the chosen route, giving constant commands to 'make a U-Turn' instead of re-routing. The heating is a bit slow to get into action, but is then very effective. Wipers turn themselves on when rain is detected, but sometimes they are slow to react and one must over-ride the system and turn them on manually.

   Lots of intriguing and practical features in the Megane back up a design which is certainly original and distinctive, and provides very satisfying and comfortable motoring.

Renault Megane Hatch Privilege 5-door 1.9dCi £15,500
Engine - 1,870 cc turbo direct injection
0-80 mph - 18.9 seconds
Maximum speed - 122 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 43.7 mpg
CO2 emissions - 143 g/km (tax band A £110)
Insurance - Group 6

Audi A4 1.9 TDI SE 130
With the cars arranged in price order, there's not much doubt about where the Audi A4 comes: right at the end, having a formidable over-£20,000 price. As any Audi buyer knows, it doesn't end there, and the test car had nearly £5,000 worth of extras including leather upholstery with heating for the front seats, a six-pack CD unit and Bose sound system, upgraded alloy wheels and £610 extra for the SE pack. All these extras are welcome, but one might have thought that the aluminium trim strips could have been thrown in, instead of adding £130 to the price. So it's very expensive, but is it worth it?

   Undoubtedly the Audi kicks off with a superb diesel engine - very smooth, providing vigorous acceleration (almost as quick as the Toyota Avensis petrol model), and providing exceptionally quiet and relaxed cruising. The A4 was taken on a long Continental trip, when its ability to sustain 90 mph while seeming even quieter than at 70 was a great asset. It also returns outstanding fuel economy - though not as good as the on-board computer would have you believe. Much of the time it was reading over 50 mpg, but careful measurement of the amount consumed showed the actual consumption to be 43 mpg - though this was still impressive in relation to the speeds sustained for much of the time.

   There's an easy change with leather-trimmed knob for the five-speed gearbox (six-speed is optional at £135 extra - standard on quattro four-wheel drive version). Steering is hairline accurate with a neat stitched leather wheel adjustable in both directions, but surprisingly Audi has not yet followed the lead of some other manufacturers in putting minor controls for such things as the audio volume on the wheel. The car is very well balanced and the driver feels confident to enjoy the handling in mountainous terrain, but at low speeds it proved unexpectedly easy to provoke front wheelspin and slight proneness to slide; but all models of the A4 have an electronic stability programme as standard to keep everything under control on slippery roads.

   With the new model, which was introduced last year, independent rear suspension is standard. Previously this was only on quattro models. The ride is firm but copes very well with poor surfaces. Immediate sharp response is always present with Audi brakes, and those on the A4, backed up by anti-lock and electronic brake force distribution, are very reassuring.

   Many aspects of the Audi are excellent, such as the quietness, the comfort of the seats and driving position, the feel and responsiveness of all controls, and little details such as the really good interior lighting which comes on automatically as soon as the engine is stopped and the key taken out. The heating and ventilation system, with temperature digitally controllable each side, works extremely well, and the on-board computer has two read-outs, one resetting after the car has been parked for about two hours. It gives running time, average mpg and mph, instant mpg, and range on the remaining fuel.

   But there are also some omissions of things one might have expected in view of the very high price. Thus, it is surprising that electric window action is provided only at the front, and although the mirrors are electrically adjustable, they are not heated. Being a saloon, there is no rear wiper, and no hatchback model is offered. As standard, there is no provision for folding the back seats unless specified as an option for £280. An electric sunroof is also available at £800.

   To drive the Audi one cannot escape the conclusion that it is an immensely satisfying car, while feeling that for this kind of money it jolly well ought to be!

Audi A4 SE 4-door 1.9 TDI £20,420
Engine - 1,896 cc turbo direct injection
0-80 mph - 18.7 seconds
Maximum speed - 129 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 43.0 mpg
CO2 emissions - 149 g/km (tax band A £110)
Insurance - Group 13

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